A Housebuilder Talks Back
Prices are a scandal; he admits it. Who's to blame? Labor, bottlenecks and, he says, the customer himself
I AM a contractor, the target for the leer and the sneer in most conversations about the high cost of housing. To hear YOU tell it, I’m made up of one part pirate, one part Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and one part baseball umpire. I’m a swindler, a liar and an incompetent fool into the bargain!
Well, mister, let me tell you a few home truths . .. No, wait a minute, that’s no way to start. Too many conversations about housing, particularly between customers and contractors, wind up in shouting matches. So let’s try to keep our voices low, and if I start shouting at you again just blame it on my ulcer, which I didn’t used to have before I became a contractor.
Sure the cost of housing is high. It’s outrageous. We don’t need statistical proof that we are pricing ourselves out of the market. About a third of the people who come to me to have houses built simply can’t bridge the gap between their financial resources and the amount of mortgage money they can borrow. What’s more, it wouldn’t surprise me if prices went still higher.
But you can’t blame it on me. My biggest headache today is trying to keep my net profit per house from sinking out of sight. I made less on the houses I built this year than ever before. Let’s take a look at my books.
Hourly wage rates have doubled in the last 10 years but the wage bill I have to meet on a house may be as much as three times the figure of a decade ago. Lumber prices have doubled, too, but the cost of the lumber I have to buy may be three times the old cost, too.
I could once buy first-grade hardwood flooring for $175 per thousand feet. Today it’s $325 to $350. Then I could use almost every stick in every bundle. Today the best flooring you can buy has to be culled and picked over and painstakingly matched. Armloads of it are so badly warped, or poorly milled, or cracked that it has to be dumped on the scrap heap. The need for careful selection in laying has bumped the labor cost of a floor by at least 20% over and above the rise in wages.
What is true of flooring is true of all other material. The wastage, because of poor quality, would break your heart. Sometimes the flaws in trim and doors do not show up until the varnish is applied. Then replacements have to be made which shove the labor bill still higher. Despite the steady increase in wages, we are getting less and less for our working hour. Part of that is due to the ageing of the labor force, part to the recruitment of semiskilled hammer and saw mechanics who masquerade as carpenters, draw full carpenters’
wages and waste time and material right and left.
I built seven houses this year. Four were speculations on my own account, three were on a cost plus 10% basis for customers. My books show my net income from these houses at just under $6,000. A comfortable living, you say.
Yes, but to make that money I had to work hard for it. I didn’t sit back and take a profit on an investment or get paid for armchair know-how. I don’t think my pay can be figured at an hourly rate but I’m sure that the rate was no better than the $1.50 an hour my carpenters made or the $1.75 an hour my plasterers were paid.
To make a success of house building, you should have three or four houses in various stages of progress. I make my money by keeping the work moving. If 1 can’t do that I’ll go broke. So I have to circulate continuously between jobs: lay out the forms for the basement walls of a new one, lay out the material for framing a second, chase after the plasterer for a third and keep a close check on the finishing of a fourth. Each day’s work must be laid out on them all, and checked during the day to see that it is going right. My day starts with breakfast at 6.30 and on a good day I’m in bed by midnight.
During the framing in and finishing I try to spend as much time as possible on the job myself. But I must also circulate continually between lumber yards and suppliers chasing up scarce essential material. I have to check deliveries, send back faulty material, get replacements. In addition
to bossing the jobs I have to act as messenger boy, to rush off and get glue, special hardware, check delivery on windows and doors, locks and screws and above all nails.
The newspapers got excited about nails last summer, weeks after the nail shortage was driving us all crazy. For several weeks I spent at least one hour every working day chasing nails, in addition to scouring the country stores for 40 miles around on week ends. Houses eat nails, by the keg. We had to buy them in two-, five-and 10-pound lots, at blackmail prices very often. But without'nails a dozen men would have leaned on their hammers for their $12 a day. From my files, I estimate that the nail shortage alone cost my customers an average of $100 extra on the prices of their houses, directly and indirectly.
Window-Shopping for Homes
IN ADDITION to riding herd on the jobs in hand, I’ve got to keep my eye peeled for new business. Ever heard of time wasting? I know the people who invented it! They are the prospective housebuilders. The screwball fringe alone, who couldn’t make the down payment on a $100 house, are enough to drive a contractor to chewing sawdust.
Occasionally they turn up at my home. They come with a plan torn out of a magazine, or enquire about a house I am building near where they live. They will come back again and again, soaking up information. Most of us smarten up after a while. Now I make it a point of getting the customer’s
name and address and place of employment on his first visit. I can then find out quickly whether he is a serious prospect.
Perhaps a third of all the people who seriously talk houses to me become customers. That, estimate may be high. But I have to spend as much time with the unproductive two thirds as I do with those who eventually become customers. I have to give them an estimate of what their house will cost. If it is too high I will lose the business.
Estimating was once a cinch. You could look at a blueprint and come within $25 of what the plumber, the plasterer, the painter and the furnaceman would bid on the subcontracts. Today it is normal for the bids from three plumbers to vary as much as $250 on the cost of a job.
The best time to catch Hubcontractors, either for bids or to get them onto a job, is at home around suppertime. So I wolf my meals and hit. the road. If 1 can get home by nine, my wife and I may get to work on the books— material records, payroll and income tax and workmen’s compensation deductions.
I must maintain my lal>or crew at somet hing like full strength. That too means endless searching for carpenters to replace those who have left or those who should be fired. That is also done at night.
Four average houses will eat up $30,000 to $40,000 worth of material and labor. I’ve got to meet these bills, all of them, when they come due. I rush around and pick up cheques from customers. I get advances from mortgage companies. I call on lawyers and sign papers. I check with my bank, where I am usually overdrawn because my own capital gets tied up in the houses.
On a good night, I’ll get to bed by 12 o’clock. On a tough one it will be an hour later. I keep a pad on the night table, and it is usually full of notes in the morning, reminders of things that I have to do the next day, to prevent a bump on the cost of a house by anywhere from $15 to $50.
So I earn my $6,000 a year, by working long hours seven days a week, for months on end, and collect an ulcer and insomnia.
“But what about your customers; and their ulcers and their insomnia?” I hear someone say.
I don’t think it quite fair to generalize about customers the way a contractor I know does. He says there are only two kinds—the pig-headed and the putty-minded. It is not too tough to cope with one or the other, once you get them staked out. Unfortunately for the contractor, they come too often in mixed pairs.
The list of things Mr. and Mrs. P. M. can change their minds about often reads like a catalogue of the materials for their house. After the windows have been ordered, they’ll change the size, number or shape of the “lights”—the individual pieces of glass that make up a window. They think nothing, halfway through, of changing room sizes. They will vacillate between wall registers and floor registers, between glass door handles and metal handles, between doorways and arches, between a green roof
and a red roof.
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Mr. and Mrs. P. H. however can’t be budged out of anything. They are suspicious of contractors. They’ve collected a list of the things they want in a house and are going to get them all. They will insist on putting in doors that bang against each other, windows that detract from rather than enhance their house, cupboards they cannot reach and will never use, hard-to-build features which are inferior to, and more expensive than, something simpler. For example: tile sink tops that are death on dishes and inferior in my judgment to linoleum or other softer stuff.
The cost of making changes rises as the work proceeds. A door location can be changed without much extra cost when the framing is being done. But after the studs are in and the plumbing and heating laid out. the cost rises. After the plastering is done it skyrockets. But few of my customers ever have the foggiest idea of the expíense involved even in small jobs. Take Mrs. Green, for example, the lady who had to have imitation tile on her bathroom walls in time for her housewarming party.
The contract simply called for finishing the plaster on the bathroom walls. The wisest course is always to let new plaster cure for six months before painting or covering with tile or glass. That was explained to Mrs. Green. But she decided she could not get along for six months without the shower, though she could not afford a tile job. She had seen a bathroom finished in imitation tile wallboard. It looked wonderful. My experience with this particular product had been bad. Water had got in behind the board and rotted the plaster. But Mrs. Green insisted, and of course wanted the job done right now.
Some months later a friend of mine in the tile business said:
“Say John, that’s an awful mess in Mrs. Green’s bathroom. What got into you to use; that stuff? You had trouble before.”
This was news to me. So was his repxirt that I had recommended the board to Mrs. Green, had guaranteed a satisfactory job and had refused to make good on my guarantee. The lady had never complained to me. She was simply indulging in what seems to be the customers’ prerogative of blaming the contractor for their own blunders.
The job for Mrs. Green was an “extra.” I’ve heard it said that contractors “lost; money on houses and make a profit on extras.” It must have seemed so to Mrs. Green when she got the bill for $40 for installing the wallboard.
“Forty dollars,” I can hear her say. “Forty dollars that robber charged me for a job that took one carpenter less than a day.”
Mrs. Green had to have the job done immediately, so who am I to put the frost on a lady’s party? I piulled my ; best finisher off another job to install her wallboard. That job was almost i finished. In another day it would be ready for the painters. I cajoled a painter into piromising to move his men I in two days hence. But the next day, while one finisher was at Mrs. Green's the other stayini home with a cold. 1 I didn’t discover it until noon and got a man from another job. The next morning the painters turned upi but had i to wait better than half a day until the carpienters got through.
Who pays the painters for the half day they did not work? The man who owned that house? No. Me? No. Mrs. Green piaid $25 worth.
I have chosen Mrs. Green and her bathroom to illustrate three points: (1) Contractors get blamed for everything that goes sour even when customers go against their advice; (2) apparently outrageous bills for “extras” often fail to cover the actual cost to somebody; (3) anything that disrupts schedules costs somebody money.
Interrupted schedules coupled with high wage rates probably are responsible for at least an extra $1,000 in the cost of the average five-roomed new house today. They don’t show up in each house as such. They are like overhead, spread right across the board. They are the intangibles, like the total amount of time lost by all the smoking that all the workers do on a job, like the wages that are piaid for the time spient looking at a board and measuring it for the third time before cutting, and then cutting it wrong.
What They Don’t Want
No good contractor ever objects to making changes that improve a house. Always at the very beginning, I go over plans with customers and try to spot defects or places where changes can be made with profit. Usually we can work things out—but not with the people who think they know what they want.
Ninety per cent of the time, the customer who comes to me and says that his blueprints represent exactly what he wants is wrong. He is confusing the reverse of what he does not want with what he does want. That sounds crazy, but here is the way I explain it:
The woman who lives in a cramped or cluttered kitchen with a shortage of cupboards develops a passion for a big kitchen and lots of cupboards. That becomes the reverse of what she doesn’t want. Too big a kitchen is no more desirable than one that is too small. Inadequate closet space creates a desire for too much closet space. A poky front hall, where the entry of three people creates a traffic jam, arouses a yen for a big hall. These things get translated into a house plan. They result in bedrooms that are too small, bathrooms that are too small, or a full room crowded out of the plan.
But the “I-know-what-I-wants” are not a patch on the customers with the fluid minds. They pay at least $500 more for their houses because they cannot make up their minds and keep them made up.
Those Helpful Friends
Once a building permit is issued, the customer is flooded with salesmen’s suggestions of what to put in his house. Then there are the friendly advisers, the people who know all about building and can give you tips that will prevent the contractor from rooking you. Or the friends who talk the lady of the house into changing her kitchen plan.
“Really, my dear, vour sink is in the wrong place. It should be over here under this window, then you can see what the children are doing in the back yard. And you should have your stove over here and the refrigerator there. To save steps, you know.”
Now the chances are that the position of the sink and stove had been gone into thoroughly by the builder and the lady. But let doubts get planted in the lady’s mind and the chances are they will explode the sink out of the place agreed upon.
Because most houses built today have to be tailored to suit t he customers, there must be continuous consultation between the contractor and the owners. A four-inch window sill, for instance, will satisfy most of my customers. But
if I happen to put one in without asking I’ll discover they are flower lovers, need an eight-inch sill to accommodate their pots.
One mistake I make continually is to assume that husbands and wives talk to each other. If the lady turns up and I ask her about the placing of the fixtures in the bathroom, she’ll tell me how to do it. Her husband turns up, discovers what has happened and orders changes. A husband decides to swing the doors one way while his wife thinks they would be better the other.
One man went with me to the lumber yard and picked out some really fine doors. They were about $6 each more than the ordinary door but were beautifully grained and would have shown up magnificently when varnished. The lady wound up covering half of them with paint!
Yet somehow or other I always come back to the kitchen with my troubles. Somebody ought to write a book on how to live in a kitchen, and give it to all brides. Last summer I chased all over town to get a sink for a woman, a duplicate of one she saw in a friend’s home and liked. It happened that her friend was three inches shorter than my customer. She is going to discover as months pass that this sink is too deep for her, will bring on backaches and a mounting detestation of dishes.
A kitchen has got to be tailored to the woman who will run it. It makes a great deal of difference, in the tailoring, whether she is 5 feet 2 inches or 5 feet 6 inches. And it’s important, too, whether she does her cooking and dishwashing in sandals or spikes, or sometimes one and sometimes the other.
How Time Flies
For a woman 5 feet tall, the height of the sink top from the floor cannot be more than 35 inches if she is to work in comfort. For her, the upper cupboards have to be brought lower, the space on the first shelf must be reduced to make it possible for her to reach the second shelf without stretching. But if she is 5 feet 6 inches or taller, the sink top comes up a couple of inches, the cupboards go higher.
The sink top that seemed just right to her when we started putting it in, when she had on her best shoes, turns out, when three quarters completed to be two inches too high when she is wearing slippers. So I tear down the cabinet that took four days to build, get busy with my saw and cut it down to size.
But all these troubles melt into nothing compared with the almost impossible job of keeping work moving ahead on schedule. Ten years ago it was no trick to wind a house up complete in 90 days. Today the contractor who promises occupancy in less than five months is sticking his neck out and handing the customer an axe.
For one thing, the five-day week now so generally in force has added one fifth to the normal building time. But far more important is the dilution of the quality of the working force. The average age of the tradesmen in our town must be well over 50. Some of my carpenters are long past 65. Though they have lost a lot of their skill and are a lot slower because they are not as strong, they still collect top wages. Every subcontractor I know has the same story to tell—while wage rates rise production per employee steadily declines.
Twenty years ago, when I was learning my trade, the woods were full of carpenters who were first-class artisans. They could frame up a house, cut rafters, lay floors, make window frames, fit and hang windows and doors, install
trim and make cupboards. They can’t any more, not enough of them to count on.
The result is that contractors have to have two or three different kinds of carpenter crews.
The lumber our carpenters work with today is inferior stuff. It has to be well nailed. It takes more time to frame in a house with poor lumber than with good lumber. A good framer makes sure that his nails all bite home. When he is in doubt he drives another nail. A poor framer doesn’t care, if it doesn’t show. He may be spiking home the base of a stud at the end of a partition. It is an awkward place to get at. Instead of the required three spikes he drives only two, and one doesn’t bite too well. A few weeks later, when some stress goes on the wall, it gives slightly, gets an inch out of plumb at the bottom and the house has a crooked wall.
One of the most reliable plumbers I know was desperate for help this summer. He hired a man from out of town to install the water pipes in one of my houses. When we eventually got the water connected, after the house was finished, a leak developed in the cold-water pipe running to the secondstory bathroom. We eventually tore out the wall to get at it. The cost of that blunder was at least $75. The plumber paid it.
Talk Is Expensive
These blunders are costly in themselves, and they play havoc with schedules. Keeping a job moving, when I’m not on the job myself, is perhaps the toughest of all nuts to crack. I can and do fire loafers, when I can spot them, but laziness is not the whole answer.
Let’s say that one house is behind schedule. I take a man from another house and add him to the crew. For a couple of days six men do less work than five did before. The explanation is simple, but it took me years to tumble to it. The new man has to get acquainted with his mates, and that means a lot of conversation on the job. And if I really want to see output tailspin, all I have to do is hire a mechanic with deep religious or political convictions and a missionary zeal!
The delays on one job may force overtime on another. Wasted time has to be paid for and nothing wastes time like a bottlenecked job. A plumber’s labor bill for one house may be doubled if, instead of moving in on schedule with all his tools, equipment and supplies, he has to sandwich it in between other jobs.
Like most builders, I’ve got a couple of pet housing designs. I’ve built a number of them, hope to build more. Anyone might imagine that as these houses are identical the cost of materials would be easy to figure. But I wouldn’t bet I could estimate within $1,000 what the next one I build will cost. The lumber bill alone on identical houses is liable to vary $300 even if prices remain the same. The first of these houses I built in 1947 cost me less than $11,000. The last one I built this year ran around $13,800.
There are no constants in the housing business anymore. For example, excavating charges have been running around $250, but I have paid as much as $340.
Or my painter has been charging around $420 for this job. His estimate jumps to $500. On the last two houses he has had bad luck. The wind came up when the finish coat was on, blew mud all over the paint and he had the work to do over. Hereafter, and probably forevermore, he is going to add a little something to his contracts in case of wind.
Then there are the plumbers. I admire plumbers but their arithmetic baffles me. On one house I'll get a bid of $750 for their subcontract. Next time it will be $600, the time after $800.
Plastering is another major headache. Here the price factor is fairly stable. It costs from 75 cents to 85 cents a yard for a two-coat job. But so desperate is the shortage of skilled plasterers that they constitute our worst bottleneck. This shortage again has forced the contractors to hire men they would once have scorned. Badly troweled plaster may take so much time to fix that most of the contractor’s profit slips away.
Does It Help to Get Mad?
With only normal bad luck, the best contractor in town could turn over to you a house with a couple of bad spots in the inner foundation wall, high joists in your living room, cracked plaster, rattly windows and floors that creak. He doesn’t have to be a crook to do this. He only has to be an honest, conscientious contractor who got the worst of it.
You can wave your arms. You can call him names. You can demand that he raise hell with all the subtrades concerned and insist that the job be made good. After all, you’ve poured your life sa vingsinto yourhouse. You’ve probably borrowed on your insurance policies to pay for the extras. You’re entitled to blow your top. I’d blow mine.
But you are wrong in thinking we are all crooks, or that we are all engaged in a conspiracy against you. I know that every problem I have, with labor, with material, with shortages, afflicts all the subcontractors. I hire a carpenter who wastes $100 worth of first-grade flooring by careless selection and laying. The plasterer has a man who can waste $40 worth of lime without half-trying.
My painter has $50 worth of paint stolen from his truck. He has men who ignore safety rules and splash themselves and precious paint over the landscape. The tinsmith has men who get familiar with blowtorches and wind up nursing compensation cheques. Equipment that is promised for the first of July is delivered on Labor Day, but vital connections are missing.
So I don’t scream at my subcontractors. I’ve known most of them a long time and I know they aren’t crooks. Instead of waving my arms I drop around and let them cry on my shoulder. Then I cry on theirs. Then, maybe, we can work out some kind of a deal that will satisfy my irate customer. It will likely cost me a little money and cost him a little money but both of us try to remedy the faults Mr. Blandings discovers.
But what about the crooks and jerry-builders?
Well, yes, I know of a few. But I don’t think the percentage of crooks and chiselers is any higher among contractors than it is among their customers.
The plain fact is that the house builder today can protect himself against the sharpsters by exercising elemental common sense. Before he signs a contract he should insist on references from previous customers, either verbal or written. He should examine carefully the houses the contractor has built. If he doesn’t knowhow to find a good contractor here is the soundest advice I can give—consult any mortgage company that lends money on Central Mortgage and Housing loans and then check the opinion with a lawyer or a bank.
Then be sure to have at least $1,000 tucked away in case the cost of the house runs over the estimate. It most certainly will. if