Check around before selecting a craftsman

Finding a reliable old-house craftsman who will work with pride and skill can be a challenge. All too often the old-house owner runs the risk of hiring a workman who talks a good game, but whose finished job is a costly disappointment. To undo and properly redo a shoddy job may more than double the cost. If ever the maxim ''let the buyer beware'' applies, it is in the home-repair field.

With the surge in recent years of rehabilitating both commercial and residential buildings (built when fine detailing, craftsmanship, and quality materials were in vogue), a host of specialists found jobs plentiful.

Recycling and restoring old houses from San Francisco to Boston has created a ready market for the carpenter, cabinetmaker, floor specialist, wood-turner, iron forger, fireplace repairer, and other specialists. At the same time the boom has also brought out incompetent workers whose shortcuts and lack of experience exploit the unwary owner.

Carpenter-cabinetmaker Stephen W. Kisacky of Evanston, Ill., is one of the younger artisans whose pride and patient skill match the workmen of an earlier era.

Mr. Kisacky is concerned that in much of the old-house restoration-repair work in both cities and suburbs, ''There is too much sloppy work by corner-cutting incompetents who flourish because owners accept their often-lower estimates.''

So great is the demand for the repairman that the slipshod worker can usually move on to other jobs quickly, often without being investigated, Mr. Kisacky asserts. He warns that a low estimate for an old-house project ''often means that key steps will be eliminated, resulting in a botched job that will disappoint the owner.''

Mr. Kisacky says he has had to remove the finish from handsome old stairs, for example, because the workman skipped the fine-sanding step to save time and cut corners.

If the homeowner is relatively fortunate, a poor repair job will be inferior only cosmetically. But there are often instances when inferior work will compound a serious structural problem, Mr. Kisacky warns.

''A first-floor door in an old house was binding,'' he recalls, ''so the door was planed and the adjacent cracked plaster wall repaired.'' The real culprit was a cracked basement floor support beam. When discovered and repaired, the first-floor wall plaster cracked again, creating an expensive, unnecessary repair job that an experienced old-house craftsman would have spotted and prevented.

Inexperienced workmen can mis-diagnose an ailment and apply too extreme a remedy, Mr. Kisacky says.

An obvious, yet often violated, maxim is that the old-house owner, however handy, should never attempt a job beyond his abilities. He cites as an example rehanging an old door or hanging a new door, a job that is ''absolutely only for the professional.''

Floor restoration is another pitfall. Here again, shoddy workmanship can waste money.

''Always check for recent job references before you hire a floorer,'' advises Arthur Sodergren, a Glenview, Ill., craftsman who has 45 years of experience in the craft.

Mr. Sodergren says he has seen ''too many cases of quickie rather than qualified work, such as the practice of using prefinished flooring that isn't even sealed.'' One good spill can cause a board to start buckling, he warns.

Inadequate electrical circuits and worn, antiquated wiring is a common yet dangerous old-house repair problem that requires a qualified electrician. The chance of fire dictates hiring only a licensed professional, but the vintage-house owner must be able to recognize problems that require immediate attention.

A common problem in older houses is too few circuits. Modern electrical appliances were unknown when the house was built and later converted from gas to electric lights.

Running appliances from inadequate circuits is much like hooking a heavy trailer to a 4-cylinder automobile and attempting to pull the trailer up a steep hill.

Heavy-duty appliances such as electric stoves, air conditioners, and microwave ovens need the heavier-duty 20-amp circuits.

Older homes often do not have a separate kitchen-appliance circuit, which became a code requirement only about 20 years ago.

Wire insulation, which often has become brittle with age and heat, may have fallen off the wiring. Here, the wiring should be replaced with protective-insulation wiring to avoid the risk of fire.

Electrical contractors agree that the homeowner should never attempt to do his own electrical repair work. Building codes, they point out, were developed to save lives, not to levy penalties, and electrical work should be done only by licensed electricians.

How, then, should the old-house owner who plans major or even minor rehabbing or restoration proceed in the quest for a competent craftsman who ranks pride at the top of his priorities?

First, take heart by realizing that there are skilled repair and renovation craftsmen in almost every city and town throughout the country.

In addition to phone book listings, sources for reliable old-house craftsmen include lumberyards, real-estate offices, and others who own vintage homes. Local contractors, too, can often recommend good workmen.

Regardless of your source, first check out the craftsmen to whom you'll entrust your fine old home with several of their recent customers.

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