I must be the biggest donkey on Earth because I just spent an egregious amount on a handyman to fix some things. I’ve had a funky bathroom window that would not close properly for years in my main San Francisco rental. I tried to fix it, but couldn’t. My tenants never complained over the years, so I let it be. The window is in a small bathroom without a vent, so having the window slightly cracked open helps relieve moisture.
Then one fine summer day my tenant’s neighbor below decided to start grilling on their little deck. Smoke would waft into the bathroom and through the rest of the apartment. So when my tenant texted me to fix the window, I said “no problem” and found a handyman on Craigslist immediately. He is actually a licensed contractor on Craigslist with “no job too big or too small.” In retrospect, I used a sledge hammer to push in a thumbtack.
He stopped over to visit my tenant directly and gave an estimate for $225. I told my tenant to tell the handyman everything else she’d like fixing while he was there besides the window. She mentioned a broken dimmer switch, and a faucet cap that needed replacing. Perfect. Fixing three things in one visit every year or two isn’t that bad.
Although $225 sounded steep at the time, I agreed to the estimate because I figured he would take at least an hour to do all the work, buy the parts, and commute back and forth for two visits. I was also happy to not have to physically go out there and meet the handyman for either visit. I asked the handyman whether I could get a discount if the work took less than a couple hours, and he said it was flat fee. Fine.
I told my tenant to tell me how long he took to fix everything so I could see whether I was getting my money’s worth. She texted back, “Maybe 15 minutes, no more.”
Damn! What a moron I am!
During my correspondence with the handyman, I told him I was planning on building a deck and expanding a bathroom in my house. I needed to hire an architect and a general contractor to do the work, and he was welcome to stop by after the rental property work was done to give me an estimate. He sounded enthusiastic.
Part of the reason why I highlighted a bigger project was to help keep him honest from gauging me on the small job. Although I don’t have a problem affording $225, I just don’t like getting taken advantage of. I’m a frugal person who likes to get a deal and the most value out of a product or service just like anybody else.
The job shouldn’t have cost more me more than $100 (one hour total commute time, $25 in parts, let’s say one hour of labor). In other words, I feel like I was robbed by $125. Yes, I should have spent more time searching for someone cheaper if I really wanted to save money. But given the infrequency of these fixes, the fact that I thought the work would take at least an hour based on his guidance, and all that I have going on right now with my existing house, I was willing to pay a premium just to have these problems off my plate. I was just hoping the handyman would have given me a discount given it took him only 15 minutes.
The handyman said he was planning to come to my new house to check out the scope of the project. The first thing I did was text him to make sure he’s not charging me for the visit! Although I am annoyed I overpaid, I still had him come out to give me an estimate because more estimates are better than fewer when doing remodeling work. Furthermore, I want to get my money’s worth from him.
His problem is that I am completely biased against hiring him to do the job. He might have a 2% chance of being the winning contractor due to his $225 charge for 15 minutes of work. As a result, he is probably going to miss out on $20,000 – $30,000 in net profits over a couple months.
To be thorough, it wasn’t just his overcharge, but his last-minute rescheduling with me and my tenant, and then lying about why he had to reschedule that reduced his chances to 0% for building my bathroom and decks. He originally said he couldn’t make it to the scheduled appointment because he had to stay back in Marin County to finish a job. Then inexplicably, he came clean that evening and said that actually his fuel injection in his old trucked needed fixing. He then proceeded to call me an obsessed 10 times over the next three days to schedule a follow up.
I’m not sure what it is when dealing with some electricians, builders, painters, and plumbers, but they seem to all be focused on short-term profits at the expense of longer term gains. If I wasn’t gouged, I’d happily pay them more to work on other properties I own. I’d also happily write them a glowing review online or refer them to many friends who also need work done. But the folks I’ve encountered all have this, “I need to get mine, and I need to get it quickly as possible,” mentality.
I candidly asked an electrician about this mentality, and he said that it’s because work is not steady. “It’s feast or famine in our line of work. We never know when we’ll get our next job.” This is despite the fact that he makes $150,000 a year as a union electrician!
I understand the cyclicality of business given I see 20-35% online traffic swoons between summer months and the rest. But I also know plenty of good trades people, architects, lawyers, private doctors, etc. who are so busy I can’t even get on their calendar for months sometimes. The reason? They are great at what they do, their prices are fair, and they have an unending stream of referrals from happy customers.
Referrals and glowing online reviews are a goldmine for any business. I definitely won’t be referring this handyman to anyone. I definitely won’t be referring my electrician who says he’s only charging me three hours of work for the day, and then calls me at the end of the day while I am still at work, saying he’s been there all day and will bill me accordingly. My handyman who earned $225 should be the wealthiest handman in SF. But he can’t afford to fix his beater truck and leaves in the boonies.
My #1 business advice is this: Think in three-to-five year chunks. Whatever you do today, focus on the rewards 3-to-5 years from now. That way, you’ll focus more on doing the right thing, and not focus so much about extracting as much money as possible from your clients.
For the first two years, I practically wrote for free on ONIG Financial Blog. Making money was not the focus and will likely never be the focus. Building a community and getting to know interesting folks is always going to be my #1 priority.
Only after the second year did I pay more attention to monetization because I was itching to do something other than my day job. Two years after leaving and five years after starting this site, I can finally stop worrying about falling into the abyss.
ONIG Financial Blog in 2021 generates over 1.5 million organic pageviews a month. It is a labor of love and provides enough income for me to take are of my family in expensive San Francisco.
Build relationships with your clients over the long-term. Show them more value than you charge today. If you do, you’ll win fans for life who will sing your praises to others.
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About the Author: Sam began investing his own money ever since he opened an online brokerage account online in 1995. Sam loved investing so much that he decided to make a career out of investing by spending the next 13 years after college working at Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse Group. During this time, Sam received his MBA from UC Berkeley with a focus on finance and real estate.
In 2012, Sam was able to retire at the age of 34 largely due to his investments that now generate roughly $250,000 a year in passive income. He is aggressively investing in real estate crowdfunding to arbitrage low valuations and take advantage of positive demographic trends away from expensive coastal cities.
Updated for 2021 and beyond.