Don't Be Rude

A while back, I met a woman who told me how she had carefully monitored the building of her new house. She had gone to the house every day, she said, packing a tape measure and a level, checking the straightness of the walls, the flatness of the floors, and the latches on the doors. When she found a problem, she scolded the guilty tradespeople right then and there, figuring that would scare 'em into doing things right.

This scold-as-you-go approach might work in an office, where you're the boss. But it doesn't go over too well with tradesfolk, who will tell you that they work construction specifically so they won't have to put up with this kind of crap.

This particular woman ended up in a king-hell grudge match, the result of which was a house with chunks knocked out of the woodwork, paint drips the size of cat tails, and human pee in the heat-and-air ducts. Now, before anybody asks me how I know it was human pee, let me say that I have lived in New York City, and I have ridden the subways. That makes me an expert on pee smell.

Believe me when I tell you: Short of a tornado, there is no force on earth that can wreck your house quicker than an angry tradesman. Anybody who's ever worked on a construction site will tell you that a fair number of workers show up cranky and looking for trouble. A lot of them tend to get crankier as the day goes on.

I've seen more full-out deadly-weapons fights on construction sites than I ever saw in redneck rock 'n' roll bars. Just a few years back, a floor installer actually killed a plumber. As I recall, the floor guy told the plumber that if he walked across his floor one more time, there would be repercussions. Well, the plumber walked across the floor, and a raging whoop-ass ensued. Ultimately, it was the plumber's pipe against the floor guy's pistol, and the results were predictable.

Besides busybody homebuyers and fellow tradespeople, the next leading cause of worker revenge is a money grievance with the general contractor. I heard of one job where unpaid plumbers drove finish nails into the back sides of pipes before soldering them into place. The result: hundreds of little drippy leaks into the walls and ceilings. I've seen jobs where the electricians walked off, leaving bare-naked live wires on the damp crawl-space dirt-a real-enough terrorist-style booby trap. I've seen brand-new, high-end houses where the homeowners had countless problems and couldn't get anything fixed because nobody in town would work for the financially troubled general contractor.

So if you're a homeowner with a strong quality-control urge, what can you do? Well, my buddy Charlie Wood, ace Atlanta home inspector, and devilishly clever guy, did this: "I put on my carpenter's jeans and a T-shirt, strapped on a tool belt, and wandered through the house every day." People come and go freely on most construction sites, and faces change frequently. Nobody at the house knew who Charlie was, or what he was doing. Nobody really cared. Every now and then, Charlie would hear somebody mutter, "Who's that guy?" But nobody ever asked for a password or a secret handshake or anything like that.

I've got to warn you: If you decide to try this approach, wear clothes and tote tools that look like they've been on a job site before. You don't want to show up with stiff new carpenter's jeans, an unscarred tool belt, and a hammer that still has the price tag on it. If you show up looking like one of the Village People, everybody on the job site will know you're a ringer, or they'll think you got lost on your way to build a Habitat for Humanity house. (Nothing against Habitat, you understand. It's just that quite a few volunteer builder types show up with that fresh-from-Home-Depot look.)

While you're at the house, keep quiet. The tradespeople work for the general contractor, not for you, so don't try to boss them. That's how you get pee in your ducts. "You want the workers to love you, not hate you," Charlie says. "Instead of nagging, people ought to just deliver a case of beer to the job site every Friday. That'll win you some friends."

If you see a problem, take it straight to the general contractor. "I called the builder about once a week," Charlie said, "and asked him to correct a few things. He couldn't figure out how I knew all this stuff. He asked me if I was paying somebody to spy on all his subcontractors."

After his house was finished, Charlie confessed his quality-control scheme to the builder. "You're that guy!" The builder slapped himself upside the head. "Everybody wondered who you were!"

If you're an easy-going, cooperative, catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar person, you might just be able to cajole a better-than-average job out of your builder. It worked for Charlie. But if you're a micro-managing, pesky, confrontational type, stay away from the house until it's finished. If you can't do that, I can only offer this final suggestion: Tell the general contractor not to hook up the heat-and-air ducts until the last day of the job.