Resolving Job Site Conflicts Between Homeowners and Contractors

Use these suggestions to prevent arguments in the first place — and settle them once they arise.

Job Site Conflict Resolution

Photo: Flickr

When Fern Dickey saw what a fantastic job a contractor did on her neighbor’s remodel, she had no problem figuring out whom to call when she needed work done in her own home. She didn’t get estimates. She didn’t check references. She signed a contract that offered a ballpark figure and no time line. But the contractor was a nice guy, she thought, and he did such impressive work. Dickey was confident that everything would be fine.

From day one, it wasn’t. It took nearly a year for drawings to be approved and permits issued. Then, once work began, Dickey learned that her contractor’s business now consisted not of a full crew but only him and his young, inexperienced son. The contractor never started working before 10 a.m. When he left for the day, only five hours later, he left behind trash and open paint cans.

“I had never hired a contractor before,” Dickey says. “I hadn’t read anything about it. I was so busy with work. I just assumed everything would be okay.”

A year and a half after starting the project, Dickey fired her contractor. The project —to remodel the den, add a deck, and re-side her Fairlawn, NJ, home — remains incomplete and has major flaws that will have to be fixed by a new contractor at added expense. Dickey admits she wishes she had ended the relationship sooner, but the contractor always promised that problems would be fixed and projects completed as soon as possible.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Dickey can pinpoint all the mistakes she made. “Contracts should be very detailed and have dates for when things are going to happen,” she says. “Any change or discussion regarding work should be in writing and signed by both parties.”

Getting everything in writing upfront is one of the most basic ways to avoid conflicts on the job site. Other ways are hiring and scheduling well and limiting changes to the original plans. Here are some other ways to resolve on-site conflicts.

BEFORE WORK BEGINS

Hire a Reputable Firm
Many job site conflicts can be avoided by making sound choices. Ask friends for referrals, but also check references and licenses, says Monica D. Higgins, founder of Renovation Planners, of Culver City, CA. “Check references and actually go out and see the work, and it should be work that was done recently and maybe work that was done five to ten years ago so they can see how the work has held up,” Higgins says. Also, ask how many jobs the contractor takes on at once and how many hours per week they will spend on your project.

Seek bids, but don’t make lowest price your final determinant, Higgins adds. In fact, many of the horror stories you hear come from small, less-expensive contractors who, unbeknownst to you, have cash-flow problems. For example, a contractor will tell you everything you want to hear, take your deposit, and then disappear for weeks. This is often because he needed your money to pay the people he has working on another current project.

Once you settle on a contractor, get everything in writing and make sure the contract is extremely detailed. Add factors that are important to you. Require contractors to clean up after themselves daily. Mandate that notice be given before certain kinds of work — like anything that involves turning off the water or that might disturb the neighbors.

Require a Schedule
From the contractor’s perspective, scheduling is the most challenging part of any project. “Estimating and scheduling are the crux of this industry,” says Higgins. That’s because there are so many variables to consider: applying for permits, ordering and receiving materials, scheduling subcontractors, waiting for inspections. There are also the factors you can’t control. Weather can seriously delay an outdoor project such as roof work, siding, or building a deck.

When it comes to setting deadlines, contractors have a habit of “being a little unrealistic,” admits Dean Bennett, president of Tri-Lite Builders in Chandler, AZ, says you should ask your contractor to guarantee a time line up front. And homeowners need to take responsibility for their role in that time line. Her company requires that clients make all design selections — such as granite, tile, paint colors, and light fixtures — before any work begins. “If we all of the sudden realizewe don’t have a part, and the homeowner says, ‘I’m going out of town and can’t make that decision right now,’ it holds up the project. It makes a mess,” Minde says.

Make a Plan and Stick with Your Decisions
Before you even call a contractor, come to an agreement with your spouse or partner about what the end result of your remodel should be. If you’re not working with a design-build firm or an architect, consider hiring a remodel consultant or project manager. Higgins provides homeowners with 3-D models of what their completed project will look like, complete with paint colors and tile choices. This can be very helpful for people who have trouble visualizing a blueprint and can reduce costly change orders midproject.

If a picture in a magazine or a home improvement program inspired you to make a change, understand that there are limits to what your contractor can do. “Sometimes homeowners can be unrealistic in terms of what’s available,” says Minde. “For instance, with all the green building going on, people want certain kinds of paint. But that paint doesn’t come in a myriad of colors.” So, she adds, don’t blame the contractor if the certain item you want simply doesn’t exist in the size, quantity, or materials you require.

Insist on Regular Progress Reports
In your contract, stipulate that you want to have a weekly meeting with the general contractor. Even if you’re living in the home while the work is going on, there’s a good chance you’re unaware of the particulars of the project. This communication can help limit costly and time-consuming surprises.

“We have a project manager assigned to your job,” Minde says. “We have weekly client meetings so they know, this is what is going to happen this week: On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, there will be drywall going on. On Thursday and Friday, I’m going to have to wait for it to dry so we won’t be here. What we all say in our company is that we should never hear the phone ring with clients saying, ‘What is going on?’ If we ever got thatcall from a client, we have not done our job.”

Create a Realistic Budget
If you have $50,000 for a kitchen remodel, plan your project so it will cost $40,000, says Bennett. Leaving a 20 percent cushion can help cover unexpected costs, such as the plumbing that no one knew needed replacing until the walls were ripped out. It also creates some wiggle room when, for example, you thought you wanted a basic $500 tub but then saw a $2,000 model that became a must-have.

AFTER WORK BEGINS

Handle Disputes Calmly
Greg Antonioli has a philosophy at his firm, Out of the Woods Construction, in Arlington, MA. It is: “Never allow the homeowner to turn you into an adversary.” That means no matter how loudly the homeowner yells, don’t help fuel the argument. “I tell people, ‘Bite your lip and maintain congeniality,’” Antonioli says. “Remind the homeowner that we’re in this together.”

This philosophy should work both ways. If you’re incensed over something your contractor did, turning up the volume is not the best way to fix the situation. Being politely persistent and persuasive is much more effective. “If you’re the nice guy,” Antonioli says, “on any given morning when the contractor has to decide where to send his resources, odds are they’re going to go not to the squeakiest wheel but to the nicest squeaky wheel.”

If your contractor made a mistake on the project — placed a window in the wrong spot or installed the kitchen tile in the bathroom — give him the opportunity to correct the error, Antonioli says. This should come at no cost to you.

If your contractor is obviously dishonest — if, say, he took your deposit and never returned to do the work, or you think he’s trying to scam you into paying him more money —  report him to your local authorities as well as the Better Business Bureau. You can fire him outright and then take him to court. Most contractors would rather negotiate with the homeowner than go to court, Bennett says, so see if you can come to an agreement before you hire a lawyer.

Bottom line: When undertaking any remodeling project, try to hire the right person for the job, get everything in writing, and handle disagreements calmly.