By Sal Alfano. Once upon a time, two remodeling contractors showed up at the same house in the same week to take care of two different jobs. One company installed a new forced-air heating system; the other mounted an access ladder in the hall ceiling and created a small storage space in the attic. Both had been recommended to the homeowners by friends, and both had other projects under way nearby in the neighborhood. Both worked in the same attic space, although not simultaneously, and both made a distinct impression on the homeowners--also quite different.

The heating contractor first inspected the attic and basement spaces where the furnace and ductwork was to be installed. He presented a fixed-price quote, explained how the work would proceed, and where the ducts and vents would be run. His two-man crew showed up as scheduled and worked two full days until the job was done. The next day, one of the company's supervisors stopped by to show the homeowners how to program the heating controls. Two days later, another company rep arrived just to see how everything was working. He crawled into the attic and made adjustments to better balance the system.

The access ladder contractor didn't look in the attic before presenting his proposal, so his estimated cost of $900 didn't include painting or patching. It also didn't include any electrical work, or any labor needed to move insulation out of the way and to install a plywood subfloor. All of that work would be "extra." A two-man crew showed up as scheduled, cut a hole in the ceiling, and immediately discovered attic wiring that had to be moved out of the way--work that took an electrician the rest of the day to complete. The job was finished the next day, but the top three treads are non-functional because the roof slope interferes with head room. Plus, the plywood storage area is not in front or to the side of someone standing on the ladder--it's behind them. The final bill--I'm not making this up--was nearly three times the estimated price, and the only follow up was by the contractor asking for his money.

This is a true story. I've withheld names and changed some things around to protect both the innocent and the guilty, but the pattern is recognizable enough. All of the good will established by the heating company was completely undone by the stair contractor. One step forward, two steps back.

The threat to the remodeling industry doesn't come from small independent artisans who are more concerned about craft than cash. The most damage these guys ever do is leave homeowners with the impression that remodeling work is cheaper than it really is. But the work they do is unassailable, and they leave homeowners feeling good about the industry.

No, the real damage to the industry is done by the likes of this stair contractor. Too lazy or too busy to properly scope the job, he throws out a rough price based on past jobs and hangs everything else on contingency. He leaves his semi-skilled crew unsupervised, and when they make a mistake, he covers it up with excuses and demands for payment.

Sad to say, there's a little bit of this stair contractor in all of us. Sometimes we're too busy to follow our own policies and procedures. Sometimes the job is so small that we take the easy way out. Sometimes, we're overconfident because we think we've done it all before. And sometimes we forget that quality and craftsmanship are a given--it's customer service that makes and breaks our businesses and our industry.

If this story hit a bit too close to home, it's time to step back and take a look at where and why it started to go wrong.

Sal Alfano, Editor-in-Chief