Remodeler Finds Clients Plentiful, Sometimes Anxious
by Richard Newman
Home improvement contractor Michael Alleva of Mahwah doesn’t like being made to feel like some kind of snake oil salesman. But when quoting prices on kitchen remodeling jobs, deck replacements, or additions, customers who don’t know him sometimes act inordinately suspicious. “People think you’re trying to set them up,” he said. Home improvement contractors are among the most frequent targets of consumer complaints. New Jersey’s consumer affairs office received 2,668 home repair complaints in 2000 New Jersey’s consumer affairs office received 2,668 home repair complaints in 2000 – the latest year for which complete statistics are available – ranking second only to automobile-related complaints, which 3,207. With rogue remodelers running around, scrupulous contractors must work harder than ever to gain the trust of customers. “They watch ’20/20’ and they always get the horror stories,” he said.
Alleva, who once studied at the Manhatten School of Music, started out 12 years ago doing handyman jobs out of a Chevy Chevette with a ladder strapped to the roof. These days he tools around in a truck bearing the company logo. Alleva, who once studied at the Manhatten School of Music, started out 12 years ago doing handyman jobs out of a Chevy Chevette with a ladder strapped to the roof. With as many as five jobs going at a time, business has been good at Alleva Construction, a family-run, home-based business.
In a high-priced housing market with scarce developable land, many North Jersey homeowners renovated or added on instead of trading up last year, and the company generated a better-than-average $1 million in revenue. “Everybody seems to be putting money into their real estate,” he said. Most of his customers are homeowners in their 4Os and 50s, wanting to renovate kitchens or add rooms, decks, or patios.
Alleva, 32, built the business on a shoestring, starting out painting houses, cleaning gutters, and doing masonry repair, just to help pay for college. But the Hackensack High School graduate eventually decided he didn’t want to teach music or play in an orchestra. He switched to vocational school, taking courses in masonry and carpentry and moved out to Oregon for about a year and gained valuable experience working on home framing crews. Today, he rarely swings a hammer anymore, acting more as a general contractor, estimating projects, scheduling subcontractors, and pulling building permits. Alleva, 32, built the business on a shoestring, starting out painting houses, cleaning gutters, and doing masonry repair, just to help pay for college.
As in many other states, electricians and plumbers need licenses in New Jersey, but there are no professional standards for carpenters or masons or those like Alleva who operate under the general rubric of remodeler. So proof of affiliation with a reputable trade association can help add a measure of legitimacy. Michael Alleva is active in the Builders Association of Northern New Jersey, where the dues are $655 a year for a remodeler. The trade group provides networking opportunities and educational seminars and works on legislation that benefits the industry. Alleva serves on the board of directors and is one of only half a dozen in the chapter to complete enough course work - six to eight daylong courses - to receive a Certified Graduate Remodeler designation from the National Association of Home Builders.
But even for the most scrupulous home improvement contractors, the business by its very nature is conducive to conflict. Weather can stall outdoor projects and so can availability of subcontractors. Most projects involve serious money - like $30,000 for the average kitchen remodeling. And people can get very cranky when they’re living in a construction site for any length of time. The “How to Survive a Home Renovation” tip sheet includes such advice as packing up household items to avoid damage, preparing food in advance to minimize meal disruptions, and letting the contractor know immediately if they have problems or questions.