As housing prices climb and mortgage loans become costlier and scarcer, more and more people find themselves forced to stay in older houses for longer than they would like. Sooner rather than later, pipes crack, paint peelsand homeowners have to face up to the often traumatic experience of calling in that new aristocrat of the U.S. labor force, the repairman.
Accelerating demand for the repairman's services has turned him into a big businessman; estimates of his yearly volume range up to $12 billion. His business is also the leader in consumer complaints, which are climbing almost as rapidly as the wages of carpenters, plumbers, glaziers and electricians. Typically, the Chicago Better Business Bureau last year counted 2,178 protests against the performance of home remodelers, substantially more than the number of gripes registered against the runner-up, the auto-repair business. Home repair is characterized by maddening delays, shoddy workmanship and startling expense.
To induce a contractor even to come to the house is difficult; if the job involves less than $500, it may be impossible. A Northbrook, Ill., woman who wanted to have the trim and eaves of her brick ranch house painted, called more than a dozen contractors but failed to get so much as an estimate from any of them. A Houston homeowner who accepted a repairman's offer to re-roof his house says: "He showed up two weeks late and immediately demanded an additional $200 for materials. He abandoned us three times, and I had to call and raise hell each time to get him back. After he left, we found the roof leaked, and it cost us another $250 to get it fixed right."
At Their Mercy. Complaining consumers are the victims of a classic economy of scarcity, which enables contractors and repairmen to charge what they please and get away with it. The need for their services is enormous because few homeowners can perform any complex repair jobs themselves. Construction unions make sure that wages stay high by keeping the supply of craftsmen inadequate to meet the demand In the Oakland, Calif , area, the number of union plumbers, currently 900, is actually shrinking because the union is training only ten apprentices this year. Anachronistic spread-the-work rules prevent the most efficient use of the men who are available. An Oakland contractor who is a master plumber, for example, is forbidden to work more than four hours on any one job himself. He must leave the rest of the work to less-expert hired hands.
The labor shortage enables individual repairmen to charge high hourly rates not only for the time they spend working. The $9-an-hour rate quoted by many an independent plumber applies from the time that he answers a homeowner's phone call to the time he returns to his own house after finishing the work. Contractors often charge the homeowner twice as much for hourly labor as they actually pay their workers in wages. They can do so because in many towns the relatively few contractors who can sign up scarce union help are in a near-monopoly position.