Contractors’ jobs take longer than clients estimate

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Think you know how long a basic home repair should take? As a general rule, multiply that by four


The time spent on a basic task such as fixing a broken stair railing spindle can be broken down into four main steps — preparation, transportation, installation and finishing. And that doesn’t even include cleanup.

All throughout my career as a contractor, I’ve had to explain to the client, in detail, the time breakdown of the job. And that’s a good thing — your contractor should be able to account for how long a job takes and how much it’s going to cost. And for some strange reason, it always seems homeowners question the price of a small job more than they do a big renovation. Maybe because they think the small job is something they could do themselves if they had the time.

Homeowners often have a hard time understanding how long it takes to do a job because they aren’t professionals with experience. And as a result, they’re surprised when the contractor gives them a quote. They think it’s way too high. “Are you kidding? I’ve priced X at the building supply store! It doesn’t take that long to install X!” (And, often they end up deciding to do it themselves, for better or for worse.)

If you’re going to hire a contractor for a basic home repair and you think you know how long the job should take, as a general rule, multiply that by four. Your initial estimate for the actual work might be in the ballpark, but almost everyone underestimates all the other steps in the process that add to the actual billable hours.

Wrapping your head around how all the time is spent on a basic task can be broken down into four main steps. To understand these steps, let’s use an example of replacing a broken stair railing spindle — a “small job” that shouldn’t take too much time. The average homeowner may think that it will probably take an hour to replace. Let’s look at the job step by step and see. Step 1: Preparation The broken spindle needs to be removed carefully without damaging the surrounding wood finish, carpet or rest of the railing. If the spindle isn’t a stock item, a second undamaged spindle may also need to be removed, in order to use as an example to duplicate a new piece. Let’s say the spindle is a stock item (the best-case scenario) and the least expensive. The contractor has to still source the right piece at the building supply store. We’re already at the homeowner’s original estimate of one hour. Step 2: Transportation The contractor has to go to the building supply store, pick up the part and return. Hopefully, the local supplier has the part. If it is something more specialized, they may have to travel across town. Even if the spindle can be picked up around the block at a big-box lumber store, you will still need to spend time finding the part and standing in line with everyone else while more time is ticking away. Add another hour. Step 3: Installation Finally some “real work” is getting done — the spindle gets replaced. It might be an easy operation, or there may be complications due to the original construction method. Either way, it is precision work to make sure the new piece sits in perfect alignment and that it is strong and safe. That brings us to the end of hour 3.

And we are finished, right? Wrong. The most time-consuming step is still to come, and it’s the one that the client is going to scrutinize more than anything else — the finishing. Step 4: Finishing The new spindle has to match all the others, and direct from the store it comes as just a piece of unfinished wood. The contractor has to match the stain or primer and paint and may have to add a coat of Varathane or other wood finish to make sure that not only the colour is right, but the sheen matches the sheen of the existing woodwork. If this step is rushed, the replacement piece will stick out like a sore thumb, and the homeowner will not be happy. All the small parts of this step — such as detail sanding, taping off surrounding areas and preparing paints or stains — take up precious time. There, you’ve spent another hour, and we didn’t even account for drying time between the various coatings.

There you have it, a grand total of four hours, as a best-case scenario. In the end, the homeowner doesn’t notice any difference between the repaired spindle and the others around it, and that is exactly the desired result. The repair blends into the rest of the staircase railing as close as humanly possible. All the time needed to achieve this seamless look will never be fully understood by the client or anyone who wasn’t there to witness it moment by moment. Tasks requiring skill and effort always take longer than imagined.

There’s one other step that I haven’t mentioned because is doesn’t contribute to the actual job, but it’s still important and it still takes time on the contractor’s part: Keeping the job site clean. It might require drop cloths, or if there’s going to be an excessive amount of dust created in the sanding process, then plastic sheets may need to be draped around the area and taped off. Afterward, a good vacuuming may be in order to leave the job site just as the contractor found it. This is the invisible step and an essential part of making it right, but this also adds more time to the job.

We all know it takes longer to do a job if you don’t know what you are doing, just like it costs more to do it again when it’s not done right the first time. Hiring a contractor with experience will shave some time off a project, but in the end, time does add up. That’s the reality of a good renovation or repair.

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