I get this question a lot—the first part, that is. The answer is not as easy as it seems.
At this moment, for example, I have just completed a month-long carpentry and painting project at one property and have active smaller projects underway that include paint and repairs in a laundry room, electrical upgrades at my own house and fixture changes at 2 other locations, HVAC cleaning (Ouch on that price tag, vendor with the fancy red trucks!), gutter replacement at 2 locations, tree trimming, landscaping, color consultation (thanks Stacy Helm at Helm Paint) a dishwasher replacement, professional drain cleaning, washing machine replacement and the rebuilding of our dining room wall necessitated by years of heretofore hidden water damage behind the plaster. The demolition on that was a doozy. My husband, Jim, removed about a 5-gallon bucket’s worth of dirt that was, in a former life, the sills supporting the corner bay of our house.
With a couple of exceptions, there’s a different contractor on each of these projects. The deal is there are nuances to each one. That’s one of the reasons why the above list represents to me progress and a degree of fun rather than dread. Old houses demand a lot of attention, and there’s an interesting and evolving cast of characters they draw into our lives to give them that attention. When it comes to who does this work, the crew doing our dining room is great, for example, but they’re stretched thin among their current projects. The laundry room job was primarily a simple job with sheetrock repair and painting. I called someone with a different skillset and ready availability to handle the bulk of this job, with the more experienced contractor from the dining room coming over for a quick consult when the wall was open to make sure there were no active leaks.
Some of these guys I’ve known for years. As you might imagine, there’s a lot that goes into maintaining a good working relationship over decades in a field notorious for its transience. Most importantly, the ways in which they are imperfect as a contractor and the ways in which I am imperfect as a client must have a net result of compatibility. And then there’s the imperfect house and its needs for a particular skillset and creative vision that varies not only from one location to another, but from one project to another at the same property.
There was a story in TheTimes Picayune back in the 1980s entitled “100 Years Later, It’s Still His House.” It was about the Freret Sister Houses (not to be confused with Freret’s Follies, similar houses by the same architect but in a different neighborhood) proclaiming that the ghost of the architect/builder William A. Freret, still haunts the houses he built in the 1860s, wreaking havoc whenever someone tries to change an original element he designed for the property. I’m charged with caring for one of these sisters today so in addition to me, the contractors must also contend with nitpicking architect-ghosts.
Over the years there have been some standouts among the contractors who’ve helped me care for these properties, such as Ron. Ron moved quietly through the world and was a gifted carpenter. He had an interesting relationship with time, however. That means he’d show up by Thursday if he was scheduled for Monday. He’d go to Harry’s Ace Hardware one morning and return days later, that sort of thing. On many occasions I thought the drama of dealing with Ron wasn’t worth it, and I’d be on the brink of sending him and his tool box packing in his old brown truck with the handmade camper, and right at that moment he’d do something extraordinary, like solve a continuing problem or turn a box of broken pieces of cypress into a show-stopping piece for my kitchen. Or, gasp, finish a job.
One day of the week that I’d reliably see Ron was on Fridays. Before I got the hang of the idea that every Friday was payday, I took off to go to Jazz Fest while there was an active job at my house. I’m pretty sure Ron put in a call to see if I could be paged from the Acura Stage (to his dismay, I could not) because I left without realizing he needed a check by 5:00.
I figured out the Friday thing soon enough. For a time, the drama in the lives of the contractors (and trust me, there was much of it) became my drama. I listened to their grievances against each other (which were largely overcome when they bonded sharing their grievances against me), made interest-free payday advance loans, made lunch, even bailed somebody out of jail. Eventually, I learned to have some boundaries between me and them, but in the early days that wasn’t the case. While I prefer the calmer process brought by some professional distance, I did appreciate getting to know some of these folks beyond the worker-persona over the years.
Ron, for instance, was a Vietnam veteran. I learned this fact when we were touring a ramshackle old house that I was considering buying for a fix and flip. While following the seller upstairs, Ron turned to me and said: “Stay exactly in my footprint.” When I looked down at the steps, I saw he had done precisely that, the outline of his foot perfectly contained in the inch of dirt displaced by the guy who went before him. It was a survival-skill he retained from war where the wrong step could have deadly consequences. It was useful in touring neglected properties with questionable foundations, though thankfully with generally lesser consequences for getting it wrong.
I never fired Ron, but he drifted away as quietly as he came. Once, at the LEAF Downtown Festival in Asheville, NC, I saw a woodworking booth with a vendor by the same name who looked just like him. I bounded over to the booth hoping to say “hello” and hear that he was living a charmed life carving wood and traveling from festival to festival but alas, the doppelganger was not Ron the New Orleans Carpenter.
Now, as it stands today with my half-dozen jobs happening simultaneously, I’m satisfied with the talent on the task. I worry, though, that when you call me to ask: “Who’s your contractor?” the nuance of how all this came to be orchestrated will be lost. Worse, the guy doing great work on one of my jobs may show up at your house and screw it up royally. Just as my kidneys are doing a fine job for me, they might be toxic for you. I’ve kinda figured out who I need for what task and how it’s likely to best function. Nonetheless, I have and do share contractor info. I don’t have nearly enough work to keep all these folks busy all the time and I genuinely like making helpful connections. I may even ask you: “Who’s your contractor?” but I know that whatever happens, once you let go of those digits, the rest is on me and the alchemy of a good match.
If you have a crew to cook for, you can’t go wrong with Emeril’s jambalaya recipe.
by Shannon Uschold
Livin the Dream is a bi-weekly blog by Shannon Uschold. Shannon is the owner and principal broker of Key to NOLA, LLC. Shannon is a New Orleans native who brings two decades of real estate experience to the brokerage as a property manager, investor and sales agent. Shannon holds a master of science degree in urban studies with a concentration in historic preservation and is a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. A lifelong lover of all things house-related, she is licensed by the State of Louisiana as a real estate broker holding designations as a Historic House Specialist, Short Sale & Foreclosure Resource (SFR), At Home with Diversity, and Certified Real Estate Negotiator (CREN). Shannon resides in uptown New Orleans with her husband, two children, and Lily, the dog of the full-body tail wag.