It was a pleasant dinner party last July, hosted by the president of the company that employs my wife. He had an elegant home in a plush Chicago suburb but the backyard was not all that spacious, so the 50–60 guests mingled elbow-to-elbow while enjoying outdoor cocktails. At one point about 10 of us were standing in a somewhat circular array when the chit-chat turned to remodeling projects.

Everyone in this affluent crowd had a contractor horror story. One told of a sloppy painter who used the underside of new carpeting to blot up spills. Then there was the couple who were left cold by their new hot tub that took forever to fill because, I surmised, the installer connected it to the original half-inch supply piping. Gripes abounded of escalating costs, of promises unkept, of phone calls unreturned.

I listened, and even contributed a tale of my own dating back to a major renovation in our old home some 20 years ago — before I had learned what I now know about dealing with contractors. But as the wailing and gnashing grew meaner and more unreasonable, it reached a point where I felt compelled to share my hard-won wisdom, as well as stick up for my trade buddies. Here is what I had to say.

Cause & Effect: “You know what caused all of our bad experiences? Competitive bidding, that’s what.

“Everybody wants a first class job, but nobody wants to pay a first class price. Instead, everyone blindly follows that silly old rule about getting three or more quotes.” (Several heads nodded.) “That’s bullbleep. Contractors have learned that the only way they can win a job is to quote a price so low they can’t possibly make any money. So that’s what they do. Then once they land the job, they cut corners or pile on extras in order to make a buck.

“If you insist on taking bids, don’t take the one in the middle like everyone tells you to do. Most of the time you’d be better off going with the highest bidder. He’s probably the only one who’s built enough into the price to do the job right. You’d also be wise to invest an extra $500 to have an architect or interior designer draw up a set of plans so that everyone is bidding apples to apples.

“Better yet, don’t even shop for quotes. Ask around, do some background checking, inspect some projects, but find yourself a contractor you have confidence in and let him name his price. If it’s more than you can pay, ask what can be done to bring it down. But don’t expect someone else to give you the same job at a lower price and then expect top-notch quality.

“You’ve all heard the expression, ‘You get what you pay for.’ None of you would go shopping for luxury goods in a bargain basement store. But that’s what everyone seems to do when it comes to home remodeling.

“I know a lot of contractors, and as a group they are no more dishonest than any other businessmen. It’s just that competitive bidding forces them to play games even when they want to do right by the customer.”

Class Bigotry: I felt like saying more. Everyone present had a six-figure income, and I sized up many of them as class bigots. You see, most white collar professionals don’t think twice about overpaying people just like themselves. They only get their dander up about plumbing and auto repairs and other blue collar work. So I was tempted to get sarcastic about the ridiculous prices they routinely pay in legal fees, for insurance, for pet doctors, for their kids’ dance lessons. But Jenny had to work with these people, so I bit my tongue.

Besides, class bigotry works in both directions. The white collar world places a high value on image and salesmanship, which most people from blue collar backgrounds think undignified. The typical contractor’s sales pitch amounts to: “Here’s my price, this is what you’ll get, now leave me alone to do my work.”

It is my firm belief that plumbing and heating contractors are terribly undervalued in the eyes of the public. I am just as convinced, though, that a large share of the blame lay with yourselves.

Quality work will not sell itself. The average person can’t distinguish between crap and craftsmanship until the job is done and it’s too late. You have to pre-sell people on the value and benefits of doing business with you. You have to explain why you are worth as much as you want to get paid. You must make people want to do business with you even before they know why. Like it or not, this requires selling skills. And, like it or not, you need to learn to schmooze with people.

It’s the only way to get beyond the realm of competitive bidding and into a world where a little sanity prevails.