Reliable tradie, where art thou?

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They met, he courted her and for a few blissful days, he seemed like her Romeo. But before Kate knew it, he was frequently late, took no pride in his appearance, didn’t flush the toilet and left the seat up, and seemed to have lost all interest in her.

Much like the iconic literary romance, Romeo and Juliet, this once-promising partnership turned tragic within a matter of days.

If this were a bloke my poor friend was dating, it would’ve been over faster than a Kim Kardashian marriage. However this isn’t a tale of a cooling romance that’s destined for the scrapheap, but of a renovator and her tradesman.

Kate’s in the process of replacing her old and decrepit bathroom and the guy she chose for the job seemed brilliant at first. He was punctual, encouraging, offered friendly advice about her design and was competitive with price.

Just as soon as he arrived with his toolbox on day one, things had gone pear-shaped. The unflushed ensuite toilet was one thing, as was him being clearly hungover most days, but it had also become clear that work was creeping along at a glacial pace.

Now, the job he’d originally insisted would take four days is in its second week. When he shows up, usually late, he doesn’t complete a full day and his pleasant personality has disappeared. Her questioning is met with a gruff and confrontational attitude.

“If I hadn’t paid for the bulk of the bill already, I’d just tell him not to bother coming back,” she told me.

All going well, or less horribly, she should have her bathroom and sanity back next week. Who knows to what quality it’ll finally be finished, though.

Finding a good tradie can be an exercise almost as stressful as the renovation itself. This is something I became bitterly aware of the moment I kicked off my very first project, and a sad fact that was reinforced during the next two adventures.

That first time around, it was long before anyone knew what a GFC was. Plumbers, sparkies, cabinetmakers, plasterers, and handymen… they were all flat chat and could be very choosy about which jobs they took on. Even getting someone to come around and quote on different tasks was a major hassle.

On a handful of occasions, I had someone come to quote and then couldn’t get them back to do the actual job. Why bother coming in the first place? But I’d chase them for days to lock them in, to no avail. I’d fume as I went back to the drawing board and Yellow Pages to try again.

The second renovation I undertook was in the midst of the economic crisis, when a call to a tradie would be answered by the second ring. Work had all but dried up and most were willing to come to quote at a time that suited me, and seemed desperate to take on just about anything.

That willingness aside, I still had a few problematic experiences. There was the tiler who finished off the shower in record time, but put each tile on a slightly downward angle. It was subtle so I didn’t notice the wonky job at first – or before I paid him. In the end, I thought I was suffering vertigo while washing my hair one morning.

The third project was mostly hassle-free, except for the guy I hired to strip back some very old and thoroughly stuck-on tiles. He got them all off, saving me a major hassle, but in doing so cut through a water pipe with his machine. Rather than arrange for it to be repaired or, say, leave me a note, he simply turned off the water to the apartment and went home.

I’m hardly a Cherie Barber or Geoff Doidge – two seasoned renovators I’ve the pleasure of chatting to on occasion. However I’ve learnt a few new lessons with each project, big or small:

  1. Know someone who has had work done on their property? Ask them for recommendations and build up your own database of professionals. The tiler who fixed that botch job on project number two was fantastic, and I’ve used him twice since. I also gave his details to no fewer than half a dozen people. He appreciates the pipeline of extra work and prioritised my last job as a token of his thanks;
  2. Be especially clear in your communication and set your expectations from the beginning. Want them to be there by a certain time? Let them know. Think that power point should go on the far wall near the door? Let them know. Harmony is a two-way street and the key is being on the same page;
  3. Check online trade directories, where users can post reviews and ratings of different professionals and the companies they work for;
  4. Ask for referrals from previous clients. A decent tradie will be happy to provide you with a few names of happy customers so you can verify their track record. Someone who doesn’t is probably either lazy, which might reflect in their work, or hiding something.
  5. Google their name and the name of their company. The internet allows people to easily whine and vent at the click of a mouse – you’d be surprised how many do;
  6. Double-check their license and certifications to ensure you’re dealing with an above-board professional;
  7. Come to an agreement on progress payments – don’t pay most or the entire quote as work kicks off;
  8. When work commences, hold a daily site meeting to talk through what’s happening and iron out any potential issues. If you’re not there, how can you know that the job is on track?

Most tradespeople are professional and diligent, but finding one – like a successful relationship – can sometimes involve kissing a few frogs before finding a prince.

Shannon Molloy is the deputy editor of Australian Property Investor magazine,