Cheap Is As Cheap Does

I was at a daughter’s house recently when she talked about an HVAC service firm that a day before had fixed her balky air conditioning system amid the sweltering summer heat. It was a company I recommended to her because I knew the owner and had used their services. My daughter spoke about how pleased she was with the company’s performance. They were not the cheapest company around but she didn’t mind paying a little more for excellent service and technical expertise.

What’s a fair price for home service work? You can find outliers on both ends. Some companies stretch the ceiling, while others are low-ballers and most land somewhere in between. Whether a price is high, low or middling, the real issue is the value provided.

Homeowners may think they are getting a bargain when they hire the cheapest firm around to do their work, but as someone with almost half a century of experience as a home owner, I am telling you that for critical projects, I would rather take my chances with the most expensive company in a market than the cheapest.

You wouldn’t expect to pay the same price for a fully-loaded SUV than you do for a bare-bones compact vehicle. Likewise, some trade firms charge more for their services because they provide greater value. They do things like guarantee their work – coming back to fix something at no extra charge if something goes wrong. They dispatch service people quickly, sometimes within an hour. They provide their technicians with clean vehicles and uniforms and leave job sites cleaner than they found it when their work began. They carry all the required licenses and insurance. (You’d be shocked to know how many fly-by-night companies skip the legalities while advertising low prices to homeowners. If they get caught, they simply go out of business and open up again with a new name.)

I’ve learned over the years that dealing with the cheapest firm in any business is usually a losing proposition in the long run. The cheapest home service firms seldom can respond quickly to household emergencies. Often they are hard to reach, with a recording asking you to leave a callback number and then they may not get back to you for days, if at all. Their work tends toward bubble-gum repairs because they can’t afford to lose time checking everything out and using top-grade materials. Usually, the homeowner has to clean up after them because they are too busy rushing to the next job to leave a job site cleaner than they found it.

Most relevant of all to those of you exploring the trades, the higher-priced companies tend to pay their technicians well. They attract the highest caliber people and train them not only in the required mechanical skills but make sure they are helpful, polite and friendly to the customers they deal with every day. Many of their technicians earn six-figure annual incomes. These are the firms you want to work for.

The next time someone tells you a certain company is a “rip-off” because they charge higher prices than most competitors, ask them to detail their service experience. In most cases you’ll find them saying everything went fine, they just charge too much.

These are firms you want to work for. They are the ones that will provide a decent income and benefits.