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He loves me, he loves me not

To the frightened buyer of a fixer-upper, the family bulging out of its starter box, the affluent couple dreaming of a palace, the Contractor appears like a fairy-tale prince. No crumbling, cramped, dank, even quasi-subterranean space can faze him. "Skylights … " he murmurs, "French doors…. Don't worry, folks, I can do this."

No one actually responds "My hero!" but that's what they're thinking, and thus the quintessential Los Angeles relationship begins: encounter, infatuation, the promise of a life transformation and a dream come true.

If the connection between therapist and patient reenacts nuclear family drama, that of homeowner and contractor is a real estate version of romance.

Courtship. There must be places where a customer seeking a contractor simply interviews candidates, then makes a choice. In L.A., where every third home is under construction, it can be a question of wooing someone into being kind enough to take your money.

Santa Monica homeowner Susan Jain and her husband had bought a postwar 2+1 that needed "at least" a bedroom, a bath and a new kitchen, and "we thought we had a pretty darn good budget," she says. "In others places we've lived, it would have paid for an entire house. But one contractor immediately started talking about extensive retrofitting, and we got the sense he was trying to get himself out of the job because it wasn't big enough for him. The first thing another said was, 'Your budget's too small,' and he'd show us how to refinance so we'd have more money. The man we hired made us feel it was OK to be realistic."

In remodeling, as in real-life love, in the end, you take who takes you.

Honeymoon. Like lovers who move in after the second fabulous date, contractors and clients plunge into an intimacy that's immediate and total.

"You're trusting someone to look through your eyes and imagine what it would mean to you to have a better living space, to translate your vague hopes into something concrete," says Jeff Siker, who still speaks fondly of the man who remodeled and enlarged his "typical Westchester dining nook and nasty little bathroom."

But the closeness isn't just metaphorical. If you're living in the house under construction, the contractor and crew, their blaring radios, cellphone tunes and El Pollo Loco containers are soon woven into the fabric of your life. The honeymoon is thrilling — all that crashing and demolition! — but it can also be tender and sweet.

These early days are when you come to know your contractor's car, dog, taste in coffee, the name of his wife (or ex). From the workers, you learn whether he's really a jerk or a saint. "I was on the streets until John gave me a job," our contractor's talented lead carpenter told us one day. For that, "I will always be there to take care of him."

And in a world of unspeakable chaos and escalating debt, you come to cling to him as your rock.

For five months, West L.A. homeowner Alex Reed lived a solitary "surreal existence" in the only 200 intact square feet of his roofless home, which was being torn apart for a massive kitchen overhaul and expansion. He was between jobs, his wife and kids were staying with friends several hours away, and his primary human contact, he says, "was my contractor. He was the first person I saw every day."

Reality check. All honeymoons end. Some homeowners are like divorcées, wise enough to prepare themselves for the inevitable crash.

"I heard all kinds of contractor horror stories," says Reed. "I made a list of them and their general themes — not delivering on promises, shoddy work, miscommunication. Then I sat down with my contractor and said, 'This is what we want to avoid. How do we do it?' " The result, he says, was "a relationship that stayed great to the end."

But such prudence is rare. "At the beginning, he tells you, 'It's the best investment you'll ever make! You won't even recognize your house,' and you try not to get sucked in, but of course you do," remembers Lynn Drazba of Aliso Viejo, who redid her kitchen. "All the things you want to hear — 'You want to do that? Sure! You can have it all!' Then a few weeks later, the workers are saying, 'You want what? Nobody told us!' "

The post-honeymoon phase is the end of illusion, when you realize that your prince is actually just a guy in a truck — less faithful and adoring than you'd thought (he abruptly yanks the crew for two weeks to start a job with a bigger budget than yours).

His "friends" aren't what you expected — "The tile guy rarely showed, and the contractor confided that it was because he had to go to court for drunk driving appearances," says Janie Schulman, whose Los Feliz home went through a major remodel several years ago. "When I looked at his work, there wasn't a single line of tiles with the grout in straight."

The uneasy feeling grows that perhaps he isn't quite right either. "The workers sawed through a pipe and there was water showering from my upstairs bedroom," remembers Drazba. "They tell me, 'We're not much good at welding, but we can fix this if you can give us some matches.' Matches! By then, the contractor not only wasn't showing up, he'd started blocking my calls."

Happily ever after? Around 25% of marriages start collapsing not long after the honeymoon ends and don't make it past seven years. A lot of contractor romances also fade away.

"As we reached the end of the job, there were things we told him still needed to be done, there was money he insisted that we owed him, then we just stopped talking," says Schulman. "It was like a relationship that just fizzled out. The beauty is that over time, I've forgotten why, although four years later, we still have pieces of blue tape on little defects that my husband imagines the guy will come back one day to correct."

Others erupt, threaten to implode, then settle into a resigned kind of acceptance. "Every day we'd come and find mistakes — curving drywall in the hall, a kitchen floor that dipped wherever the nails had been put in, unfinished hardwood floors that had warped because the windows had been left open," says Pam Bottaro, who with her husband, Chuck Noble, enlarged and remodeled their Santa Monica home.

"We got incredibly angry, and the responses to our phone calls and faxes slowed down. Finally one day we left our contractor a message: 'Why don't you just give us the tools and we'll finish the job.' He told us he wouldn't take that kind of abuse and offered to resign. We apologized. He repaired everything he was able to, and even offered us money back for the floors, which we didn't take. We finished with a good feeling. We even recommended him to other people."

And in other cases, contractor love turns into "Basic Instinct: Home Edition." "I was so happy with this guy at the beginning," says Penn Jones of the man he hired to rebuild a garage as well as remodel his Santa Monica home.

"When he first screwed up the pitch of the garage roof, OK, we decided we could live with it. But we were building during the winter, and he didn't waterproof properly. We had our first flood on Halloween. On Christmas, there was rain coming through the front, back and sides of the house, and I spent the whole day mopping up. In February, we got a pool of water in the middle of the master bedroom — he claimed it was from my dog! Meanwhile, he and his framer, who'd been working together for 14 years, were threatening to beat each other up, and he was insulting my wife. He turned from someone I could trust into Cruella De Vil. It was like he was holding my house hostage."

"I love my kitchen, but if I had to do it again, I don't know," says Drazba. "To make up for some of the problems we had, my guy told me he'd make me a work cart I wanted, for free. 'Call me,' he said. I haven't. I don't want to deal with him anymore."

And yet here's the secret: Even now, even in L.A., lasting love is out there.

"When the work was over, it was weird not to see my contractor every day," says Reed. "There were a few little things he needed to finish, and even though I was holding back some money — which we'd agreed on at the start — I couldn't get him to come by. He was honest. He told me, 'I'm totally over you and this job. I've moved on.' "

Reed adds, a bit wistfully, "I can't wait for the opportunity to hire him again."

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Tales from the toolbox

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Of course, there's always another side to the story. Four contractors recall their worst clients.

Contractor No. 1, West L.A.: I did about $700,000 of work on a brand-new multimillion-dollar home in a gated community that had turned out to have serious defects. Every window, roof and deck leaked, and it had only half the electrical service it needed. We fixed it all up and even helped the client with an insurance claim, and my thanks was that he withheld $28,000 from my final payment. I couldn't afford to take him to court. There never was a question of bad workmanship. It was his way of getting a discount.

Contractor No. 2, Venice: I was building a house for a couple, four stories, $3 million. The plan was highly detailed. Just getting the permits took a year. Then the woman insisted on using her own subs. I never saw the drywall guy on the job and when I called and asked him to come by, he started cussing at me. The plumber went bankrupt. One day I was in the basement talking to the husband, and his wife came down and said, "Why aren't you working?" That was it. I jumped up and moved toward her, and the husband went after me and got his hands around my throat. That was the closest I've ever come to a fistfight with a client. But in the end, the house got done. And I'm still friendly with the guy. I still do work for him.

Contractor No. 3, Agoura: It was a major remodel of a big house, maybe a half-million-dollar job. I got a call from the supervisor saying, "Better get here; we've got a problem." The client and his wife were there when I arrived. I said, "What's the problem?" and he said, "I hate the stairs." I looked at the plans, then said, "I understand you're upset and I'm trying to help, but the stairs are built exactly according to the plan." He said, "That's right." I said, "If that's right, what's the problem?" He said, "I hate these stairs, my wife hates these stairs and you should have known we'd hate these stairs!" That was the only job where I ended up suing the client.

Contractor No. 4, Malibu: One woman seemed to think that she had hired a slave. She wanted us to move things in her house and rearrange her garage. When I wasn't there, she abused my workers, calling them stupid because they weren't educated. When you do a job, you get wrapped up in a client's life, until you feel like you don't even have your own. Sometimes their lives are pretty neurotic. It's a great relief to walk away. You realize, "I was in hell for six months and I didn't even realize it."

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— Carol Mithers
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