Contractor Down: How to Ensure Great Contractor/Homeowner Relations

Some believe that an “honest contractor” is a contradiction in terms. As a contractor, I have and continue to run head on into the occasionally correct belief that the chief contractors’ aim is to do as little as possible for as much money as possible. An operative for our design/build company jokes that whenever a contractor trips or otherwise falters on the rocky ground of the jobsite, a broad cry of “Contractor Down!” echoes loudly throughout the community, attracting disgruntled homeowners from near and far, who waste no time in coming to kick that contractor while they can do so easily.

This article is in no way an apology for, or defence of contractors. As in any business from auto mechanics to stock broking, certainly an unscrupulous element exists among the many trades with whom homeowners will have dealings as they create and better their properties.

Instead, this brief article intends to outline what almost everybody already knows: caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

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First, take estimates on the work you want done. As a buyer, the prices you will receive will provide a solid indication of the cost of your project. Here’s the first rule in taking estimates: you may get what you pay for. If you accept the lowest estimate, examine why it is the lowest. Some buyers have a policy of accepting the median estimate. The sense behind this needs no explanation.

Second, create a list of exactly what you want done. If you are unable to do this, ask your prospective contractor to create a “scope” of the project. I recommend in some cases that an knowledgeable independent party create a scope of works. You might be surprised how rarely this simple organisation tool is used. From experience I can tell you that many homeowners say, for example, build me a deck, and many contractors say, OK. Usually (but not always), a lack of solid estimate and outline of materials and processes are the classic recipe for disaster, one guaranteed to create unwanted surprises for homeowners and bad feelings for all involved.

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To make the list, start with the general idea, then determine the specifics like desired dimensions and materials used, then outline a standard of quality, ideally one beyond the usual, “works to be performed in a workmanlike manner.” All sorts of sins have taken place under this vague outline. Instead, be specific. For example, use as a guideline not, “deck to be painted in a workmanlike manner,” but instead, “deck to receive one primer coat designed for bare wood (cedar), and two topcoats, using only exterior-grade products.”

Of course, this is paperwork, something few of us enjoy, but in terms of your job, this dull task is less so than the volume of writing necessary in preparing your small claims action against a contractor who used a mystery primer that didn’t bond as the flaking paint on you new deck attests.

Third, obtain and check contractor references, and check out the referent. Our company contracts sub-trades regularly. We do not trust the one or two lines on a contractors website from satisfied customers, nor do we accept the reviews associated with referral websites with whom the contractor advertises or is listed. Instead, don’t simply ask the referent about ease of dealings, punctuality and quality of work – go and look. Satisfied customers are usually pleased to recommend a company that has treated them fairly and met their requirements, and everyone loves to show off success.

Yes, checking out references is time consuming, but again, far less so than playing catch-up with a contractor who has cashed your check and changed the company name and number to avoid the obligation to make customers happy.

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Finally – and it pains me greatly to say so – there is an inescapable element of faith and trust involved in the homeowner/contractor relationship. Despite an acceptable estimate, a clear outline of homeowner expectations, and a successful reference check, contractors need to inspire confidence in homeowners, and homeowners must trust that contractors will perform as expected. Put simply, homeowners must get that famous “good feeling” from a prospective contractor, and contractors need the same. So-called “face time” is the best way to do this. Be sure to meet, discuss, and ask questions. If both parties are unable to do this at the earliest stage, imagine what communication will be like should things go wrong.

As a homeowner talking to a contractor, imagine yourself at the halfway point of your project discussing some element of your job that is less than expected. Can you envision this contractor picking up the phone or driving to your site to discuss a design change or perceived shortcoming? Taking an extra step, can you see this contractor arriving at your door with hat in hand to propose the remedy for your peeling paint six months after the cheque has been cashed.

Truly, relying on good feelings between homeowners and contractors is not scientific and it cannot be legislated, but after successfully doing the legwork needed to ensure your project proceeds smoothly, your confidence in your contractor should be what gets him or her the job, and gets you as a homeowner what you want. That way, everybody’s happy. That way, the next time you hear the great cry, ”Contractor Down!,” ringing throughout your neighbourhood, you will not have the urge to rush over and get your kick in to atone for the joint lack of planning and communication always to be found at the root of jobs that fail.

Article © K. Hunter/Hunter Construction – Reprint/Copy by Written Consent

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