Be The Driver

This article is the fourth in a four-part series that consumer advocate, Richard Connolly published in the Boston Sunday Globe in September, 1991. Although that time seems long ago, little has changed, as you will soon discover.

Remodeling? Be the driver, not the driven

Richard Connolly

Boston Globe Correspondent

The moment you have been eagerly and anxiously awaiting has arrived at last. Your remodeling project is finally underway. Much excitement is in the air; the dirt and dust will come later.

Since most homeowners have personal, intense feelings about their homes, they may easily be carried away emotionally once the work begins. At no other time in the project, however, should cooler heads prevail.

One way to keep your wits about you during the construction is to maintain control over it by establishing a business – not a personal – relationship between yourself and the con­tractor, if you hire one, or all the subs in the event you do not.

Because many contractors readily admit to being can-do types who dislike working with the books, it is extremely important that the contractor or subs you hire run good busi­nesses first and do good work second.

At the heart of the business relationship between homeowner and contractor is money.

The key to the project is in your having control over the money, not the contractor. Too tight is no better than too loose. Whereas the first may lead to a relationship where power – not trust – is the overriding factor, laxity may result in the contractor’s perceiving you as being too easy-going.

This concept is different from how much money you may spend. Control your spending by doing more of the work yourself or by eliminating some of the options.

Large, up-front deposits of 1/3 to a general contractor should be avoided. A much more reasonable deposit is several hundred dollars or not more than 1% – 2% of the total cost of the project. There are exceptions, of course.

As the work progresses, payments should be made to cover only what was done. Small amounts paid more frequently according to performance allow the building of trust between the parties. All contracts should include a mutually agreeable payment schedule.

If you are acting as the general contractor, you will be making more payments automatically but still need to be careful with the amount of each. Plumbers and electricians typically require three payments, and the second usually is due once the inspections for the rough have been made. Four or five would be better.

You certainly will want to have good working relationships with the contractors, but it is not your responsibility to provide them with cookies and milk. Your hospitality will be quickly forgotten the first time you make a slow payment.

A second financial control to consider is changes to the work, which come from three sources: homeowner initiated, contractor suggestions, and items that were not included in the plans and specifications for the work. Set aside 5% – 10% of the total cost of the project as a contingency budget for the latter.

When the first change is made its cost should be added to the original contract price which, in turn, is adjusted to show the latest amount. As new changes or credits are made, the adjusted contract price is updated each time. Request, agree upon, and sign change orders immediately, not several days or weeks down the road.

It is the general contractor’s responsibility to pay the subcontractors and suppliers from funds received from the homeowner. To avoid any liability from either, request from the general contractor a “Release From Payment” signed by the sub or supplier.

Another way to maintain control over the project is through communication. Determine what the lines of communication are and then speak with one voice to the contractors [or their suppliers]. Agree on changes and communicate them to the contractor, not the workers.

To speak effectively one must first have the proper vocabulary. For example, to a carpenter a shoe, a plate, and a stud are components of a framed wall. A cobbler, a waiter, and a dog breeder would think otherwise.

If you are interested in contractor speak, contact the Northeastern Retail Lumbermen’s Assoc., Rochester, NY for the pocket sized Lumber and Building Material Reference Manual. The booklet is well illustrated, technical – but not intimidating – and has a useful glossary of terms.

In the event of a dispute, resolve the issue immediately. It is unreasonable to object to the manner in which a particular item was installed weeks or months after the original work was done.

It is difficult to predict how long a remodeling project will take. Three to four months to complete a project consisting of a new addition, kitchen, half bathroom, and deck is common. Add more time, perhaps a month, if you will be doing some of the work yourself.

Comparisons between the length of time your project takes and someone else’s are pointless because no two projects are ever alike. Furthermore, speed may not be a standard by which quality should be judged. As long as progress is being made on a regular basis, payment should continue.

Expect delays; they are inevitable and not necessarily anyone’s fault. Plumbers, for example, oftentimes respond to a high percentage of emergency work, especially during the winter. In that case, the removal of the kitchen sink may have to wait another day even though the other trades may back up. Schedules shift all the time, so shift with them.

Delays of several days or even a week are also common and, therefore, should not be taken as evidence of the contractor’s lack of attention to your project. Penalty clauses used to correct such delays are fundamentally unfair because the contractors are seldom, if ever, rewarded, when the work is done ahead of time.

Chronic delays, however, indicate a problem. The contractor should inform you in advance of any delays – assuming, of course, the sub has informed the contractor. Keep the lines of com­munication open; be firm but understanding.

On the other hand, do not cause a delay. Prepare as much in advance as you can for the removal of the kitchen cabinets by packing their contents in boxes stored safely. Clear other areas of the house affected by the work.

If you are responsible for the materials, make sure they are on site, out of the way, and have been inspected well in advance of their being needed.

Make timely decisions. Change a window size before the opening is framed, not after.

Pick out and order well in advance the floor and wall tiles and plumbing and electrical fixtures. Keep changes to a minimum, but do not be hesitant to request them either.

Lastly, aim for zero discrepancies in the work by addressing them immediately. A small hold back of 3% – 5% of the total cost of the project – as adjusted – is reasonable to cover any such punch list items. Again, control of the money equals control of the project.

By becoming informed, involved, and making decisions before the project begins, you become empowered to control its outcome. A well-organized and executed project is not a matter of luck. Rather, it is precisely detailed and quality planning on your part.

As the consumer, you have a responsibility to yourself to be the hammer – not the nail – of your building project.

Be the driver, not the driven.

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