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Dealing with Contractors:
How to Do Business Successfully - Part 1


Construction is just not like many other kinds of business. Your attitude and expectations will greatly influence whether you come out of a construction project happy or pulling your hair out by the roots. By educating yourself beforehand, you may be able to avoid many common problems that arise from poor communication and unrealistic expectations about how business is done in construction. This article will not be dealing with legal issues, prices or qualifications to do the job. Instead, it will address issues dealing with communication and understanding, in particular, the contractor's point of view in different circumstances and how that affects you, the customer.

It is important to start off right. Once there is a problem, it can often be difficult to regain the lost trust or enthusiasm between each side. So let's start at the beginning.

Getting an Estimate - They are free right?

From the contractor's point of view, there are no free estimates. They all cost money. Some cost quite a lot of money to produce. Remember, we have to drive over to your home or business, stopping work on whatever we are doing. Next, we measure the job, discuss what is wanted, photograph details, etc. Then, we have to lay out a plan for doing the work, including how long each step will take and what materials are needed. We guess about possible hidden problems, check current prices and finally add it all up and produce a written estimate, often with several different options and deliver it to the customer. Some estimates are small , easy and can be done on the spot but others may take many hours (or even days) to produce.

So what this really means is that there are no charges for an estimate, if and only if, you do not have the work done (using any company)! Of course, such estimates are not just free but also worthless to you if you do not use them. All free estimates are really part of overhead and you really do pay for them if you have the work done. Unfortunately, contractors have little choice but to fib a little and offer "free" estimates. Almost no one would accept being charged up front for an estimate unless it was for a very big project.

We're just looking, thank you.

We advise that you be very honest when getting estimates. If you are just curious or "window shopping," say so right away. Construction is truly a "feast or famine" business. At any time, a contractor may be overwhelmed with work or sitting idle. By letting us know how urgent and/or serious an estimate is, we can do a much better job of fitting it in our schedule without slowing down other jobs or estimates. If you are not in a rush, let us know. Likewise, if you are very serious about starting a project right away, also be clear about that. That will move you up on the list if other, less urgent, estimates are waiting to be finished.

Only contractors are dishonest, right?

Do not unintentionally say things that sound like common scams. Contractors have to deal with a (thankfully) small group of con artists or what I like to call "crooked customers" (as opposed to "crooked contractors"). The most common scam is to ask for a good price on a very small job promising future work that is much bigger and better paid. That future work is never to be done, of course. Why these people think that any professional would fall for this lie is beyond me. So you should avoid promising future projects until after you have gotten the estimate for the first job. Asking questions about future projects is different. Feel free to ask questions, just avoid the impression that you are making false promises. A dishonest person is a sad thing but it is sadder still to be wrongly thought dishonest!

Asking lots of questions is an excellent way to get a feel for a contractor. If they cannot answer your questions, they may not be able to do your project. If they seem unwilling to take the time to answer your questions, they may not care about doing a good job. Good communication is essential to both parties being happy during and after the work is done and paid for. Remember, just as you are interviewing a contractor to see if they are the right match for you, you are also being interviewed back to see if you are a good match as a customer.

Where is my estimate?

Finally, understand how pressured and overworked an estimator often is. Often there is only one person qualified to give estimates. They may be sick, overworked or having difficulty finding some special item. If you don't hear back in a reasonable time period, give them a call. If they don't return your call, don't use them. All construction companies have times where everything is behind schedule. Eventually things get back on schedule. That is normal. Not returning calls is a very bad sign. A slow response should not be judged the same as no response. The number one complaint we hear when giving estimates is that another company came out, never called back and would not return calls either.

Signing the Contract - Written in stone?

Once you have chosen someone to do the work, you need to work out the details. It is very important to always have a written contract. Don't start off looking at a contract as a legal document. The real purpose of a contract is to record what both parties expect and are to provide. In other words, the contract provides a clear idea what was agreed on in case memory or understanding later fails. It is very important that you understand clearly what is going to happen and how much it will cost.

I don't really need to read the contract, do I?

One problem is that the contractor has a lot of experience in the process and may unintentionally miss that you fail to understand some part of the contract clearly. Another problem may be that you simply cannot visualize exactly what the building process is or what the exact results will be. It is very common for customers to comment afterwards that they are pleased with the result but that they actually had no idea what things were going to look like when we started the project.

If you want to be very picky about details, you cannot expect to get exactly what you want if you have failed to communicate clearly to the contractor those particular details. The contract is the contractor's attempt to put into words what they believe you want. How clear or vague the contract is reflects how clear or vague you are with the contractor. If you are easy going and not too picky, then giving a free hand to the contractor may result in highly desirable design changes or other improvements during the project, especially if you are not available when the decision has to be made. Many customers tell us to do what we think best and that usually works well. However, if you give a free hand and simply don't like the final product, but the work was of high quality, you would be expected to pay for any changes.

Many projects absolutely require changes from the original plans after beginning, so be prepared to be flexible if some problem with the pre-existing work is found after demolition. People who are especially picky should insist on important details clearly spelled out in the contract or they will rarely end up happy.

Read the contract! Stop and READ IT!
We had a customer that wanted two trees cut down and hauled away. The price was written exactly as 525. He saw me write that amount on a scrap of paper and later signed the contract with the price written there, too. We were finishing up and he wanted to pay us our $25. He claimed that the 5 in 525 was a dollar sign written without the vertical slash. In this case, it was obviously an attempt to rob us.

Nevertheless, this sort of error can really occur. You should carefully read until you clearly understand the total, final price and result. If section 1 says $1500 and section 2 says $500, then the total price is $2000, not the $1500 or $500 that you might see by only scanning the contract quickly. Be sure that the agreed upon price is the one written down in the contract. I have twice, over the years, mistakenly written the wrong amount in a contract. Once, way too high. Once, way too low. Neither case turned out bad for us nor the customer, but a simple mistake not caught early, could have grave consequences.

Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes!

Remember that construction almost always involves some change from the original plans. It may be necessary to change the contract many times in a larger project. These changes are called change orders and are as important to have written down as the original contract. During the whole process it is important to be flexible. Some portions of the contract may have to be written vaguely or billed after the work is done. Just be sure to get involved enough to understand what is being done and has been done at each step. Be sure that you ask for periodic totals for new amounts you owe due to changes or the total price could get ahead of your ability to pay. If necessary changes leave you close to your limit to pay, be sure to inform the contractor. There are usually good stopping points but there are also very bad stopping points. Also, the contractor and employees are less likely to find themselves without any work from an unexpected halt. It may be possible to stop a project with some temporary work that leaves your home or business much more livable. The temporary "finish" can be removed later when additional funds become available to complete the job.

Part 2 - which deals with issues after the work begins.

Last Updated: January 25, 2009