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Your Reno Business and Your Neighbours

This post is a bit of a departure for the Plan4 website. it's kinda philosophical. I'm aiming this post at tradespeople, and I talk about lessons I learned about interacting with home owners and working to make housing more sustainable over the past three decades. I'm especially concerned about what I see happening during the pandemic.

Anyone trying to get work done on their home knows we have a shortage of carpenters and plumbers and electricians in Canada. The surge in homeowner demand for renos and new construction led to long waiting lists for even the simplest projects. If you didn’t have a friend or neighbor in the trades, or if you were waiting for someone to build you a new house, you might have to consider postponing your project sometimes for a year or more.

This leads me to something that I think has needed to be said for years.

If you have a service that someone needs badly, there are two ways to respond. You can get back to them in good time even if it’s just to tell them you can’t fit them in, or they’re too far, or you don’t change toilets or whatever. Sometimes I know this is hard for responsible trades because most of you want to help and it’s frustrating when you can’t fit everything in. But sometimes you earn trust by telling people what they do not want to hear.

Or you can respond by just ignoring the call, or making an appointment and not showing up, or collecting a down payment then showing up a couple of weeks or months later, or by disappearing completely. There’s a range of responses that go from helping people to completely jerking them around. Most of the trades I know fall towards the responsible side. But I keep hearing about slippage – about communication problems. Some of us are not being civilized.

I understand this. I was there. I used to go into people’s homes, tell them what I was going to do, interfere with their schedules, make a mess for weeks at a time, and then charge them a lot of money. I think I got to be a pretty good carpenter but I probably didn't communicate well, especially when I was overworked. I recognize the same in some of the trades around me as I manage sustainable renos for client, and I keep hearing stories that make me cringe. Contractors who don’t return calls, or who start jobs then disappear for weeks, or don’t clearly communicate costs.

I got more civilized as I got older. I got to a point where I could return calls, be honest, and at least refer to reliable trades if the home owner was really stuck. And I fit in a lot of small jobs for neighbors because, well… that’s what you do for neighbors. But even if a caller doesn't live next door, they’re still in my community and I feel responsible. Ultimately this is about respect and community maintenance.

I’ve been preaching about the difference between a house and a home for years. A house is where you stomp in with your muddy boots, crank the tunes, hammer away and make a mess. I suppose this is ok when there's no one in a house under construction. Renovating a home is completely different. A home has people in it - even more so due to COVID and working from home and sick kids etc. It’s where people go for sanctuary from this crazy world. It’s where people rest and try to find peace. Homes also have neighbours who talk with each other. When you’re a carpenter and you treat a home like a house, you’re violating more than just space. You’re interrupting peoples’ lives and traumatizing them, and that spirals out to the community. But when you return a call, show up when you say you will show up, explain everything clearly, follow through on promises, respect the rhythm and sanctity of the home in which you’re working, fix your mistakes, do a great job, work safely, clean up after yourself, and charge what you estimated, you’re being more than civilized. You’re being a good neighbor, showing respect for people and place, renewing trust, and building community. And just like trauma, being responsible has a way of spiraling out for miles and for decades afterwards.

In this difficult time when we seem to be tending towards stressed impatience, and in the reno business where trades are used to taking control, I think it’s especially important to be careful (I’ve chosen that word carefully!) when you’re working in peoples’ homes. Please return phone calls, and take your muddy boots off. Because these are your neighbours, and a home is much more than a house.

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