Canadian Contractor

Steve Payne   

Clients who want to "pitch in": God help us all

Canadian Contractor Professional

"Even with zero construction experience, you can still swing a sledgehammer," a famous Canadian publication once advised it's readers in an article called "9 Things Your Renovator Won't Tell You." The tenth thing he won't tell you is that you are a moron.

Years ago, the well-respected Canadian magazine MoneySense (serious respect, a great publication) took leave of its (money) senses and published an article with one of the dumbest pieces of renovation advice I have ever seen.  Under the title “9 Things Your Renovator Won’t Tell You,” it suggested that one of the things your renovator won’t tell you is that you, as the client, can save a bundle “pitching in.”

Direct quote from this bit of the article: “Even with zero construction experience, you can still swing a sledgehammer.”

(Even with zero experience flying an airplane, you can still crater it into the side of an apartment building.)

Years ago I was working for a renovation contractor in North Toronto. I don’t want to name the firm because of what I am about to tell you is a little embarrassing. We were building a two-storey extension on the back of the home of a husband-and-wife who had recently immigrated from Hong Kong (not particularly relevant to the story, except to say they, like a lot of new arrivals from Hong Kong at the time, they didn’t have much experience with home renovations). The husband was a teacher, so he was home for the summer. He drove our crew crazy.


A compact, wiry man, he treated all of us as if we were all degenerates, which was seriously unfair because only half of us were.  He talked down to us as if we were his Grade 7 home room kids. Even the owner of the firm, a civil engineer by profession who was scrupulously professional.  (“Clients to avoid” by Frank Cohn, a famous editorial in Canadian Contractor in our early years, mentions Teachers about 3rd on the list of dangerous clients, right after Lawyers, but I digress.)  This annoying man, I have to say, would butt his head into everything we were doing, every minute of the day from 7 am until 7 pm.

One day, five of us were jockeying, by hand, the main I-Beam down the centre of the addition, trying to nudge it into its respective notches on the foundation walls.  It slipped and clocked our teacher-client on the top of the head.  We never saw him again that summer.  I don’t know why I am reporting this, except that I can’t think of any better anecdote to illustrate why it’s a bad idea to have clients hang around the jobsite. Or why Frank Cohn was definitely right.

If you want to have a laugh, read the original article that includes the “Pitching In” advice here.




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10 Comments » for Clients who want to "pitch in": God help us all
  1. Gail Tewalt, Skylight to Floor Inc., Glendale AZ, USA says:

    I would like to have seen that list of clients to avoid!

    Number one on our list is architects. They can visualize what they want, but they often have no clue how to get there, nor the best route to take. They are bossy know-it-alls, and cheapskates. My husband once packed up and walked off a sub job when the architect stomped in and started screaming at him for installing exactly where the foreman had told him to. (See #’s 2 & 3 below.)

    Second on our list is engineers. Please deliver us from men (yes, men) who think they know better than we do how to install a skylight. We have cut a few of these off at the bid stage, when they handed us drawings/instructions on how, exactly, they wanted it done. One guy called for a free bid, then hung up on me when I told him no, the installer would not do it the way he said.

    Third on our list is (most) wealthy people. Cheapest SOB’s on earth. The rich guy wants us to discount everything, because, you know, he has already spent so much on purchasing and renovating his 10,000 SF mountainside mansion. Or we should charge $50 to fix the totally screwed up skylight installation done by the handyman who had no clue, but had charged as much or more than we would have in the first place.

    Who do we like to work for? Retired people. We offer free estimates and consultations to everyone, which retirees do not abuse by requesting 12 different options. We discuss what will do the best job at a price they can afford. We show up on time, do a great job, leave them with no clean up, and they have a five year workmanship warranty. If they ever do have a problem, we show up again and take care of it.

    They, in return, pay with a check so we don’t lose 3% off the top. They recommend us to all their friends, neighbors and relatives. They call us back when they need something else done. They appreciate what we do, are happy with the senior discount, and rarely try to get more for less.

    Last thought, regarding “pitching in”. We have a rule about residents staying away from the work area, even though we have insurance. This proved to be wise on the one and only occasion when two installers were jockeying a particularly large skylight up onto a curb and it slipped and slid into the hole clean as a whistle. We had to repair a couple of boards in the wood floor below, but far better than hitting an inquisitive head.

    • Steve Payne says:

      Architects, yes, pretty sure Frank had them on his list. Engineers, no kidding. Rich clients, absolutely the cheapest clients.

      You’ve got us going here, Gail. We’ll dig up Frank Cohn’s classic “Ten Types of Clients I Won’t Work For” (or some similar title). Hands down the bitterest, most mean-spirited rant we have ever published. And funny as hell. Still my favourite page in this magazine in 15 years. Frank, if you read this, come on back and give us some more of that stuff!

      Look for Frank’s masterpiece on Tuesday. It’s time.

      • David McCloskey says:

        Would love to see this article. Also my input to add would be purchasing agents. They are price crazy!

  2. Gail Tewalt, Skylight to Floor Inc says:

    Steve, I will be looking forward to reading the reprint! Looks like I will have to subscribe to make sure I don’t miss it. (You are so sneaky!)

    I really laughed when I read about your teacher’s close encounter with the I-Beam. There is a God!

  3. What? I can’t get a free email subscription? Sure hope I can tap that article here! I, personally am not rich and cheap. Just cheap!

    • Robert Koci says:

      Of course you can get a free subscription. There’s a subscribe button on the home page of the website. Please sign up for both the print and the newsletter if you are not already getting it.

  4. Gail Tewalt, Skylight to Floor Inc. says:

    I clicked on Subscribe at the bottom of this page, filled out all the info, answered all the questions, and response was we didn’t qualify. 🙁

  5. Gail Tewalt says:

    And here I am, enjoying my first issue! Thanks Robert!

  6. Greg Miller says:

    We recently had a duplex build. A very large 3 level plus basement totaling 7600 sq’ plus an 1100 sq’ 5 bay garage. The 70+ year old owner of the redevelopment insisted on working along with our crew. We gave in.

    After years of being a mine manager up north, he believed he knew everything better than us. He would redirect the crew to install the temporary stairs backwards after the super left. He knew better on the excavation as he had been in mining than we did, so he insisted the crew shore up the 12′ hole differently than we directed. Then then bank collapsed. No one was hurt thankfully.

    We finally found out that he was an alcoholic and trying to get the framer sub and our guys to drink with him while working. He was all over the building, doing things like blowing snow off the roof that was 33′ off grade, with an open excavation below that.

    When I found out about his drinking and connected the dots regarding his perplexing (alcoholic) rages, we checked into the WCB aspect. It turns out in Alberta, we would not be covered at all if he had an accident. Nor would his homeowner insurance cover him as the redevelopment wasn’t his place of residence. Additionally, if one of our workers for example was tripped by him and got hurt, WCB would pay the claim but then likely go after us as we allowed the home owner on a construction site. So if he hurt or killed himself, we could/would be sued. If one of our workers got hurt by him, we would also likely be sued.

    Our guys were pulling their hair out with this guy. I had no choice to issue a letter making it clear he, his family and friends were not permitted on the site until completion and keys were handed over. He had also run out of money and during the same period, we had stopped work as a result. I should mention that when we discussed financials prior to starting, he was insulted that we would infer he might need financing and he told us money was no problem, he didn’t need any. Being Korean, it appeared that saving face was paramount so between us stopping work due to his financial problems (my theory is the BMO loans officers were so insulted by him and his wife that they “lost” the file for retribution to their tirades.) and then banning him from the site, he cancelled our contract so he could have the upper hand in his peer’s minds. We then liened them for 230K.

    Fact was we were losing money on his job and he did us a favour. Especially as the $50,000 deposit was forfeit for improper cancellation. They just weren’t worth the hassle to sum it up. Not only did we have to put up with a difficult client but his being on the job meant we lost income because his presence meant we had one less worker generating revenue.

    From now on, we’re using the WCB guildelines not only to save ourselves from potential litigation, but also to save us the hell non-professionals put us through.

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