Finding great contractors in Austin

This article may turn out to be more of a rant, and if it does, please accept my apology in advance.  When my wife and I purchased our first house a little over three years ago we had some very specific requirements.  Things that a first time homebuyer looks for like an enclosed garage, a gas stove, a DISHWASHER (I laugh now at how much different home ownership life is from renting life).  We also had some very specific requirements for our neighborhood, too, because in real estate it’s all about location, location, location.

What wasn’t as important to us was some of the other features of the house.  Things like flooring, an ugly kitchen, or a un-landscaped yard.  The cosmetic things didn’t really matter to us, and it may be one of the reasons we got such a great deal on our house.  Our first house had been on the market for a while with no results.  The owner (who’s son also happened to be a Realtor)  took the property off the market after 6 months of no activity, and made a few cosmetic changes like new carpeting, and some new plantation shutters, and re-listed it.  Again it sat for a number of months with no activity.

The place still didn’t show well even after all the money put into it.  There was some kind of  horrible plaster texture on the walls.  The home had popcorn ceilings in every room, and there was this hideous wallpaper in the bathrooms and kitchen.  The touch-points of the house just weren’t great.  What do I mean by touch-points?    Touch-points to me are things that you put your hands on when viewing a house.  First impressions like the entrance and doorbell.  Interior items like doorknobs and closet doors.  Light Switches, and open windows.  But that’s another blog post.

I’m a pretty handy guy.  My father owned a hardware store, and I have been around tools my entire life.  I can change a door knob in 7 minutes flat.  I can paint a room, in a saturday afternoon – and that includes doing all the the trim in a crisp white.  I can also comfortably change a lightswitch or electrical outlet with out calling an electrician.  When my wife and I walked into this house we immediately knew that with a few changes this place would look incredible.  We had found our first house.

One of the very first things we began to do was to peel off the ugly wallpaper from every room.  Have you ever tried to take down wallpaper?  There’s two kinds.  The kind that comes off easily in big sheets and leaves a nice surface for priming and painting, and the other kind of wallpaper.  This is the stuff that seems to be super glued to the wallboard.  It comes off in little 1 inch strips, and leaves an ugly pock-marked wall, only after hours or days of wallpaper removal.

We were almost very lucky.  We had great results removing the wallpaper from every room except the guest bath.  It took weeks to get it all down in that small 80 square foot room.  Plus, when we were all done the walls were ruined.  The place was a mess.  But wait, there’s more.  The layout of the guest bathroom was very inefficient.  There was a wall, an oversized vanity, the toilet was too close to the tub, and someone had put in a floor to ceiling laundry cabinet that dominated the space.  The place barely had enough room to walk in.

Since this was a guest bath that we didn’t use very much, it fell to the bottom of our remodeling priority list.  We spent 3 years doing other projects around the house.  This month, we decided it was time to get the room finished.  Even though I’m pretty handy, there are some jobs I don’t do because they are either too big or I’m not good enough at them to get the final results I demand.  Stuff like relocating a toilet on a concrete slab, or re-tiling a complete shower stall, or drywalling a class-5 finish (museum quality smooth).

My wife and I came up with a few designs, and a bunch of inspiration, and began to contact some contractors in Austin.  Because I am taking my real estate classes, and still working as a full time photographer, I didn’t have time to manage the job.  I just wanted to pay someone to oversee the job, hire some subcontractors, and make it right.  We even had a decent budget which was higher than the average cost for a bathroom remodel.

Stage 1 – researching contractors.  After searching the web, reading lots of Yelp reviews, and talking with friends, I came up with a list of 3 contractors to contact to get some bids.  I called each of the three, and left messages.  Guess what.   After waiting 3 days none of them called me back.  I left a nice courtesy follow-up message (none picked up their phones), and still I got no response.  These were reputable contractors with great on-line reviews, and high praise from some of my neighbors who had them do work in their houses.  No response.  Grrrr!

So I did some more research and came up with another list of 10 different Austin contractors to call.  I spent the better part of a day making calls.  Of the 10, 6 picked up the phone.  Every one was interested, and wanted to come over to see what I had in mind and give me an estimate.  After checking my Google Calendar, I came up with a scheduled over 10 days for each of the 6 to come over and chat.  One was even a contractor who lives across the street from us.  I had met him several times before but never asked what he did (I figured he was in technology or something).

Stage two – the face to face interviews.  Of the 6 scheduled contractor appointments 2 never showed up.  No calls, no cancellation emails, nothing.  A total waste of my time (At least I got to do some extra studying).  The other four showed up on time, with clipboards and tape measures.  One of them was even the guy across the street – not too hard to cross a street to give a bid I guess.

Each meeting lasted about 30 minutes – I thought things went well, as we established a great rapport –  chatted about what I wanted, and talked about the house.    One of the guys asked about my budget, and I told him.  He seemed very interested as the number was probably higher than he expected.  At the end of each interview I asked if they were interested in doing the job to which they all replied yes.  I wrote down my email on their clipboard, and verified my telephone, and told me they would get me an estimate in the next few days.

Start stage 3 – the waiting for bids.  OK fine.  I patiently waited for the calls to come in.  After a few days nothing.  Then the weekend.  Nada.  Then a week.  Still no estimates.  I called each of the four guys, and spoke with a couple who said they were “working on it”.  I left messages with the others who didn’t answer their phones.  The guy across the street who came over never replied.  Neither did any of the others.

I made 13 calls, had 4 people come over, and got ZERO bids for my job.

This is no way to run a business.  I keep hearing how tough the economy is, and how people are looking for work.  Each of the four contractors who came over seemed really interested in my job.  But I never heard back from them.  I had an open checkbook, and was ready to start the construction right away.  No wait.  An easy and fast bathroom remodel job.

In the end, I wasted almost a month of time trying to hire someone.  I have given up on hiring someone, and started to mange the job myself.  I’ll end up spending less money overall, but am giving up my precious time to get the job done.  I’ve gone to the county office and gotten the required permits.  I did the demo work and found a guy on Craigslist to haul away the debris.  I hired a plubmer who came on time and got paid.  I hired a drywall guy who did a great job and got paid in cash.  Today the tile guys is coming, and guess what – he will be paid when the job is done today, too.

If you are a contractor  reading this – please tell me why?  Why are so many bad business people?  Why don’t you answer your phones.  Why don’t you give me a bid?  Why?


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