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When the Expert Is the Other Man



Like most new millennium uber-women who juggle raising family with social obligations and demanding day jobs, I am capable of handling a good many things. However, when it comes to the world of home repair, the only tools I’m interested in are the 10 manicured appendages I send walking in the yellow pages.

More power to the sista who wields a fierce hammer, but I have never been that girl. Feminist as I may be, I gladly defer all things electrical, structural and boiler related to the brothers. So when it came time for my husband and me to hire a contractor to renovate our recently purchased Brooklyn brownstone, the division of labor was fairly simple. We would both do the interviewing but he would handle all the negotiations and day-to-day dealings. I would stick strictly to the realm of the aesthetic — selecting paint colors; cabinetry, tiles and the Jacuzzi built for two.

It’s a woman thang

This was not to be. In my naivete, I had yet to learn the three basic rules of home renovation: It always costs twice as much as you think it, takes twice as long as they say, and wives are much better than husbands at dealing with the contractor.

I discovered this quickly when each time I’d ask my husband to discuss our desire for anything outside of the original terms of the agreement (and as anyone who’s renovated can tell you, the original terms change all the time) — exposed brick, or a certain kind of tile — and he’d come back with a frustrated “No can do. Not in the budget” from the contractor.

And since I’m not one to take “no” for an immediate answer, I’d call the contractor to find out what we could do instead. To my husband’s amazement I was rarely told “no”. If I didn’t get my original wishes I could always count on something close. After a few weeks of observation, I began to see why. The first step in understanding the complex relationship between husbands and contractors (or husbands and mechanics, or husbands and repairmen, for that matter) has a lot to do with battles for territory and clashes of testosterone.

Clash of the testosterone

Most men think of their homes as their castles (and their wives as their queens). The contractor, with his tools and expensive suggestions can make your man feel like someone’s invading his kingdom. The man with a toolbox rescuing the clueless damsel in distress is an age-old paradigm.

There is something intangibly sensual about a man who fixes things that elicits endless gratitude from a woman. After all those hours spent gleaning the pages of Met Home and Elle Décor and fantasizing about her dream home, a woman tends to see the contractor as “The Man” — the one whose finally going to help her execute those much wrought over plans.

Husbands, on the other hand, look at him as the man who spends an inordinate amount of time with his wife indulging her in her latest (and probably most expensive) obsession. On his time. With his money. This dynamic is bound to elicit all kinds of strange behavior.

“I can do it too” syndrome

Sistas beware of the following symptoms: First there’s the “I can do it too syndrome.” This is the annoying tendency your husband has to forget that you paid the contractor handsomely for his expertise as a licensed professional and try to do his job for him. For example, it took no ends of coaxing, complaining and ultimately coercion on my part, to convince my husband (who has sanded floors once in his life, thank you) that he had no business trying to do our 90-year-old parquet floors. The contractor, I reminded him, doesn’t waltz on a film set, look at him do his job and then attempt to light a film.

Then there’s the “anything he can do I can do better” syndrome. Or faster. Or cheaper. My best friend and I were at dinner discussing her dreams for a new kitchen when her husband insisted that the estimate he received was way too high and that he could “get a brand new kitchen” done for a third of the cost. Never mind that the commercial oven his wife had described cost more than half of what he intended to spend.

Sometimes the outcomes are downright comical, like in the case of my friend who ordered a set of shelves that needed assembling. When she mentioned to her man that she was going to have her contractor do it, he got busy. At least four long hours later and ’nuff complaints about missing part and bogus instructions, he finally finished and looked up at her, beaming. The next day, when her contractor came to work on something else in the house, he took one look at the shelves, laughed and wanted to know who assembled the shelving upside down. Needless to say, the two have not gotten along since.

A little honey in that mix

Ultimately the real power women have is mostly with the difference in our styles. Men tend to talk in terms of the bottom line: How long will it take and how much will it cost. Women know that a little honey — read lots of praise and gratitude — goes a long way with a man, and the contractor is no different.

If the cabinets aren’t exactly right we can point it out but we also know it’s important to mention that wonderful job he did on the floors. And we know that gently expressing how sad you are that you are three weeks past your due date is a great bargaining chip when you also decide that the bathroom could really use some glass shelving.

So here’s the final rule of thumb. Even under the best possible circumstance, renovations (or repairs) are hard on everybody. For your man they require even extra care. So tread lightly on your hubby’s ego during this time. And remember to lavish the contractor’s.