On a recent sunny afternoon, I sat down in matching Adirondack chairs at our small weekend home in the Hudson Valley with Bob, our longtime contractor and handyman. But instead of talking about future projects and maintenance as we gazed down at the lake, we were reminiscing.
Bob had recently retired, and I was curious about what advice he might have for weekend or country homeowners in the care and maintenance of their handymen (handypeople) and contractors. After all, we all need a Guy.
When newcomers move into our rural wooded lake community, I always try to say hello, answer any immediate questions and offer that one critical piece of advice: “You gotta have a Guy.” Or, more likely, a handful of guys. Or a squad of guys. (Increasingly, and thankfully, having a Guy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a guy. Many more women are working as carpenters, landscapers, painters, and general handy people. Sometimes you gotta have a Gal.)
After all, that weekend house isn’t going to take care of itself. The house might be your getaway, but you’re never going to get away from taking care of it.
For me, having one key go-to person who does several things well is reassuring. As long as I have a weekend home, I want a Guy — or Gal — who knows more about house maintenance than I — which is almost everybody — and can maintain or fix things or send me to someone else who can. Kind of a second-home concierge. Or consigliere.
That’s what led me to ask Bob for an exit interview. It was Bob’s first time sitting down with me as a retiree after 40 years of taking care of that house and that lakefront, including the past 13 years when it was our house and our lakefront. I wanted to know what advice he’d give us and other people who needed a Guy – and how to get the most out of the relationship.
Bob would not call himself a handyman. Until he retired, he was a contractor. He “took care” of dozens of houses in our lake community — and, implicitly, the people who live in them.
For us, and many others, he did everything from mowing the lawn and plowing the snow to major renovations. He built and rebuilt decks and porches and garages and docks. He knocked down walls and ceilings so he could build new rooms out or up. He trapped critters burrowing under porches.
For the few jobs he wouldn’t do himself, he outsourced us to trusted driveway blacktoppers, arborists, electricians, plumbers, stone masons and more. He filled us in on his version of micro-local history (and gossip), and gave us lots of valuable advice, too, from the practical (the best mouse traps) to the quasi-legal (approaching the Planning Board) to armchair psychology (dealing with certain neighbors).
Reminiscing on that recent afternoon, I recalled how we had inherited our relationship with Bob from the previous homeowner. Bob had been the previous owner’s Guy for 25 years, and when we bought the house we were left with everything from the silverware and sheets to the leaky rowboat and broken telescope. “Bob is our Guy, and he can be yours, too,” the previous owner told me.
Soon after we closed on the house, I asked around among our new lake neighbors. Everybody knew Bob. Some had worked with him happily for years. Some had used him off and on for this and that. The few complaints were mostly about him not getting to their jobs as quickly as they wanted. Most said he did acceptable work at a fair price.
I really liked hearing that since he lived nearby, he could respond quickly in emergencies.
We decided it was only fair to give Bob a try; after all, he knew the house better than anyone. We met, and Bob told me his story. I liked that he was a trained engineer who had a good start on a career as a metallurgist before deciding he wanted to work for himself, with his hands, and with neighbors for his clients. He wanted to become a do-anything neighborhood Guy.
Looking back, Bob said my wife and I had quickly become favored and favorite clients for him and his assistant Kevin, the Other Guy. They appreciated that we paid promptly when we got his bills. They liked that we gave them to-do lists with few deadlines. They liked that we asked after their families, offered cold beers on hot Friday afternoons and sprung for pizza once in a while.
The big things that we did right, he said, and that all homeowners should pursue, are transparency and communications. “You kept us engaged,” he said. “Even when you didn’t have a lot of work for us, you checked in once in a while and said hello.”
“That kept you in the front of our minds,” Bob said. “We had plenty of other good customers who hired us for something every year or 18 months; they would be perfectly pleasant and would pay us on time. But because you kept in touch, if you needed something we were more likely to get to it first.”
Indeed, there were several instances when Bob and/or Kevin got calls from us on weekends – burst pipes in the basement, a wasp nest over the back door – and showed up within a couple of hours with sump pumps and wasp-removal gear.
Bob said several of his favorite customers kept a whiteboard “Bob List” on their fridges, and he often checked it when he was in their houses. And he was in many houses regularly, especially during the cold months when he offered a “winter watch” service – besides plowing and shoveling snow, he’d come in the house every day that the homeowners weren’t there, just to make sure there were no leaks, burst pipes or unwanted critters.
One especially snowy winter when we hadn’t been at the house in a while, Bob called to say the roof had three feet of snow; ice dams were developing that could back up into the attic. Did we want him to get on a ladder and go up and shovel off the roof? Yes, indeed, we did want Bob to do that.
Another time he discovered that the local power utility had bungled a post-storm repair that could have burned down our house. He turned off the power and called the utility, leading to a tidy settlement for fried appliances.
We didn’t have a Bob List on the fridge, but we periodically texted or emailed him projects large and small, usually saying “no rush.” We’d talk with him about the list periodically, considering costs and deadlines. Eventually we’d make an agreement for when, how and how much – roughly.
It didn’t take long for Bob to become our go-to first stop for every house-related problem, and some problems that weren’t the typical handyman stuff. When a guest dented a standup paddleboard on a sharp stone, Bob took the board home, and looked up how to fix it on YouTube
When he brought it back, we couldn’t tell where the dent had been. We were going to spring for new Morticia-style wicker chairs until he said he could fix them for a fraction of the cost.
We also sometimes asked him to stop by simply to give advice or background thoughts on our crazy ideas. Among other pipe dreams, mostly initiated by our kids, he talked us out of an outdoor shower, a sauna, a hot tub, a tiny house on wheels and a platform tennis court.
When we spotted fierce-looking boring beetles emerging from some new wood siding, I sent photos to the state, the university extension and Bob. Bob identified the bugs first, and said don’t worry, they’d freeze out over the winter. The experts agreed, and that’s what happened.
My only problem with Bob came when he delayed the finishing stretch of a big renovation and didn’t explain why. Eventually I learned that some neighbors had asked him to do a renovation for them – provided he did it right away. I stewed a bit, and finally decided my issue was with the neighbors more than Bob. I went to him and said he should have told us what was going on, and why he was stalling. “In the future,” I said. “Keep us in the loop.”
He gave the ideal response.
“OK,” he said.
Another reason for transparency and communication, Bob told me as we looked down on the lake, is to make sure you get the quality you want. Over the years he learned, and his customers learned, that he and Kevin were really good at being cost-efficient. They sometimes valued function over form and emphasized keeping costs down; consequently, they learned to avoid jobs where the homeowners expected higher quality than he and Kevin could comfortably deliver at reasonable costs.
I was struck by this. What, I wondered, was his quality of work? “I always thought Kevin and I were about a B-plus,” he said. “We’re good, but not the best. We’ll give you good work for very good value. But we don’t work for people who want the very best at over-the-top prices. That’s not us.”
I asked Bob if there were any little things homeowners did that bothered him.
“Don’t pull up a chair and pop a beer and sit and watch us work,” he said. “Nobody likes to have someone watch you work, like they’re second-guessing every move.”
We still see Bob occasionally now that he is retired, though he is spending more time in Florida or on his sailboat or with his grandsons. Any time I ask him for advice, he gives it freely and completely, whether I offer a beer or not.
Kevin, who had been the Other Guy in Bob’s business for a couple of decades, has taken over. It’s been a smooth transition. Kevin doesn’t do everything Bob used to do, but he is better at some things, especially painting.
When I texted Kevin this week about racoons taking up residence under our porch, he came by the next day, poked around the holes and said he’d get right to it.
“No rush,” we said. After all, he’s our Guy now.