Selecting A Contractor

Who’s Going to Do Your Maintenance?

In a recent article I discussed your need to find and keep great contractors. But most landlords only rely on professional contractors for some maintenance and repair tasks. The reason, of course, is price. Why pay a contractor big money to do a job you could do yourself, or find an inexpensive handyman to take care of, or even leave to the tenants?

You must weigh at least three factors in deciding who will do a job. Those factors are cost, reliability, and quality. If you’re thinking about taking on the job yourself, consider time and something I’ll call the fun factor” as well. The fun factor is the enjoyment you may get out of doing handyman jobs. In my next article, I’ll help you figure out where you should take these projects on.

Here’s how the different candidates to do work, other than yourself, typically grade on the performance factors:

Contractor Scores: Worst on Cost, Best on Reliability and Best on Quality.
Handyman Scores: Medium on Cost, Medium on Reliability and Medium on Quality.
Tenant Scores: Best on Cost, Worst on Reliablity and Worst on Quality.

Of course the actual results depend on your actual contractors, handymen, and tenants. For contractors in particular, however, quality and reliability should be absolutes. If your contractor isn’t the best in those areas, replace him.

Now it’s time to think about where you want the best quality. It is an absolute must on any jobs that directly affect the safety of the building, as well as any jobs that, if not done perfectly, may result in a more serious expense later. Keeping that in mind, you certainly want a real licensed plumber, electrician and HVAC contractor for all significant projects in those areas. Be very hesitant to employ a handyman here, and never use a tenant for such jobs (unless, of course, the tenant is a licensed professional contractor).

A significant job is one where there is potential for major damage if the job is not done right. For electrical jobs, you probably don’t need a pro to replace outlets or switches, install overhead lights, or replace circuit breakers. For plumbing jobs, you don’t need a pro to unclog most drains or replace washers in faucets, toilet parts, or showerheads. For HVAC, you don’t need a pro to replace filters, thermostats or zone valves, or purge forced water heating circuits. You can probably think of other similar projects.

You should also think about insurability when considering a contractor. Your property insurance will not cover damage caused by bad repair work, unless the repair is done by a licensed contractor.

A licensed contractor is often your best bet in emergency situations. This is because such a contractor is usually on call 24/7, has replacement parts in inventory, and has more than one pro on staff.

If your buildings are in a snowy part of the country, you also need a very good snowplow operator. Use one who has been in business for several years, lives locally, and will get the job done by the time you set.

Use your handyman for light carpentry jobs, painting, and the small electrical, plumbing and HVAC jobs where you don’t need a professional. A handyman can often also take on bigger jobs such as siding, building stairs or decks, or replacing windows. Many people who hire themselves out as handymen are actually licensed general contractors.

You’re much better off with a handyman who does have a contractor’s license, along with workers comp and liability insurance. This person will consider himself a professional and will probably be much more reliable as a result. However, you might have a hard time finding a handyman of this caliber.

A handyman who doesn’t have those credentials may still do very good work, and will probably charge less. However, he is much more likely to want payment in cash, to not be available when you really need him, or even to skip town with your money. You can avoid these problems by paying only a small part up front, by scheduling him in advance (‘I’ll see you at 9 a.m. Wednesday”), and by checking frequently to make sure the job is done.

How will you find a good handyman? Start by checking with the other members of your local landlords association, making sure that their criteria for a good handyman matches yours. If that doesn’t work out, check the Yellow Pages; then the classifieds in you local paper; then signs posted on community bulletin boards. A contractor hired off a bulletin board is much less likely to be reliable than one recommended by another landlord.

The primary reason to hire a tenant is cost. However, you should not hire tenants to do anything but the most basic jobs. Use tenants only for routine tasks like lawnmowing. Of course you can make an exception if you have a tenant who is a skilled handyman or professional contractor. In that case, however, the tenant will want to be paid his standard rates.

If you do hire a tenant, make sure it is someone who has lived in your building for many months, if not years, and who has proven to be reliable as a tenant. Don’t ever allow a tenant to work off” unpaid rent the job probably won’t be done well and the tenant will still expect credit.

The other danger in hiring a tenant to do work is that problems with one relationship may affect the other. For example, suppose you hire a tenant to plow and he does a bad job. Now you’ve got a problem with your tenant and a problem with your snowplower. You may have to replace both.

For that reason, if you do hire a tenant, try to keep the two relationships as separate as possible. Write up a separate agreement that spells out what the tenant has to do and how much he’ll be paid. Rather than accept a lower rent, insist on full rent payments and pay separately for the work the tenant does.

If you do use a tenant or handyman to do projects, set an ironclad rule that he or she can never enter another tenant’s unit to do work even if the tenant is there without you also being there. This will help protect you from liability.

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