Mixing Business With Neighbors

I’ve seen many articles recently about the benefits of trading items, skills, and services with neighbors and friends. I agree that helping each other out is a great way to build relationships, and even to gain new knowledge and skills. I always feel like being a good neighbor or friend involves give and take. I’m eternally thankful for all of the ways my neighbors have helped me, and try to return the favor in whatever way possible.

But sometimes, there are downfalls. I’m an extremely private, independent person. If something needs fixed around the house, if possible I do it myself. If not, I’m more likely to call a professional than call a friend or neighbor. Some people may find that odd. But I don’t like the idea of putting someone else out. I also don’t like people knowing too much of my business. Weird that I write a blog, huh? And that’s where it can get tricky with neighbors, especially ones who own their own business, or have a trade that they like to work as a side job.

Several years ago, one of my neighbors left his job as a plumber, and started his own plumbing business. His wife does all of the office work and appointments from home. Like all small businesses, it’s had its ups and downs, but they’ve stayed fairly busy over the years.

The problems started about 4 years ago when I started having plumbing issues. The drains in my house had always run a little slow. But it was an old house, so I just figured it was one of the “quirks”. Then one day I flushed the toilet, and all hell broke loose. I panicked, assuming the septic tank had gone bust, and I was going to be out thousands of dollars. Or more, since no one seemed to be able to find my septic tank. My neighbor had told me in the past that he didn’t do septic work, so I immediately called in another company.

The repair man pulled up in his shiny van and immediately set to work. Turns out, it wasn’t my septic tank. The man who lived in the house before me had decided to add a clean-out to the outside of the house. Instead of doing it correctly, cutting the old clay pipe and adding a “T”, he simply knocked a whole in the old pipe, and stuck a new one into it. The new pipe was blocking the flow of sewage leaving the house, and the large gap surrounding the pipe was allowing mud to slide into the pipe, which eventually led to the clog. The pipe was cleaned out, and I was given an estimate (I don’t remember if it was $500, or $800?) to correct the clean-out. The repair man recommended I wait no longer than 3 months to complete the work.

A few hours later, the neighbor was at my house. His wife had seen the repair van pull up, and had immediately called him. It made me uncomfortable, but I already knew all of my neighbors were extremely nosy, and they all often commented on things they’d seen me do, etc. Anyways, they were offended that I hadn’t called them. I explained the situation, and he went out and looked. He agreed that a “T” needed to be installed, and offered to do the work for $300. I told him it wasn’t necessary to discount the work, I was more than willing to pay a fair amount. No no, we were neighbors, that’s what neighbors did.

Fast forward a year and a half. I regularly chit-chat with the neighbors outside. Every couple of months I’ve been reminding them that I need the pipe work done. They’ve also offered to replace my water heater. I mention that I have the money, and would like to be put on the schedule. The response I always get is along the lines of “We’re so very busy right now” and “We’ll let you know what works”. Eventually the drains start slowing to a worrisome rate. Fearful of a repeat of the last time (with hurt feelings about calling another company), I let them know that the work needs to be done, and I’d love a referral if they’re too busy to do the work. The plumber and his son come over and fix the pipe. The whole thing is weird and uncomfortable.

The last several years, I’ve been riding the line of offending the neighbors and getting work done on my house. My Dad ended up replacing the water heater. I’ve put off replacing a busted spigot, which has created endless problems with landscaping, etc, since it’s the only one I have outside the house. I’m trying to figure out how to remodel my bathroom, without having a plumbing truck pull up in my driveway.

And then came the sewer project. Two years in the making. When details started coming out, the neighbors immediately offered to do mine when they did theirs. He’d done a few here and there throughout the city. They’d have to rent equipment, so it’d make it more worthwhile if they did several at the same time. And they’d cut me a great deal.

For nearly two years, we talked off and on about the sewer project. Of course they’d be doing my work, they’d say. I asked for a quote. Yep, they’d get me one together. Then started the complaints, about how hard sewer work was, and how they made very little money on the work. About a year ago, when we thought the work would need to be done soon, I asked for a quote again. “It’ll be somewhere around $2000-4000” he told me. Ummm…

I asked several more times for a written quote, letting them know I’d need to know how much money to save. I never got anything. About 6 months out, whenever the sewer was discussed between us, it started with “whoever you have do the work”. I was getting panicky. “I thought you were doing the work?” I’d often get “whatever works out”.

Now I was worried. The city was releasing the sewers soon for us to hook on, and there was a deadline for the work to be done. Most of my neighbors had signs in their yards from various companies. What if my neighbor backed out of doing mine at the last-minute? Many neighbors were getting “group discounts” from companies if they had the work done all at the same time, not having to move equipment. Would I end up paying even more, with a company having to come back to do mine?

I was talking to another neighbor one day, and he mentioned how much he was paying for the sewer work. It was much less than I expected, and it was being done by a company that had done a lot of the work on our side of town. He encouraged me to give them a call. What would it hurt to get a quote?

So, I called the company out to get a quote. $1,800! I was shocked. I was hesitant to pull the trigger because of my neighbors. But, when I continued to get “whoever you have do the work”, and couldn’t get an actual quote, I signed the contract.

The sign went up in the yard. And then the plumbers wife stopped talking to me. I wave and try to be friendly, and for the most part go completely ignored. They did their own sewer work a month or so back. It took them 3 days of hard work. I’m not sure if they did work for anyone else. The company I hired came sometime after I left for work, and were done by noon when I came to drop off the check.

I like my neighbors. I enjoy sitting out talking with them on a nice evening. We have a lot in common. It bothers me that who I choose to do my sewer work has any effect on my ability to get along with my neighbors. I understand that small business can be cut-throat, and you want to protect yourself from competition as much as possible. I’d love to be able to support them. But, as a consumer, I’m not always looking for the lowest price. I’m looking to get the work done. My neighbors have too much on their plates to be offering deals to neighbors. It’s like the old saying goes “Don’t mix business with pleasure.”

Have you ever been in a similar situation? What would you have done differently?

– Ms. W

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