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Tales from Contracting: Some Referrals Are Better Than Others

FieldPulse | November 3, 2016

Contracting can be rough, and every contractor has a few stories to tell. We’ve collected anonymous stories from contractors and other FieldPulse clients about lessons they’ve learned while working out in the field. Do you have a story to tell? Send us a message here.

As we all know, hurricane Matthew cut its fair swath through Florida and the coastal states, and every time there’s a big storm contractors end up working overtime. In most cases roofers and laborers catch the majority of the work, but there are plenty of situations where electricians play their role. Most contractors will jump at the chance to work in a few extra jobs, especially when they’ve had a slow season, but there are some jobs that just aren’t worth it.

This is one of those jobs.

As a bit of background, I’ve been working in an electrician in the Belle Glade area for near to three years. Prior to that I worked for an electrical business back in New Hampshire that contracted out maintenance services for various commercial sites, and I haven’t quite gotten use to what I’ll call the “idiosyncrasies” of residential work. I made the move to Florida for the sake of my family and I don’t regret it one bit, but this story highlights the growing pains I’ve experienced as I’ve found my footing in this particular job sector.

One morning, roughly a week after Matthew had blown itself out, I received a call from a friend of mine who ran a waterproofing business. For those not familiar with the niche, most of the work is split between preventative maintenance to prevent leaks and some rather in-depth mold removal and structural sealing to make houses more habitable. In wet and humid places like Florida it’s a profitable business and I’ve had the pleasure of subcontracting with my friend multiple times when the situation warranted electrical work.

In this situation, though, it wasn’t a sub-contracting job. It was a referral. This client owned a home south-east of Belle Glade that had suffered not only wind and water damage from the storm itself, but also had issues with flash flooding due to an unfortunate lay of the land. In most circumstances this would have been something that my friend could have taken care of, but in this particular instance there was a confounding factor that made him pass on the job:

The house had a basement.

In Florida, a house with a basement is about as practical as a submarine with a screen door. They leak, they sink, they grow mold overnight, and they smell terrible. Most houses in Florida don’t have basements because maintaining one is almost impossible. Despite that, there’s been a trend in recent years of new-money families building McMansions that have, you guessed it, massive horrendous basements. These houses are typically “designed” by the owners and have all kinds of issues with their construction due to unreasonable deadlines. They only exist because the customers are rich enough to make it worthwhile.

I should have said no. I should have said that any house too damaged for a waterproofing business is a house too damaged for electrical work, but my friend had been convincing. He passed on the job, apparently, because he didn’t have the kinds of pumps needed to drain the basement and do the work. The client had understood, and had asked for a referral for both a commercially-oriented outfit who could handle that kind of a job and for an electrician who could repair the wiring in the basement after it had been drained. My friend, knowing my history of commercial electrical work back in New Hampshire, figured I’d be their best bet. He even told them to expect my hourly rate to be high, as I was a “specialist.” They said they’d pay any expense. I was naive. I took the job.

My friend put me in contact with the client, and the client and I worked out the details and scheduled an inspection. They confirmed that the basement would be, if not entirely dry, at least transversable without waders, and that I’d be able to work down there without much of an issue. The issue, as they described it, was that the main electrical panel was located inside of the bathroom in the basement and, in addition to re-running some wire that was damaged in the flooding, the main electrical panel would have to be relocated in order to bring things up to code. It wasn’t a small job, but over the phone it sounded like it fell well within my area of expertise.

I knew something was wrong when I showed up the next monday for the inspection, as scheduled, and passed a medium-duty service truck in the driveway that looked like it belonged to a construction company. When I arrived at the house, no one was home. Not a soul. I rang the doorbell three times, waited near to fifteen minutes, knocked on the garage; no one. My first call went to voicemail, but they picked up on the second.

In much less polite terms than my initial conversation, the client explained that no, of course they weren’t there. It was flooded. They were at work, their children were at a hotel, and I should have apparently anticipated all of this and not bothered them. It took me about ten minutes to make them understand that I couldn’t, you know, enter their house, without some way to, you know, enter their house. They eventually gave me the door code ending the call with instructions to “do my thing and get them the numbers.”

Despite my instinctive reaction to drop the contract and bill them for wasting my time, I dutifully entered the door code and made it roughly thirty feet into the house (mind you, they never told me where the basement was or how to get into it) before the smell hit me. Stagnant water.

It took me ten minutes to find the door to the basement (it was on the far side of the house for whatever reason). I found it by following my nose, which was a huge warning sign in retrospect. Hadn’t they drained the basement already? Wasn’t that the truck I’d passed in the driveway, just finishing up? Nope. Just opening the door to the basement told me what I needed to know. The basement was still flooded, it wasn’t just storm damage, and I was in over my head.

The water in the basement was more than ankle deep, and smelled like it had been pooling there for at least two week. I was lucky enough (read: lazy enough) to still have my hunting waders in my truck, and I avoided soaking my shoes. Once again, the basement didn’t look like it had been damaged by the storm; there weren’t any broken windows or signs that the water came in through a leak. Instead, it looked and smelled like it had come up through a drain. Not my job, thankfully.

After about five minutes of exploring, I found the “electrical panel” in the “bathroom” that wasn’t “up to code.” Like a medusa of corroded wire twisted and taped together at every opportunity, it lurked behind a hot water heater in the back of the basement. A foot off the ground. Next to the (clogged) drainage grate for the water heater. With dangling wires inches above from the water that I was wading in.

It took me five minutes to find that panel, and roughly fifteen minutes to slowly ease my way out of the death trap they’d sent me into. Sprinting up the stairs, going out the front door, finding the exterior cut-off and shutting the whole house down took maybe two.

I declined the job.

Referrals can be great, especially when you’re new to an area and you’re trying to get started. But sometimes you’re better off trusting your gut and saying no. And, as a rule, try to avoid wiring houses after hurricanes.

Contracting can be rough, and every contractor has a few stories to tell. We’ve collected anonymous stories from contractors and other FieldPulse clients about lessons they’ve learned while working out in the field.

Do you have a story to tell? Send us a message here.

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