Three things are golden if you live in downtown Charleston: off-street parking; a good flood zone rating; and the number for a talented, reliable contractor.
Certainly, when this writer hired someone to do some painting and repairs, swarming passersby kept interrupting to ask the contractor for a card. That’s not uncommon. In fact, contractors say they never have to advertise because word of mouth gives them all the work they can handle.
“I get maybe 90 to 95 percent of my business that way,” says James Chabera of Hydro Force, which does painting, power washing, and handyman jobs. “We work downtown, so a lot of people come by on golf carts or bikes or walking and see us in action.”
Joel Krueger of Krueger Construction, which does mostly commercial but some residential work, agrees, and says he’s been too busy to even set up a website.
All of which is great news if you’re a contractor in Charleston; not so great if you’re a homeowner.
Interior designer Taylor DeBartola, who lives on Bull Street, says, “On my block, there are four renovations going on within earshot. I ran across the street to ask if they could help me (with my jobs) and all of them were completely unable to fit me into their schedules.”
It’s no wonder. Tyler Newman from the Charleston Permit Center, which includes Daniel Island, James Island, Johns Island, West Ashley as well as the peninsula, says that there are “thousands” of residential permits in play at any given time. Some are for homeowner projects, but most involve contractors. Add to that the special permissions needed to work on Charleston’s historical homes, and available contractors dwindle.
Clemson University graduates 50-60 students a year in its Construction Science and Management Program, and most of those students get snatched up by their last semester, says department director Mike Jackson. Charleston is one market that grabs up the students, but Charleston’s shortage is just part of a national shortage, he says. His students have been placed as far north as Maine and as far west as California, and their starting salaries reflect the shortage, ranging anywhere from $45,000 to $80,000, depending on the size of the hiring company.
“The fact I get people who commend me just for showing up or returning phone calls, that’s where I notice a shortage,” Krueger says. “Because when I respond, people are happily surprised. People tell me (contractors) are so busy nobody ever bothers to call them back.”
And sometimes, the shortage can lead you to hire someone you never should have. That’s what DeBartola found out when he hired someone to do some repairs both on his own house and on some Mount Pleasant clients’ homes.
“We were almost 80 percent through my project and about 95 percent through the Mount Pleasant ones when it started raining one day,” DeBartola recalls. “I helped the guy load his van and realized he’d left a small bag of tools upstairs. He said not to worry about it because he’d be back the next day.”
Except, he didn’t return the next day, which was odd for a contractor who had been diligent about his work hours. The day passed with no contact from the contractor, but DeBartola wasn’t worried; after all, he still had the man’s tools.
Unfortunately, he learned from the contractor’s partners that night that his contractor had relapsed that rainy afternoon and had overdosed on heroin. He died a few days later in the hospital.
“I had to pick up the pieces with my clients, who are human and care deeply, but also interested in getting their small jobs done,” DeBartola says.
The contractor’s partners wound up finishing the jobs.
Of course, not every job ends in tragedy.
There are plenty of tales of contractors who follow through and finish jobs.
Elizabeth Willis of Harleston Village says she had a good experience when she hired a contractor to repair her 1890 home after the 1,000-year flood a few years ago. When she needed more work done, she called the same contractor.
“After the flood, we worked with the company the insurance company told us to, but we spent three months with a blue tarp on our roof. Tupper Builders was doing some interior storm damage repair. They knew of my frustration with the roofers and they took over that project. They were able to get a roofer in there and be responsible. We had a new roof put on within a couple of weeks after spending 10 weeks waiting for the other guy.”
She has since used Tupper for landscaping, grading and adding a garage, and has relied on their subcontractors for other jobs like painting. And, when she has, she says neighbors approach the subcontractors trying to hire them.
The shortage affects even the general contractors, who have to find qualified craftsmen to work on the projects. The general contractors are finding subcontractors much the same way that homeowners are finding the general contractors: by word of mouth, someone who knows someone.
Chabera says painters are the hardest to find.
“A decent painter makes good money. Even when the work is slow, a good painter will have work,” he says. “Of course, they all say they’re good painters.”
What this means is that larger jobs are getting done, but the smaller handyman job is hard to hire for.
Willis found that going through a general contractor proved the best way to find people for the jobs around her house and to handle the logistics of hiring and managing subcontractors.
“I can tell you that there are contractors who won’t take on small jobs unless they’re just starting out. Contractors are telling me they want to be doing new construction because you can put up a house faster than you can renovate one any day of the week,” Chabera says.
The supply-demand balance means that contractors get to choose the people with whom they’ll work. It helps to be someone that contractors want to work with.
Both Chabera and Krueger say that the relationship with a contractor requires give and take, and any contractor appreciates someone who’s nice.
“Be reasonable, be flexible,” Chabera says. “You want to get the job done, but it’s Charleston. We have weather.”