Category Archives: Home & Hearth

10 Commandments for Covid Times

Surviving Quarantine

Dear Readers:

Reality has settled in with us all. We are locked in without any idea how we will get out, except perhaps by ambulance. We are glued to the news or our phones. We are afraid, bored, worried about what we might run out of, either lonely or frustrated with our live-ins, and unsure how to act in these terrifying and unfamiliar circumstances. We see no end in sight, and are deeply saddened by the idea of a world where gatherings and human touch are a long time from now. We are reading too much scary information online, and spend so much of our days trying to stay germ free. Our hands are raw from washing and we are starting to get more than a little testy. We jump at every little cough and life seems ruled by fear and uncertainty. There is no old normal and the new normal is either terrifying or as yet unknown.

Below are Your JFG’s Ten Commandments for Covid Times:


Commandment 1: Stay home and flatten the curve!!! If you do not have anyone healthier than you who can bring you what you need, put on a facemask and gloves, go out quickly and maintain social distancing. Enough said.


Commandment 2: Trust your doctor. If you start to have symptoms, even mild ones, keep a log of them that you could send your doc efficiently. Take your temperature. Stay in your room and self-isolate if you live with others. If your symptoms do not resolve, contact your doctor about what to do next. Also, be sure your RXs are all filled.


Commandment 3: Be kinder. We are all tense. Sharing one wrong meme that you think is funny and your contacts do not can be a source of friction that will last longer than it should or might in normal times. The gallows humor we are sharing is often funny. The reasons it is here are not. Be softer and gentler every time you interact.


Commandment 4: Prepare, within reason. Like the TP hoarders, we each have some primal impulse to be sure we have enough. This may last many months, but you cannot keep enough of everything you might need in your house. Help ensure everyone will have something.


Commandment 5: Help others. We need the old, the poor, even those with whom we have been feuding politically. Whether you are able to donate food or money or can give your unused sewing machine to a neighbor willing to make masks, look for ways to share. Even putting a sign in your window saying something positive might help another person’s day. Google Margaret Mead’s definition of what defines civilization. Sobering and true.


Commandment 6: Breathe deeply regularly. There is tons of science to support meditation as a regular part of life. But even if you never have, Google stress reduction breathing. You will find all sorts of (conflicting) insights into inhale/exhale patterns like 4/4, 6/2/4, etc. Pick one and do it at least a few times each day or whenever your panic button self-ignites.


Commandment 7: Go on a news diet. What you weigh matters less these days than what you feed your head. Limit yourself to once or twice max a day of news, and read the stories about kindness as often as the scary ones. For medical, health, and safety information, trust only legit sources such as the: CDC, WHO, the Johns Hopkins Data Dashboard, or the state Health Department.


Commandment 8: Embrace beauty. Nature is breaking spring open all around us. Staring at any small piece of it is good for the soul. Search for free museum tours and nature videos. Join any online group that posts pictures of kittens and puppies. Look for beauty, laughter, and non-covid-focused inputs.


Commandment 9: Open your heart. It is terrifying to actually take in all the death and dying on the planet. Like the wildfires last year, the scale is simply beyond us. But it matters that we all feel it at least a little each day, so we can remember that we will need to be different when it is over. Say I love you to everyone you care about. Today and every time you speak to them.


Commandment 10: Believe you will live. Thoughts help make reality. Optimism may seem like a stretch, but wrap yourself in it at waking and bedtime. The rest of us need you around for long time. Say your prayers and make them come true by your actions.


Cooped Up


Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

We are a family of five. Husband, wife, one teen, one pre-teen, and one second-grader. In normal times we are a comfortable middle-class family. We have a nice home and yard. We can telecommute. The older kids know enough about technology to keep us safe and connected to family members far away. We have regular check-ins with them and family meetings at home. Everyone has their own biorhythm, but we have evolved rules of consideration about shower time, music-playing, group activities, keep-quiet zones and times. The kids are engaged with meal planning and prep, and each is in charge of family game night once a week. But we are exactly the messy humans we write about in your book: we get cranky, bored, restless, impatient, annoying, patronizing, and every other trait that would normally drive us out the door. But as good conscientious citizens we are staying home to flatten the curve, and sewing masks for the brave medical and essential workers who are keeping our world afloat. Given that the news suggests we are going to be locking in together for much longer than anyone would want, can you suggest a way to improve communication in our little microcosm?

Cooped Up Mama


Dear Cooped:

If you are like most families, you did a Zoom Seder, likely with variations on the plagues and Four Questions to account for these extraordinary times. Most folks I knew added The Ten Gratitudes to their Seders. If you did not perhaps now is a great time to do so.

One game I know is this. It works great with a whiteboard and or even just putting three sheets of paper on the frig with magnets. Let every family member pick a color and use markers, crayons, or colored pencils. (If you want, stick them in a jar and everyone can pick a new color every day to preserve anononymity.) You, as Mama, are queen of the game, like the host at a bridge table. Label the sheets each morning: Gratitudes, Issues, Solutions. Put 1-10 on each page. Each family member may write up to two things per page. They can self-select the ranking. For example, It makes me CRAZY when so-and-so does such-and-such. But if that complaint is given a 7, it ranks lower than So-and-so spent 20 minutes in the shower and drained the hot water tank.

Another great game is Truth or Dare, also called Two Truths and a Lie. Each person tells three things about him/her-self, only two of which are true. If a person guesses right, they win a special treat, which might be picking the meal t be cooked or ordered in (or something such). Wrong, they get a chore no one wants like cleaning the backroom, or otherwise related to staying in.

If you are looking for group activities, go on the internet, or perhaps better YouTube, and look at what families are doing, from sing-alongs to Rube Goldberg marble chasings. Honestly the idea of trying to master a new language or start a big project sounds beyond most of us in these times, but more power to you if you are inspired. For most of us, getting through the day, from distance-learning schoolwork, connecting with friends by phone or facetime, or watching some TV/movie is enough.

I like starting each day with a list, so I have a sense of having accomplished something. The classic joke is, The first item on your list should be “Make list,” so you have something to cross off. Sadly some days that’s all you may be able to do. We all have low moods and bad mental health days. With your family you may be more acutely aware of symptoms of sadness or grief about how our lives have irrevocably changed or the death of people in your close or distant network. Encourage talking and sharing, crying and feeling all the feelings. The more you can let it out the better for you all.

If you have a mask, go for a safe, socially distancing walk just to get out of the house if you feel it is safe. Or do a little yoga in your yard. Thank God it is spring, and not November. Watch nature come back to life and believe this too will end, and that we very resilient beings will find a way to make a better world after. That may feel like a stretch in bad moods, but believing it will help us all.

Surviving Quarantine!

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Even without knowing your daily life, I know you’re in the same boat as everyone else: locked in with the people they love (and occasionally get furious with) or alone and isolated, with access to the outer world only with phone, text, email, or Skype. I am locked in with a toddler and two teenagers. My sister, who lives close, lives alone. And our parents who are elderly and potentially at high risk live a few miles away. How can we all cope during this crazy time? We’ve already stocked up on basic essentials but there’s a limit to how much money we have to spend and food we can store. Who should check in on my parents? How do I keep the kids from going crazy? What happens if this is really last more than a few weeks? I can work remotely for a while but not forever. And my sister is at the edge of losing a job because her company will go out of business if this goes on for more than a few weeks. My parents are fine now, but each of them has underlying conditions. We don’t want to put them more at risk by visiting, but we worry.

In the Life Boat


Dear Life Boat:

Sadly I can’t solve a global pandemic. But I can give you some handy tips. Let’s focus on your parents first since they are the high risk factor. Check in with they daily by phone to keep their spirits up. That can rotate between you and your children. Skype is even better, and allows you a visual as well as verbal check in. Have them take their temperatures regularly. Do whatever immune boosting they can do, from plain old vitamin C to whatever herbal concoctions they can find or believe in. Make sure they drink lots of water, eat chicken soup, and fo everything they would do if they already had a cold. And if there’s ever a sign of a real fever or flu get a virtual doctor to tell them what to do next.

As from amusing yourself and your children, the Internet is proliferating with virtual tours of everything from museums to nature. There’s binge watching of course. Lots of great lists are proliferating. Learn new games. You and your kids can figure out how to do something you’ve never done before like art or music. Meditate together. Books are fabulous, as an individual or read-aloud activity. Let them have as much Facebook or Skype contact with friends as they want but being absolutely, 100%, zero exceptions cruel and relentless about no, none, No I said No, in person contact with others for at least two weeks. And then limit listening to whatever the guidelines are after that. Flattening the curve is a start, but this is going to last. I was distressed to realize all the early Passover displays around here translated to, This could be a while.

Your sister should be looking for a gig economy remote work now. This is going to change our entire social and economic structure. And it’s going to take a very long time to recover. So whatever she can do long distance now will likely be something that can contribute to her income later. People who alive alone face different challenges than people who are cooped up together. But if she has online interest groups, now’s the time to visit them regularly. When she’s done looking for work, she can do something like learning bridge which you can do online 24/7. By the way, when people have seemingly infinite time, we tend to be much less productive, so be sure to talk to her daily too and ask what she has been up to. A little accountability helps us all.

Beyond handwashing and prayer, I think of the three Ws as salvation: water, wifi, walking. As long as you can keep yourself hydrated, amused, and exercised, you can make it through this process. That’s assuming you have shelter and medical insurance, but those I cannot solve either. When evening comes, indulged in the new fad drink: the Quarantini. It must include vitamin C crystals. Beyond that, feel free to experiment with whatever keeps your spirits up.

We’re all in this together even though we’re all experiencing it separately. So do your best to keep your neighbors healthy and hope they’ll do the same for you. This is a time when we find out what we’re made of. With luck we will all make it through. Stay safe.

A Nosh of Jewish Wisdom: Kind words are like honey: sweet to the soul and health for the bones.

(Maybe) A Hoarder

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I am a garage sale junkie. I have spent a decade filling up my garage
with “finds” that I know would cost me a lot if I had to buy them. But
now my husband wants to create a workshop and I need to
consolidate. I have acquired many beautiful picture frames, the kind
that would cost a lot in a frame store. I have also finally started to
take my painting hobby more seriously. Don’t laugh or freak out but I
probably have a hundred of them, many more than I could fill even if
my art were good enough to display, which it is not yet–but might
become. I’ve donated a lot of the other junk to charities, but I don’t
want to give up on my dream of a show. I promised Hubby I would
listen to you. Do I need to trim by more than half?

(Maybe) A Hoarder

Dear Maybe/Hoarder:

While replacement cost is generally a good decision-making tool for
what to stash in one’s garage or attic, keeping a lot of junk (especially
flammable material) that one doesn’t need is a hoarding symptom.
Even if Hubby wasn’t asking for space, doing an annual clean out is a
good reality check on what’s worth keeping and what might be worth
putting in a garage sale of your own.

Most non-professional shows are hung in small restaurants, coffee
houses, or arts collectives. Even a relatively big show might have
twenty pieces. I’d suggest taking your favorite frames, and perhaps
those that are considered standard sizes for which you could get some
pre-cut mats, and hanging a show in your own home of your dozen
favorite paintings. Take a wall and treat this project like it matters.
Seeing your art hung will give you perspective and invite feedback
from family and friends. After a few weeks, rotate a few of the
paintings. Then cut your frame hoard in half; if you haven’t gotten a
show in the world by next year, do it again. Be sure to look for a local
arts organization that works with the young to donate what you don’t
keep. With schools doing less, we all need to do more to engage
growing imaginations.

Weighted Down

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

What do you do when you are given not just one but two first, and you like
neither of them? A good friend asked me to read a book with her that I have zero
interest in (it is non-fiction, about topics I don’t care about, and is a small-print
paperback unfit for my aging eyes). She also gave me a piece of pottery heavy
enough to serve as a boat anchor, that I am serious considering using as a
doorstop. She kept asking if I liked them, saying none of her other friends like her
gifts, so what was I to do? I was more honest about the book, and said how
much I liked the art. I’m in divesting mode, not acquiring mode. Now what?

Weighted Down

Dear Weighted Down:

It’s awkward to reject a gift outright, especially when the giver is sitting there
asking you directly. Demurring on the book was a wise choice, as time is
especially precious as we age. I would wait a few weeks, but before the next time
you see her, return the book and say you simply don’t have the time to devote to
it. Tell her that you’re willing to co-read a book and talk about it, but you want it to
be a book you both agree on.

Re the pottery, keep it displayed for a while when she is around so she sees that
you value it. Then you can “disappear” it quietly. If she notices you can say that a
dear friend was visiting and loved it on sight, and asked if you would give it to her
for her birthday. It is what we used to call a white lie, which is technically a lie, but
will protect your friend’s feelings. Before the next gift-giving occasional talk about
your desire to downsize, and say you’re asking friends to pledge experiences,
not gifts, as time goes on.

Momma Wife

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Everyone in my family relies on me and I am going a little nuts from
having zero time to myself. My husband is 20 years older and
medically dependant on me. My two adult children seem to be in
constant crisis with their own health, finances, jobs, and children. The
phone doesn’t stop with needy requests. I feel a little like I am being
eaten alive. I cannot remember the last time I sat with a book in my
garden and relaxed. The closest I get to quiet time is when I volunteer
to cook and serve at the senior brunches at the synagogue. Can you
help me find me again?

Momma Wife

Dear Momma Wife:

Bear with me on the math. There are 168 hours in a week, minus approximately
70 for sleep, showering, brushing your teeth etc. In the remaining 100 hours each
week, I am suggesting that you figure out a way to carve out 10% of them for
you. Just for you. No phone, email, caretaking, problem-solving, listening to
whining, or doing for anyone else but yourself. That comes to about one and a
half hours a day. For you. Repeat you.

For your own mental health, which everyone around you seems to rely on, you
are going to have to figure out how to do it. And I’m not talking snatches of time,
five minutes here or there. I’m talking about a solid chunk, a minimum of 30
minutes at a time. If you nap, nap. Meditate, do yoga, whatever rocks your boat.
Or just take whatever book you are longing to read to a coffee shop and have a
cappuccino while you sit there basking in the quiet or chatter or people who are
not depending on you to solve their problems. Start there, and then when you
have more fortitude write me again and we can talk about boundaries and more
levels of self-care.

Got My Own Priorities

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m in a pickle. I made a commitment to take care of my sister’s
apartment while she was camping. But my husband and I just won a
fabulous weekend away at an exclusive gourmet food festival. It
includes everything from fancy dinners to a truffle hunt and visits to
local gourmet food processors. But her tenant just called to say there’s
water coming down from above and it is a plumbing emergency. The
only plumber I trust (learned the expensive painful hard way during
the last emergency, aaargggh) has the flu. My sister runs at the edge
of deficit financing (yes I know she shouldn’t be in the rental business
but she says it’s her “only shot at retirement and better than the stock
market!!”). She thinks I’m going to solve this cheap, but I think she
has to do things right, once and for all. I don’t want to ruin my fun and
I can’t afford to pay for her rental issues. What’s fair?

Got My Own Priorities
Dear Got My Own:

Emergencies happen, and owning real estate, rental or not, is only a
guarantee that you will end up supporting plumbers, electricians,
carpenters, roofers, etc. If Murphy’s Law still rules, and experience
suggests that it does, things will almost always go wrong in the worst
possible way, at the most inconvenient time, and will cost you more
than you prefer to spend, as well as involve discomfort and possibly
dislocation. In the short run, you are your sister’s keeper, and by
extension, the keeper of her property. But in the long run, the wallet
that will be dinged is hers.
Find the plumber who can stop the damage ASAP. Get a written
estimate/quote and try to stay below that, though the reality is that
until the water stops flowing you won’t really know what damage it has
caused. Text your sister ASAP and explain, asking her to check in as
soon as she gets the message. Being incommunicado simply means
she trusts your judgment. If she complains about cost or process, she
can find an alternate backup next time. Go on your weekend and have
fun, once you’ve turned it over to the plumber. And keep your cell
phone on for either or both to check in.

No Hot Water

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Can you help me with a contractor problem, please? I work with a
handyman type guy who is a MacGyver sort. There is literally nothing
he has not worked on at my house, from the irrigation system to
painting, deck and stonework to bathroom electrical. A long time I ago
I stopped counting his hours and he stopped charging me by the hour.
When I ask what I owe him, I wrote a check for what he says. I have
never been disappointed or felt taken advantage of, and he has come
to my rescue in a couple situations when I escaped big damage
because of his timely arrival. But he installed my new dishwasher in a
manner that protrudes from under the countertop, and does not allow
the bottom bin to slide out easily. The original install was fraught with
problems, because the owner-builder I bought the place from had
jerry-rigged the plumbing. When I asked him to fix it, there was,
again, one complication after another. Am I obligated to pay twice for
the same job? I like him, and want to continue to use him, but I think
his personal problems have intruded on his work.

No Hot Water

Dear No Hot Water:

Not having hot water and in the proverbial hot water are both
situations we try to avoid. You’re describing what sounds like an
ongoing relationship with the kind of guy most of us long to find:
someone skilled, reliable, and versatile who is a good problem solver
and unafraid to correct the mistakes of others. I’d be generous, not
scrupulous in your dealings with him. Continue to pay him what he
asks, and express your appreciating by feeding him when he’s around,
giving him little gifts of baked goods, and a bottle of something for his

I promise that the day he retires you will feel as badly as if you’ve
gotten divorced or had to put down a pet. If you’ve established trust,
rely on it rather than breaking it. If the same feelings come up again,
ask how he’s doing and if everything is okay. Then decide if you need
to act differently. But for now, be kind and continue to write checks.

In the Middle

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Long complicated story much shorter: I used a contractor last year for
a major remodel. Call him Nathan. This past winter my friend Beth and
her husband Mark needed a new deck and walkway done. Nathan gave
them an estimate but was very clear he couldn’t pin down total cost
until he tore off the old one and saw if there was any dry-rot to the
supports, etc. They went ahead and used him. He told me he really
liked Beth but that Mark was a pain in the patootie and kept asking
him do to “just one more thing” several times. He failed to say, That’s
an add-on” or “That’ll cost more.” And just did the work. He told me
that he did about $1500 in extra labor, but when he told them that at
the end of the project, Mark would not pay him. He sounded very dark
about Mark’s recent vacation and Mark’s new car. I was horrified, and
said, I’ll talk to Beth. He said he had no hard feelings with her and it
was “water under the bridge” and that he has “moved on.” I think he
does not want me to bring it up. But Beth and I used to be close, and
even though we don’t see each other very often now, I feel somewhat
responsible for Nathan not getting paid. Should I shut up or speak to
her? PS a mutual friend says this is a pattern of Mark’s, schnorring
even people he knows far better.

In the Middle

Dear In the Middle:

You’re bearing guilt that you are not going to be able to easily get rid
of. Ultimately it was Nathan’s responsibility to say something at the
time like, That’s an add-on. or That’s work that’s outside the scope of
what we discussed. It’ll cost approximately $xyz more, at an hourly of
$xy. Ideally to protect both homeowner and contractor, there should
have been a written bid, or at least an estimate, with terms about
payment for materials and the hourly rate documented. As well as the
initial scope of the work. In the absence of either an original and/or an
amended description, Mark may feel as right as you do on Nathan’s



If the friendship matters to you, you have two choices. One: move
past it without saying anything to Beth, because Nathan seems to
have done so. Or, two, say something because it is bothering you,
without having any expectation that the situation will change. The
latter is more troublesome, because you are transferring your angst
onto their relationship. If you do say something, limit it to what you
know directly, not what you have been told about other situations. But
don’t expect to be satisfied by the convo.

Free, For Now

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I lived with my ex for twelve years after a long engagement. It took
me far too long to extricate myself from the marriage. Fortunately the
house had always been in my name and he did not contest ownership,
even though I had built him a small cottage on my property so we
wouldn’t be under the same roof every day. I have ten acres of
country property, so there were advantages to having someone else to
feed the pets and help out with property care. But I have loved living
on my own.


Now my contractor has asked if he can build an eco-
friendly model cottage on a different part of my property, and use it
for marketing as an example of what he could build for others. He
doesn’t have any land of his own to build it on, and says I could use it
as I please, unless he is showing it, assuming I pay for materials. All
his labor is free. I like the benefits, but am wary of having strangers
coming in and out of my place on someone else’s schedule. Is this just
a bad idea?

Free, For Now

Dear Free, For Now:

This is an issue that requires a contract. Repeat: c.o.n.t.r.a.c.t.
Without a written agreement about who is responsible for what, and
who has access when, this is a scenario that has catastrophe written
all over it. The saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” came
about for a reason. You may hope for the best but that will be a very
thin layer of protection if or when things unravel.

Before you agree to the cottage, ask yourself what benefits you will
gain. For example you might like another guest cottage, or art studio,
or have another use for it. All good. Ask what you would be willing to
pay for that benefit without the contractor involved and what the offset
is worth. Think not only in dollars, but also in terms of privacy,
schedules, and generalized aggravation. Then think about ways to
protect yourself. Will there be a time limit on this, as in how long does
he have access, or how often and when? A budget cap, so that if the
project runs over his original bid (very common, assume 30%) you are
protected? Will he commit that no one will sleep there, including him?
To have a lock-box like a for-sale house would, and to get your sign
off on scheduling? Those are a paltry few of the things to consider. You
may be friends with your contractor now. But to ensure this remains
good, be sure to build a quit-claim clause in that keeps things explicit.
The money you spend on a lawyer now will save you grief later.


Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I feel ripped off by a contractor. For years I’ve been wanting to retile
my kitchen. I spent a lot of time picking the product and worked with
the sales person at a high-end store to identify people who were good.
Of the three she recommended (him number one) I liked him the best,
even though his bid was a hundred dollars more than the lowest. I had
confidence in him; his schedule worked well with mine and he seemed
prompt and reliable. Because of the product I chose it has an informal
look (beach tiles in multi hues). But some of the pieces were clearly
deformed and of course ended up right where my eye falls naturally
near my toaster and coffee-maker. I feel he should not have used
them, as he left me with a full extra sheet. He also charged me $100
for shipping that hadn’t been on his original bid. The irony is that he
did the work six weeks after we ordered the product so clearly there
was no need for the extra shipping cost, but since I wanted him to
come back and fix the flaws, as he said he would, I paid it. Ten weeks
later has not responded to my voicemail or email, so I’m just feeling
especially angry. Do I have any redress?


Dear Aggravated:

Continue to haunt him, though there’s no guarantee that if he does the
work over, he’ll do it any better than he did it the first time. Send a
written complaint to the store about his lack of responsiveness. Be
very explicit about your attempts to call and contact him. You might
talk first to the sales person who helped you and who recommended
him. Say how disappointed you were, how ripped off you feel, and that
you feel that it is inappropriate for you to have had to pay more
money for shipping. Say you think this reflects on the store as well
and that unless she can get you satisfaction by having him at least
replace to your satisfaction you’ll be passing a negative review onto
Yelp and your friends about him and the store.


In future, when dealing with any kind of contractor, be very explicit
about the difference between an estimate, a bid, and a contract. If the
price document includes “not to exceed $xyz without signed written
consent of both parties” you have some greater protection. In this
case you got held hostage and it’s harder to play catch-up.

Holding Zone

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I bought a house that was very undervalued because it needed about
$50K of work. I managed to get a set of short-term bridge loans, and
an agreement from a mortgage broker that if I made all the needed
repairs (various aspects of siding, roof, foundation, plumbing, floors;
yeah I know!) by December 10, that I could qualify for a traditional
mortgage that would be large enough to pay back all the intermediate
loans, give me capital to finish the remaining house projects, and a
monthly rate I can afford. I need to make this deadline!!! The man
who was commissioned to complete all the cabinets (kitchen bath,
laundry, plus) swears he will have everything done within ten days.
That leaves me down to the wire re getting in flooring and
countertops. I need him to be on time! Is there some magic leverage
you know of to make a contractor keep to their word?

Holding Zone

Dear Holding Zone:

The time to exert leverage is when you are negotiating, not after the
fact. You can try this idea retroactively, but next time build it into your
contract, as in bid not estimate. The word difference is huge in the
trades. You should always try to have a written bid with all verbal
agreements noted in them.

In get folks to meet deadlines, be sure to have a penalty percent built
into the agreement. X% less pay if the work is delivered y days or
week late. Some people may not sign such a contract. Others may
give you shoddier work. Only you can evaluate the relative merits of
those risks. At this point in the process I would go the other way. Offer
an incentive (probably cash not cookies) for on-time delivery.


Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I started a construction project on an hourly basis. I told the
contractor what my budget was and he assured me he could get the
project done for what I could afford to pay. We have made a few small
design changes along the way, but nothing major. He comes to me
regularly for money like a heroin addict looking for a fix. Do I have any
recourse other than paying him?


Dear Half-Done:

When you pay for work in the trades, there is a huge difference
between an estimate and a bid. I’m not an attorney, but generally an
estimate is a finger pointing in the direction of a completed project,
while a bid is a commitment to complete the work for the bid price.
Depending on the nature of the project and the character of the
contractor, he might do inferior work to keep the project at or under or
bid price, and a provide better product if you are paying hourly (as in,
more). But more money doesn’t ensure better quality. It’s all a
function of whom you hire. Without a signed bid, you’ll have to work it
out with your current contractor or find a new person to finish things
up. References before your begin are your best step next time.

Single Homeowner

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Please don’t laugh. My contractor and I are turning to you the way the
two self-declared mothers turned to King Solomon. Whatever you say,
we will do. That’s true even if neither of us agrees with your advice,
because we can’t agree with one another. Here’s the scoop: Three
plus months ago I started a backyard remodel project. New retaining
walls and replacement decking. I told Ludwig (my contractor) my
budget. Along the way he suggested and I agreed to add-ons and
changes (primarily invisible and structural) and I decided on upgraded
materials (composite decking and natural stone). In addition, I started
adding a long list of “honey do” items to the list: everything from
putting in new toilets and upgrading electrical outlets to digging in
plants and fixing an outdoor water feature. He’s close to done and
refusing to accept more money from me. I feel about this guy the way
you would about your favorite brother. I don’t want him working for
free, which it sounds like he does for many other people. I want to be
able to call him again when I need him. But mostly I respect and
appreciate him and want to show it with money. I think I owe him
close to $1,500.

Single Homeowner

Dear Homeowner:

I’m no Solomon but I do have a simple solution. Buy him a hefty gift
card from your local version of Home Depot. I’m talking $500 or
something large and beguiling that no man who makes a living with
tools could resist. Every contractor I know has a garage full of toys
and a secret lust list for more of them. That ensures he will be repaid
for at least part of his time.

Put the gift card in a note card that says roughly, Ludwig: I cannot
repay all the wonderful things you have done for me. But I want to try.
Enclosed is a gift card for tools. Go play!! Also include a check for
$1,000. I cannot compel you to cash it now, but even if you do not, I
want you to keep it for lean times between jobs. That way I’ll know
you’re always going to be happy and healthy when I call you again,
which you know I will do when my honey-do list gets long enough
again. He may protest, and you cannot compel him to cash the check
now. But one day he will. That’s when you should call for him to do
more work for you again, unless you have a homeowner crisis sooner.
Guys like him are more valuable than gold. Congrats on finding him.

Not Doing It Myself

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Do you have any good rules for working with contractors? I just saw a
friend pay thousands to a “general contractor” during a kitchen
remodel when she did virtually all the work herself making decisions
and scheduling the various cabinet, counter, tile etc specialists. I have
strong opinions about what I want and am not shy about expressing
them, but I also know that single women are sometimes taken
advantage of by car salesmen and contractors. I have a budget and I
have done my research. It’s just a matter of whose hands do the
actual work. I also have the brains to know that they won’t be mine.

Not Doing It Myself

Dear Not Doing:

The more complicated the remodel, the more specialists you are going
to have deal with. The reason people use a general contractor is to
coordinate them, not just who does what when but to make sure that
all the pieces fir in the right places in the right way. A general
contractor is paid to make sure that happens. You can try to play that
role, but if you do you increase the risk that fingers pointed after
something goes wrong will be pointed at you.

My suggestions: Avoid using the person you think took too much from
your friend. Interview people who come re commended by other
friends. Sit down with them after you take the following steps. Talk on
the phone and describe your project. Send an email describing
everything from your time frame to your preferences in materials. Give
them links to websites, pictures of what you like, and identify specific
things unique to your project they would need to know. Then who they
use for specific subcontracting tasks, and for a bid for each phase of
the work. Note that a bid and an estimate are very, very different. A
bid means the contractor is obligated to perform the work for that
price. An estimate is a finger pointing in the direction of costs, which
can go much higher. Also have them identify any mark-up percentage
they add to the subs’ work, and identify their own fees.

Virtually every construction or remodel project ends up costing more
than originally estimated. It also ends up taking longer. The best
advice is this: work with a contractor you like and trust, preferably one
that comes with references from people you know, and whose projects
you can look at with your own eyes. Then be around as much as
possible while the work is done and have regular communication with
the contractor. It’s a fine dance between being involved and being a
pest. The old sign in the auto shop says it best: Fast, right, cheap –
pick any two.