LITTLE WHITE LIES: Good Contractors Never Tell Them

A few years back I got an email from a woman wondering about roof shingles, and it reminded me how easy it is for contractors (and anyone else) to destroy their own credibility with white lies. As a homeowner, you need to watch for this. This article shows you how.

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Here I am bringing shingles up on my roof the last time I had to tackle the job.

Earlier that year, in one of my weekly newspaper columns, I’d recommended a certain brand of asphalt shingle – GAF is the name. This woman wanted to use them, but her contractor didn’t. “They’re a 1/2-inch shorter than standard shingles,” he told her,  “and this means more cutting to match lengths and hide nails. It’ll cost you more.”

“Does this make sense?” the woman asked me by email.

Nonsense Reasoning

No, this contractor doesn’t makes sense and I’m glad she asked. A 1/2” difference in shingle length will never cause more trouble and expense for a roofer. No doubt this contractor has his reasons not to use the brand of shingles I recommended. That’s fine. There are good brands of shingles on the market besides GAF (though I’ve never seen a GAF roof fail prematurely). The thing is, his reasons for not using GAF probably wouldn’t have sounded good if spoken plainly. His reasoning proves it. Maybe he’s got some special arrangement with a particular supplier of another brand that gives him a discount.  Maybe he’s just frightened of the smallest change in his work routine. I don’t know, but cooking up some fancy sounding technical nonsense about shorter shingle length costing more is asking for trouble. And he’ll get it, too.

Why would any homeowner want to do business with someone who isn’t honest in the little things? That’s what I told this woman. As a famous and wise carpenter once said a long time ago, “one who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much.”

Fair Assessment

To be fair, every contractor – roofing or otherwise – sometimes needs to steer clients away from their own silly ideas. As a homeowner you need to be humble enough to be led away from your own bad concepts and towards truthful ones. This is especially true in the age of the internet, where everyone is an expert, and homeowners expect the world because they saw it on Pinterest. The thing is, using lies – even dishonest excuses about little things like shingle length – isn’t the way to protect clients from themselves. Eventually what goes around comes around. The universe was designed to operate much better on honesty in all things, even the little things.

Our world is awash with lies – more than I’ve ever seen so far in my 61 years – so much so that we usually don’t even recognize the lies any more. It’s just the “normal way of doing business”. And while going with the deceitful flow may be a common policy these days, be careful. As a consumer, recognize that white lies from a contractor, however small, are really rather large red flags.

Discerning Honesty

So how do you tell if a contractor, tradesperson, auto mechanic, doctor or appliance repair technician is trying to pull a little wool over your eyes? Simple. If you don’t understand something you’re being told, ask for a complete explanation. Don’t be afraid to say something like this: “I don’t know much about this topic, so please help me understand what you’re telling me completely. Exactly how will shingles that are 1/2″ shorter than what you’re used to cost be significantly more money.”

There’s no detail about building or renovation that can’t be explained in simple language to anyone of normal intelligence. Home building and renovations are many things, but none of it is rocket science. Press the matter until you hear something that truly makes sense. If the explanation doesn’t make sense, you’re either talking to a professional with insufficient communication skills (you don’t want to hire someone like this), or you’re being fed a little lie (you REALLY don’t want to hire someone like this). Don’t be afraid to look stupid by asking the most basic questions, then pay particular attention to the answers and don’t give up until you understand. Better to look stupid and avoid being taken for a ride.

The bottom line is simple: There are good tradespeople in the world and they’ll always be completely honest with you, especially right down to the details. Your job is to take the trouble to find people like this. If you don’t take the time, you probably deserve the hassles that usually come from lack of care in the little things.

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– Steve Maxwell