Don’t let hacks destroy your home

A once beautiful tree, destroyed by shady contractors

About every five years, some contractor does something horrible to my home and each time I swear it will never happen again. It’s things like this that convinced me to get into the consulting business in the first place. There’s only so much you can know so what’s a homeowner to do?

First, let me describe what happened here.

We had a freak, heavy snow storm at the end of October, before the trees had lost their leaves. It devastated trees throughout the area, snapping branches and taking down trees that had stood for decades. It was a tragedy.

My wife and I were away from home, and had to coordinate getting contractors in to deal with all the downed trees and branches over the phone. Fortunately, we have some wonderful neighbors who helped us out and recommended the landscaping and tree company they were using. Being in something of a desperate situation, we went ahead and hired them.

The first day was fine, they cleaned up the broken trees and branches that were an immediate hazard or lying on the roof. We were happy. Because of the widespread damage along the east coast, they were the only company who would come. Everybody we talked to said they were backed up for months.

After they were done the basic cleanup, they gave us the bad news – the big tree in front of the house had to come down. We were devastated. This is the oldest tree on the property, sits right in front of the house and provides shade as well as natural beauty. There had to be a solution.

Our heavily damaged prize tree

First, the owner of the contracting company came over. They pointed out stress cracks and emphasized how imbalanced the tree was. “If you don’t cut this down, it’s going to fall on your house the next storm and then you’ll have really big problems on your hands.” He had his tree guy repeat this sentiment “I’ve been doing this for a long time. Maybe it won’t fall down this year, but it’s going to rot out and destroy your home.”

We looked at the damaged and concurred. It really looked all out of balance. Half the tree seemed snapped off by the storm. We begged for an alternative. After all, this tree had been around much longer than we had. Couldn’t we save it?

After some discussion with the tree guy, he concluded we could save the tree by crowning it – a drastic solution that could save the tree but would leave it for maybe decades in a state where it looked like a big stump in the front yard. Kill it or cripple it, what a horrible decision!

We decided that we had to try to save the tree and they said they’d come back later that week to do the work.

They showed up and started cutting. We couldn’t bare to watch! Huge limbs were being sawed off. So we tried to ignore it. But after a half an hour, we heard huge crashes and the house shook. I walked out the front door to see what was happening and it was clear that the guy in the tree didn’t know what he was doing. Even I could tell that he was cutting things wrong! And, these he was letting things fall on our home. WTF?

I immediately told them to stop and get out of the tree. At that time, the boss showed up. He agreed to pull his men. I told them just to clean the branches off the ground and not to touch the tree. But the damage was already done. By that point, the tree looked like the photo at the top of this post. My wife and I literally cried.

It turns out that the contractors and his tree subcontractor had parted ways the previous night so he just had his guys (a landscaping crew) climb the tree with chainsaws and start sawing off limbs. They were totally unqualified for the job. It was horrible.

Just recently, I remembered an arborist we had worked with 5-years before. This man is an old pro. He loves and respects trees. He has years of training and credentials to back him up. He’s Warren Jacobs – tree surgeon. I was really saddened that we hadn’t called him first, but in the emergency situation we had, we’d totally forgotten about him and went with whomever would “do the job” But I called him, explained our plight, and he came right out to consult.

Warren confirmed that it was too late. Had we called him in at first, he could have made careful cuts and allowed the tree to heal itself. No, he said, based on the photo from right after the storm, the tree was not going to fall down or rot out. It wouldn’t have been pretty at first, but trees have a remarkable way of fixing themselves. After all, they’ve had millions of years of evolution – snowstorms, fires, hurricanes and so on. They can survive what nature throws them. They can’t survive an idiot with a chain saw.

Having learned and extremely painful lesson – one that will remind us of our stupidity every day we walk out our front door, we have vowed not to let anybody but Warren touch the trees on our property. “You rarely have emergencies” Warren told me. “Trees are remarkably resilient – often, they’ll spring back. Unless your home or someone’s life is in imminent danger, you should let the tree try to heal itself.”

What does all this have to do with energy efficiency? Well, the direct connection is that this tree provided us with shade for the house all summer long. Natural shading is more effective than air conditioning. So our air conditioning bills are likely to be much higher in the future.

But more importantly, the lesson is one of contractors and long term planning. When you’re rushed to make a decision because of a perceived emergency, you don’t make good choices. You’re desperate and vulnerable and when a bully contractor comes in telling you “I’ve been doing this for years… blah blah blah” – “if you don’t do this now, your house and life will be in danger” – well, you tend to believe them. But you have to trust your gut. If something looks wrong or you don’t have a good feeling about the contractor, don’t hire them. I also find that real pros will never say things like I quoted. So what are the red flags? How do you increase the odds?

  • A pro will have years of experience and proper credentials
  • A pro will not denigrate those with “paper knowledge” and training. They understand the value of learning from others.
  • They will let their work speak for itself. They’re happy to show you photos of other jobs.
  • Professionals are passionate about what they do. It’s not a job. It’s their life.
  • Pros are often engaged in training others. They want everybody to know how to “do it right” so they might have a blog or produce articles.
  • They won’t flinch when you ask for a second opinion, in fact, they’ll encourage you to talk to others.
  • Pros listen more than they talk. When they do talk, it is reasoned and educational
  • Pros never justify bad practice by saying “I’ve been doing it this way for decades. Books might tell you to do it another way, but I know better.”
  • Pros might come across as pedantic. They’re passionate about what they do. When they see a bad job, they’re likely to be offended by it. But ultimately, they just want everybody to “do it right.”
  • Google is your friend. Do your research. See if the contractor is involved in their community or in training.
  • Talk to other professionals. Contractors, architects etc. Whom do they use for their important work?

You might notice that I don’t mention asking your friends. Most of the bad contractors I’ve had in my home came after talking with friends. The problem is, your friends are homeowners just like you. They’re not professionals. They’re likely to recommend someone who was friendly  and polite. But friendly doesn’t mean professional. Maybe you’d want to get a beer with them but do you want them working on your home?

You’ve probably seen the TV show “House.” The guy is an ass. You hate him. But he’s competent. Would you rather have him working on you or a friendly, less competent doctor? Same for work around your home.

  • Don’t choose the “friendly” contractor, choose the competent one.
  • Avoid getting in situations where you have to make emergency decisions. I swear, every time I’ve had to do that, I make a bad decision!
  • Don’t choose the “low bidder.” They’re the low bidder for a reason. They probably don’t have the the overhead of a reputable contractor. Overhead like business insurance, licenses and training!
  • Don’t get references from people who are likely to make money from the reference. There’s a lot of “referral fees”. And while they’re not always bad, how can you trust someone who is getting paid for the reference

The key thing is planning ahead and doing research before you need it. Do preventative maintenance so that you establish working relationships. This is hard work and may seem costly but it’s the best way of finding good people. For example, now that I’ve learned my lesson, I’m going to have Warren Jacobs come out and trim my trees regularly. He’ll advise me about work before it needs to be done and keep an eye on things. I’ve learned that I can trust him.

The same thing applies for HVAC contractors. Establish a relationship with someone to come out at least once a year to check out your systems. Hopefully, they’ll see things before they get critical. They’ll maintain things to prevent malfunctions. Good ones may also advise you about other things they see that might be going wrong. They’ll know who other reputable contractors are. But remember, trust your instincts!


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