Carpenters, Contractors, Electricians, and Plumbers

in the Boston area, part of materialism by Philip Greenspun, updated June 2006

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I learned a lot of things in Costa Rica, but the most valuable for home remodeling is something I learned from Jack Ewing, owner of Hacienda Baru:
"Ten years would be a minimum for a simple lawsuit here. It all depends on how long the parties want to keep it alive with appeals. A contract in Costa Rica is basically worthless. I don't really care whether I can get a written contract from someone; it isn't any better than his word. If I trust a man, I'll just take his word. If I don't, I won't deal with him at all."

Although it is arguably more efficient than in Costa Rica, the American court system doesn't work for the middle class. If you have to rely on the court system to get your house fixed and/or your money back, you are in deep trouble. Here are my standards for a contractor or tradesperson:


My friend Richard is MIT Class of '81. He isn't a wimpy MIT math/CS loser like me, though. He once took apart his own airplane, put it back together, then flew cross country in it. Richard's basement contains the tools for professional-grade woodworking, plumbing, machining, and carpentry (and he knows how to use them all!). Richard also has high standards for all things mechanical. He does not gush. Finally, Richard bought a old wreck of a 4500 square foot wooden house. This makes Richard the ideal person to recommend trademen.

Greg Walsh, (617) 923-8932, redesigned and replaced Richard's heating system and installed several new bathrooms. Richard speaks of Greg in hushed, awed tones: "He's a god. He could easily have gone to MIT." (This calls to mind my friend David Chesky who had his entire Manhattan apartment redone by MIT PhDs; see my career guide for details.)

Greg debugged a bunch of thorny problems in my unit and also for some of my neighbors. For example, my condo was just slapped together when it was remodeled. The pipe from the junky Paloma Pak boiler in the basement up to the 3rd floor wasn't thick enough. There was far too much baseboard in some rooms and far too little in others. My bathroom was frigid; my bedroom was tropical. Greg measured and calculated carefully for an hour then drained the system, added some higher capacity fins, chopped out some finned baseboard and replaced it with pipe, then refilled the system. The heat is now balanced and at minimal cost.

[Note: Back in Melrose, I like Joe Murphy and Steve Santosuosso ((617) 322 5881).]


Brad McFarland is the most recent electrician with whom I have worked. He did a great job running some extra circuits up from the basement to my 3rd floor apartment. He also had to conquer the challenge of mounting some ceiling lights over a bathtub/shower. His phone number is (508) 612-2558.

Greg Walsh likes to work with Bobby Donlon ((617) 964-3531, pager (617) 486-7331). So do I. So do a lot of other people. Bobby is usually ridiculously overcommitted, but he is a nice guy and does great work. I also like Desmond Clifford (home (617) 471-6979; beeper (617) 456-6979). He has done work for both me and Richard.


If you're down on Cape Cod, I had a good experience with Gable Building. They finished a 2000 square foot basement, with a lot of custom cabinets, on time and for a reasonable fixed price. They also fixed a shower leak that had stumped contractors for years.

My friends in the Boston area have had good luck with Arlington-based Out of the Woods Construction. They are good for a bathroom or kitchen remodel or addition. I've seen a couple of their projects and the results were very good. My friends report that the projects were finished on time and within budget.

My friend Steve likes Dan at AlSPAR Homes, (617) 625-6351. Dan did a beautiful job redoing Steve's condo back around 1996. My friend Gauri likes Ken Mitchell, (781) 662 5863, but Ken is extremely busy.

I've had a tough time finding people to do small jobs. At one time, I used Rick Young, of R.H. Young Construction (Rick plus an assistant, Brian). Rick did a good job for me back in 1996 when I moved into my condo and needed some kitchen adjustments and shelves. A few years later, I asked Rick to build a couple of bookshelves. He was a year late with the project and his assistant installed one shelf so that it covered up an electrical outlet and a phone/Ethernet jack. In February 2005, I asked Rick if he could remodel half of one bathroom in my house, basically swapping out a 5' tub for a 6' tub and installing some new tile. I said "I only want to do this if you can do it in one month; the bookshelves were okay being a year late, but a torn-up bathroom makes life miserable." Rick agreed to the project, under the supervision of an architect (Barry Zevin; the cost was just over $4000; I was ultimately very unhappy with him), who provided complete and specific plans plus part numbers for all the pieces required such as floor tile, grab bars, and shower curtain rods. The project fell behind schedule fairly quickly due to the discovery of some weakened floor joists. Then Rick had a falling out with the architect and said he would quit if the architect didn't. As Rick was the one driving the nails, I chose to let Rick finish the job and the architect went off to sulk.

The project fell further behind because Rick hadn't ordered the required materials in advance. A piece would get finished, a part would be required, Rick would order the part, the part would arrive 3-5 weeks later, work would resume. By December 2005, the bathroom was usable except that it was missing grab bars, towel holders, and a shower curtain rod. I.e., Rick was 8 months late with the project. That's when it got ugly. Rick demanded the final payment for the project. I said "I'm not paying until I can take a shower," hoping that the prospect of getting the last few $thousand would motivate Rick to action. It did... legal action. Instead of getting those last few parts and installing them, Rick hired a lawyer. By June 2006, I still couldn't take a shower in my main bathroom or hang a towel, but I was being sued for roughly twice what Rick had asked for as a final payment (I'm not sure why the lawsuit amount is for double what was supposedly the final payment on the project.)

Custom Closets

Any kind of built-in shelving is cheaper if done by a specialty firm. I really like Closet Solutions at (617) 628-2410 (Somerville). I chronicled my experience with them in my bedroom story.

Floor Sanding

Hardwood floors only cost about as much to put down as good carpet, $6-8/square foot. Sanding and refinishing is only about $1.25/square foot. Father and Son Floorcraft ((617) 926-9999) put down my friend Steve's floors and also mine (an $11,000 job because I wanted a layer of cork underneath to keep my late night wanderings from waking up neighbors below).
Text and pictures copyright 1996 Philip Greenspun