COMMENT: Property reno - where are the tradies?

Tuesday 5 March 2019

What seemed like a straight-forward renovation job on a rental property left Auckland Property Investors Association vice president Peter Lewis wondering where all the tradies have gone when we need them so much…

Some years ago, an Indian family moved into one of my newly-purchased units. They stayed for a few years and, over subsequent years, various relatives of theirs then took over the flat.

As each of these changes took place over a single day, there was little opportunity to do anything more than the most basic maintenance during the time each of this succession of tenants was in occupation.

However, last year, the last of the family bought their own place and moved out (with much goodwill all around). For the first time in ten years, I was able to get a really good look at the empty and uncluttered flat. Although basically sound and weatherproof, many years of hard wear had taken its toll. Also, built in the late 1960s, it hadn’t been updated during the subsequent years.

So what did I need to do to upgrade and meet today’s much more finicky market? The renovations sound simple: gut the kitchen and bathroom, fit a new bathroom and kitchen. That also meant entirely replacing all the plumbing and electrical wiring, including a new switchboard. Following that, there was a repaint and new light fittings and floorcoverings were installed. That should do it.

Attacking the old cabinets and fittings with large blunt instruments was actually quite fun in a therapeutic way. It was quite a speedy exercise, and we made rapid progress along with clouds of dust and plaster. After a good sweep out, the measuring and planning part started. It took a couple of weeks to get all that planning sorted and then we could order the bits…

Have you tried to get fixtures and fittings, electricians and plumbers recently? Hens’ teeth are plentiful in comparison.

Some of the people I used in the past had grown elderly and retired, other companies had changed owners and changed staff, while others were willing to help – in about seven months’ time. It left me feeling a tiny bit of sympathy towards Minister Twyford and his struggle with Kiwibuild.

It’s all very well to draw up nice plans on paper and lay out the project management with all the fancy planning tools available. But reality and human nature have a most irritating and uncomfortable ability to worm their way in and destroy the best laid plans.

For example, the shower tray that was meant to have the outlet at the left rear now had it in the centre. The one we actually wanted is somewhere on a ship between here and the factory in deepest darkest Asia. It may arrive and it may not, so best accept what we actually had right now and make do.

Between a whole series of such surprises the time dragged on and on. However, the worst part of the renovation was the labour content.

The plumber would turn up, work half a day, and disappear again - possibly until the next week. The electricians arrived pulled all the wires out, hacked holes in the walls in quite surprising places, muttered darkly among themselves and then evaporated. The handywoman got the kitchen assembled, then wanted to go away on holiday.

I was left wondering if I would ever see any of them again. 

And, in the meantime, I had to take time out myself to deal with meetings, tenants, conferences, presentations, heated arguments, and life in general. Those academics who call the profits from residential rentals “unearned income” have never experienced this lot.

So why do we have these apparently country-wide skills shortages? We seem to have an ample supply of lawyers, accountants, assorted bureaucrats, consultants, HR managers and all their accompanying make-work functionaries.

But those people who can actually pick up a hammer and a screwdriver and have the skills to use them competently are in very short supply.

Since the 1970s post-school education has been largely captured by the universities and it all now happens academically in lecture rooms. Starting work at 8am and getting your hands dirty is now seen as an undesirable and low-skill career path.

Much better to be sitting in a well-lit air-conditioned corner office tapping a keyboard. Today’s Tiger Mums aim for nothing less. Thus we have the recent well-publicised travails of the countries polytechs who are now reduced to clutching each other for support and begging for taxpayer bailouts.

So we need to either import the skills we lack or try to train those aimless drifters we already have. Unfortunately, both options entail significant drawbacks.

Immigrants arrive needing to be housed for some time before their contribution can benefit the country. Hence in the short term they make our already acute housing shortage even worse. Meanwhile, you simply can't just hook a loafer off the sofa, hand them a bunch of tradies tools, and expect quality output.

It seems that so many people with Ph.Ds and MBAs think that working on the tools is simple, low-level skill that anyone can do with 20 minutes of training, such is their intellectual arrogance.

My neighbour has two teenage sons. One son wants to be Peter Jackson while the other wants to be Steven Adams. Just how many film producers or basketball stars does this country need?

To solve the skill shortages problem we must no longer deify suits and the media. Instead we need to acknowledge and properly value the vital contribution of those who build and maintain the infrastructure of our country.

Comments from our readers

On 5 March 2019 at 1:11 pm Old Lady said:
Add advanced age (80s)and being female to the landlord profile and the problem becomes even greater. Marry it with the unreasonable expectations of desk bound evaluators at IRD who have no understanding of our shortage of tradespeople and you arrive at the present situation where rates and insurance cannot be claimed during the period that a property is "not available for tenancy" even though you must wait for skilled workers. The old advice "Don't make your clever son into a lawyer, make him into a plumber," seems to have been forgotten in New Zealand. With a housing shortage, an expectation of better housing standards and a shortage of tradespeople, this is genuinely a time when taxation deduction should be allowed for the cost of improvements that add to a tenant's quality of life. That relief should come at the time the work (such as insulation) is done, rather than when capital gains are realised.

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