Trust, communication, and honesty
The sun comes up, the birds sing, and the flowers bloom. What’s to worry about?
The profession of general contracting has, for years, been a profession that breeds skepticism. From the moment an honest, conscientious, home, renovation, or specialty contractor meets with a prospective client, he must begin his initial presentation by having to dispel the distrust and antagonism that has preceded him, not because of him, but because of years of horror stories that could easily find a place among Grimm’s gruesome fairy tails. Perhaps it isn’t just hearsay or innuendo that has caused the imprinting of distrust, but personal experience as well.
An experienced contractor will immediately take the necessary steps to shed that stigma and rise above the swirling fray of rip-off artists and ineptitude. He will arrive at the meeting with the heavy artillery in place, and he will not hesitate to use it in order to achieve the result of putting his client at ease. He should have with him, a list of good references, photos of his work, a copy of his contract, and verification from his subcontractors that they are on board.
Signing a home improvement contract is a big step. It is sometimes an agonizing experience just to reach that point. You might begin your project stressed out, anxious and, worst of all, feeling an over abundance of antagonism. If you are the kind of person who is at all distrustful of contractors, you might even form a knot in your stomach the size of a golf ball.
If you find this to be the case, all parties involved must take a proverbial step backward. Be true to yourselves. Put the project into its proper perspective. It is far from the way any business man would choose to begin a relationship with a client. Conversely, it is a tremendous wasting of time and energy for the client to constantly feel a need to watch his back.
What can you do to alleviate the negative anticipation that will cause you to awaken in the middle of the night with your head spinning out of control? Let’s create a scenario. The project is a kitchen renovation. You are planning on increasing the size of your kitchen by removing the wall between the existing kitchen and a dining room that you and your family seldom use.
Follow these seven steps: It is your project, so you must be the leader. What do all good leaders have besides financial backing?
Notice we are starting with number two out of the seven steps. We'll save number one for last. There's a reason.
2. They have a solid plan. In construction, it includes detailed drawings, dimensioned floor plans, dimensioned elevations, detail sections through critical areas, schedules of materials, and a detailed list of all products and specifications being incorporated into the project, and, if at all possible, an artists rendering of the finished room. Once you have these, you and your contractor should sign each of them as part of the document package. This shows full understanding and solidarity, no misconceptions.
3. An agreed to price. The contract should spell out, in detail, every aspect of the project along with the legal ramifications should either party breech. It is not a bad idea to have an attorney go over the contract and advise the homeowner. Perhaps sections of the document need clarification that may or may not come to bear at some point down the road. The price will have allowance contingencies; perfectly normal, but be sure you understand what the dollar amounts of the allowances stand for, and what conditions are attached to them, (see my previous articles on pricing- to-quality-ratios and project allowances). Depending on the size of your project, the attorney should not be a visible member of the team, yet it is not a bad idea to keep him in the background as your advisor.
4. Establish a time line. Any contractor should be able to supply you with a computer generated bar chart showing the start date and the timing of all aspects of the project from beginning to end. Both parties are well aware that such an early assessment of scheduling will need to be constantly revised due to weather conditions, delivery problems, and a host of other things that crop up and serve as factors of delay. Nevertheless, a completion date should be established. There are two ways to handle completion dates. One is to give the contractor a window of completion. The other is to assess a back-charge amount should the finish date not come to fruition. Be fair. An allowance for periodic end-date adjustments must be in the contract because a delay in the date may be beyond anyone’s control. Be tough, but be reasonable. Also, establish a timeline for payments that coincide with milestones of completion. You are expected to make those payments without hesitation if the contactor has completed the work within the terms set forth. Do not be late with your payments. Remember, he needs to pay his office staff, subcontractors, laborers and himself to keep the economy of your project progressing on schedule.
5. Have regular scheduled meetings. Include all parties involved in the project, even if their part of the work has not yet begun. These meetings are invaluable to keeping everyone tuned into the project. Your contractor, or project manager, should be responsible for organizing the meeting, and you should insist that everyone attend. This is yours and everyone elses opportunity to voice concerns. Refrain from voicing concerns to individual workers or subcontractors. Working through the proper channels will fend off confusion and make for a much happier job site.
6. Trust but verify. Compliment before criticizing. Pay your bills on time. And, if you commonly are present during the course of the work do not make small talk with the men, but keep an eye on their workmanship and report anything of concern to the contractor immediately. If, on the other hand, you are not present during the work day, do not come home and make uneducated assumptions about the work in progress. Have an arrangement with the contractor that he will call you every morning to discuss any concerns. The worst thing for a contractor is to awaken in the morning to an irate phone message that serves only negative purposes and does nothing to further the project to a successful conclusion.
7. At the end of a successful project, do everything in your power to pay the contractor every dollar owed. If he puts his best foot forward, give him the benefit of the doubt. If the signed contract calls for a ten percent retainage until total completion, assess the things left to be done and establish a completion time line for the punch list items. Then give him a good-will payment that establishes trust. That one gesture will reap rewards of service and exemplary punch-list detailing that you will not believe.
Now for Number 1. The most important of all.
1. Begin planning your project well in advance. Your project or renovation should have a life cycle just like that of a human being. The infancy, childhood and adolescence of your project will have a huge effect on its success as an adult.
What is meant by that analogy?
Simple. Begin by absorbing information. Organize the information, and then put it out to those talented individuals who you choose to implement a project concept that has grown out of your investigations.
Do not hesitate to network with friends and colleagues who have done similar projects. Listen to their suggestions and filter into your own thinking what you find valuable. Cut out and categorize photographs from books and magazines. Visit showrooms, and interview a few contractors. If you are using an architect, interview several of them as well.
Establish a budget based on those conversations and your own research. Use the internet. It has become the most prolific disseminator of valuable information since the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Thomas Register.
Once you have this completed, and you are ready to take the plunge, call the contractors you felt most comfortable with, and as early as possible in the process, tell one of them that they have the job just as long as their final proposals are within the parameters you set out. That gesture of confidence and commitment will give back returns in extra effort, service, and favorable pricing considerations that will be hard to calculate.
Jeffrey B. Allen
For further information: Contruction Contracts
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