Some Notes on Dealing with Contractors

Don't forget to pay close attention during, and at the end of, construction in your home.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jan 19, 2014 4:38 PM

Dealing with Contractors


There’ll be surprises along the way, some of them delightful and some not. But here are a few matters for which you should be prepared.

Pay for completed work. And you should only pay for work that is correctly completed, since a paid invoice leaves a contractor or sub no incentive to return and fix the problem. So make sure the work is right before writing the check.

You won’t be the one inspecting the work: His title may be building inspector or code enforcement officer, but for jobs of any size, he’ll make periodic vis­its to the site to ensure you are in compliance with the building code. Typically inspections are required for new foundations; at the completion of the rough fram­ing; after the plumbing and electrical services have been “roughed-in”; when the electrical and plumbing work is completed; and when the house is ready for occu­pancy. In some municipalities, the amount and installation of the insulation will also be checked.

Some communities require more, some less, but usually before the Certificate of Occupancy is issued the inspections must be completed. The nature of the job is also a determining factor as, obviously, if your project involves no plumbing work, then no plumbing inspections will be required.

Consider the story of the homeowner who, upon realizing dur­ing construction there was no linen closet in the new master bedroom complex, asked that one be added. He identified a place, thinking the shallow niche at the end of a hallway would require a minimum of change to the plan. Yet when the bills came, the total cost worked out to $1,900. To this day, the homeowner refers to the closet in disgusted tones as “that nineteen-hundred-dollar closet!”

Strange as it may sound, he wasn’t ripped off. The installation was more than a matter of simply framing in an extra door. There was electrical work to do, too—several electrical boxes had to be moved, a light fixture added, a switch line run to control it. The door itself had to be special ordered, because it was an oddball size. Then the interior of the closet was fitted out with state-of-the-art shelving. In an addition with an average cost of about $100 per square foot, that closet had a square foot cost of more like $250.

My friend made two mistakes: First, he didn’t anticipate the need for the closet during the planning stages. But I’ve already scolded you about the importance of thinking things through first.

Second, he didn’t execute a change order when he changed the original plan.

Again, a change order is a sort of contract amendment. It incorporates the change into the basic agreement, describing the change, its price, necessary materi­als, added labor cost, and so on. The creation of a change order means that every­body’s on board, no one is surprised later. You have the bad news of the cost increase, and the contractor proceeds. No surprises.

Change orders aren’t inevitable, but they are very common. In order to manage the expense of change, follow two basic rules. First, if someone is managing your con­struction for you, ask him or her to negotiate the change orders with the contractor(s). There may be inexpensive solutions to a problem. Second, get the change order in writ­ing. Casual conversations have a way of being remembered differently months later.

Errors get made. Details get forgotten. Misunderstandings occur. That’s life.

Perhaps the prefabricated countertops arrive, and they simply don’t fit. When the appliances are removed from their boxes, one is mint green, the others white. A partition wall is built in the wrong place. The windows or doors don’t fit the rough openings. The tile, the moldings, plumbing fixtures, the cabinetry… there really are many things that can go wrong.

What do you do?

Get upset if you must, but keep the anger to yourself. Walk around the block. Have a glass of water. Listen to a Mozart concerto. Get cool again, then solve the problem.

If you’ve put an architect or construction manager in charge, talk to him or her first. Go through channels. Whatever the explanation, you will find a problem or two or twenty as you examine progress on your renovation.

Mistake prevention? Meet often with your builder and designer. Review con­struction progress, costs, and schedule. What deliveries are due? If there are delays, determine the cause. If people are waiting for materials, what’s the holdup?

Alongside the plans at this work site, a staircase carriage begins to emerge.

Keep a daily log as things proceed. Even if you’re not a gifted pho­tographer, buy a cheap disposable camera (make sure it’s a model with a flash attachment; they cost less than ten dollars and the quality of pictures is much higher). Take pictures of the job as it progresses.

Later—after the job is completed—you may find a journal useful in settling disputes, large and small. Your notes and pictures may jog your memory and other people’s when there are questions of who said or did what to whom and when.

Even if you don’t need it, it’s a good insurance policy. Plus you’ll have a record of the process. When friends and relatives come to admire the finished product, you can show them before and after, as well as in-progress shots. Most people are fasci­nated. It’s both businesslike and fun.

A closing thought? At some point when you won’t be interfering with the workers, spend an hour walking through what will be a typical day for you in your new space. Do it on a Saturday or a Sunday, when you have the place to yourself and some uninterrupted time. Literally go through the paces of a typical day: Walk to the bathroom, from the morning shower to breakfast. Carry out a usual work and recre­ation schedule, the other meals and entertaining and the activities of a day.

Try to imagine what it will be like living in the new space. There should be a growing sense of anticipation. And it’s completely normal to have concerns about costs, schedules, and a million other things. But keep in mind your last chance to correct any unanticipated problems is rapidly approaching.