Contractors have a way of giving great deals to customers while they cheat themselves.

Among the many hassles of uprooting one's residence is the need to establish new business relationships with all the people you rely on to keep up the household. When my wife and I moved last fall, we regretted leaving behind the fine plumbing, electrical and auto repair firms that had earned our confidence over the 16 years we lived in our old community. First, we had to pass through a period of trial and error with businesses we'd never patronize again. In our new community, we're back to that uncomfortable stage.

So it was with a sense of dread that I went searching for an electrical contractor last spring to install three ceiling fans and an upgraded light fixture we had purchased for the new condo we've called home since last October. Sorry, all you folks who pay thousands of dollars a month for Yellow Pages advertising, but I don't play YP roulette. That's the last place I would go shopping for home services. Instead, I asked a plumbing contractor friend for a recommendation.

His favorite electrical contractor almost lost my business before it began by not returning my phone call. Finally, after a couple of days of dangling, we connected just hours before I was about to renew my search.

We arranged the work for last May 21, and I was quite pleased with the performance. The electrician turned out to be the owner's son, a personable and mature young man. He showed up on time, worked efficiently, cleaned up afterward, and everything he installed works just dandy. When he was done, I asked him if I could pay with a credit card, and he politely informed me I'd receive a bill in the mail.

On June 30, I finally received an invoice for his services. No complaint about this, either. In fact, I expected to be charged about 50 percent more.

As a homeowner, I got a great deal. Yet, as one whose livelihood makes me a soul mate of trade professionals, it's disheartening to experience yet another example of the self-defeating trade mentality.

Here's a contractor who leaves a satisfied customer in his wake, but takes more than five weeks to send a bill for his services, which he undersells by about half. He shuns credit cards no doubt because it galls him to pay the 2-3 percent vigorish, yet fails to realize he's debiting his cash flow by at least the same amount through lackadaisical billing along with added paperwork and postage. The invoice didn't state any due date, and I bet if I were so inclined I could've gone months without paying before anyone bothered to follow up. (Showing more respect for his business than the contractor himself, I paid the bill a couple of days after receiving it.)

Both the plumbing and electrical fields are filled with hard-working, well-meaning, highly skilled trade workers who don't have a clue about how to run a business. We hear a lot about home repair rip-offs, but even more prevalent are contractors so eager to please their customers, they end up cheating themselves.

Shortly after the job described here, my daughter needed some electrical work in her house in an adjacent town. I referred her to the same contractor. She made two phone calls that were never returned, and ended up hiring someone else. Hers is business lost forever. Nor will she ever recommend this firm to anyone else.

Sheesh. What is it that makes so many contractors allergic to telephones? People complain about this more than anything else when it comes to dealing with home repair firms. Maybe you can't expect immediate contact when dealing with one- or two-person shops, but it's these small contractors whose competitive edge is supposed to be friendly, personalized service. It's neither friendly nor personal to ignore phone calls or put off returning them for days. The "too busy" excuse doesn't cut it. There's sufficient dead time between jobs or after the last one of the day to get back to people who are interested in spending their hard-earned money with you.

Even if you have more work than you can handle, it's discourteous and shortsighted to ignore people trying to do business with you. The caller who gets put off could be an influential VIP, or someone with the most lucrative job of a lifetime.

Opportunity always takes a back seat to those too busy chasing their tails.