Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Last week I decided the time had come to paint our front porch. It was built two years ago and has had enough time now to cure, or whatever it’s supposed to do, so I figured it would be nice if it finally matched the rest of the house.

I had planned all along to paint the porch myself, but my leg, which I still can’t bend due to an injury, put an abrupt end to that idea. So I decided that unless I wanted the porch to look as if someone wearing a blindfold and drinking a fifth of vodka had painted it, I’d better hire someone else to do it.

There is this online service I’ve used a few times, Service Magic, that finds five-star rated businesses to do just about any kind of work you want. All you have to do is tell them what you’re looking for and what town you live in, and they personally select at least three businesses to contact you.

I decided I’d see if Service Magic could find a good painter for my porch. First, however, I thought I’d better get the porch’s dimensions. So I grabbed a tape measure and headed outside to measure it…at 2:00 in the morning.

The floor of the porch has little gaps between the boards that allow any water on it to drain. The minute I stretched out the tape measure and laid it across one of the long boards, the first 10 inches of tape turned sideways and slipped way down into one of the gaps. When I tried to yank the tape back out, the little metal nub on the end of it tightly wedged itself between the two boards.

I pulled, yanked and tugged, but the tape measure wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, I went into the house, grabbed a butter knife and then viciously attacked the tape measure with it.

By the time I finally got it loose, the thin metal of the measuring tape had more kinks in it than my hair on a humid day.

I took a rock from the small stone wall I’d built next to the porch and plunked it down on the end of the tape measure to secure it so it wouldn’t fall into another crack. My final porch measurement was 33 feet long and eight feet wide, with seven-foot posts. Due to all of the kinks in the tape measure, however, I wouldn’t have staked my life on the accuracy of those measurements.

Still, I figured I had enough information to enter on Service Magic’s online questionnaire. It was 6:55 in the morning when I finally e-mailed my request to them for a painter. My phone rang at 7:00.

“Hi!” the voice said. “You’re looking for someone to paint your porch? When do you want me to come over and take a look at it?”

I was almost too shocked to speak. Finally, I asked him where he was. I half expected him to say he was sitting in his truck at the end of my driveway.

“I’m in the Dover area,” he said. “But I can be there within an hour.”

“I haven’t even been to bed yet,” I said. “I was up all night measuring the porch and un-wedging a tape measure.”

I arranged for him to come over the next afternoon. The minute I hung up, the phone rang again. It was painter number two from Concord. I told him to come over the day after the other guy.

One more painter called, but later that day. I was pleased that three painters had called because someone once told me to always get three estimates for a job and then dump the high guy and the low guy and keep the guy in the middle.

The painter from the Dover area showed up the next day. “I don’t like your yard,” he said the minute he stepped out of his truck.

I narrowed my eyes at him for insulting my yard.

“It slopes right toward the house,” he explained. “Whoever excavated the land did a poor job. I’ll bet you have a basement full of water all the time.”

I frowned. “Well, let’s just say I have to keep an inflatable raft at the top of the stairs.”

“I have to apologize for my appearance,” he added.

I looked at his crisp, clean dress-shirt and pants and wondered why he was apologizing.

“I’m a painter,” he said before I could open my mouth. “I should have my painting clothes on…with paint all over them. I’m not supposed to look like an office manager!”

I wouldn’t have cared if he’d shown up in a dress and high heels, just so long as he was a good painter at a reasonable price.

He checked out the porch, asked me a few questions about stain colors and paint, and then told me the job would take a little less than two days and cost under $500. I thought that sounded pretty reasonable.

The second guy came over the next day and said it would take four days and cost $1,400. I was beginning to get confused.

The third guy came over to check out the porch and said he’d have to do some research on the costs of materials and get back to me with an estimate.

If his estimate turns out to be something like $1,450, that will mean the $1,400 guy will be the middle…at a whopping $900 higher than the lowest guy. And if I stick to the advice to hire the middle guy, then technically I’ll have to hire him.

Well, all I can say is to heck with hiring the guy in the middle. I’m going to hire the cheapest guy. And if the job ends up looking as if someone wearing a blindfold and drinking a fifth of vodka did it, at least I’ll still have $900 left to fix the mistakes.

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