Home improvement contractors are unique people. I am no longer surprised by the tricks pulled by some of them as I have learned to expect absolutely anything. Does their business environment require some to act a certain way? I have not yet fully figured this out and hope you’ll share some of your experiences and thoughts. Here are some of mine.
Know the work. This is a difficult one as the more you know the less pleasant it is to see the various shortcuts that are employed at your expense. However, “ignorance is bliss” does not apply in this environment as “bliss” could turn into “nightmare” quickly if you have no clue what to expect. Read about good workmanship for each project and sub-project, talk to people who might offer you their experiences, but more importantly get a few estimates (at least 3 when the job is over $500) and ask the contractors what they think a job well done entails and how they feel others will shortchange you if you do not give them the job. This task is really about knowing the scope of the work. If you do not know what the scope should be, do not waste time on other elements. One issue here is the contractor does not always know the scope by looking at the job. For example, replacing a sink might involve plumbing, electrical work, plastering, painting, and all kinds of other activities. The contractor knows that unexpected items come up and tries to compensate by overestimating or by underestimating (to get the business) and then coming up with change orders. Numerous other variations also exist (walking from the job part way, using less or less expensive materials, cutting scope in less visible areas, etc.) The “good” contractors often charge so much that even if unexpected items arise, they can eat into their profit for maintaining a good reputation. The issue here is that it’s a zero sum game where your gain is the contractor’s loss or at least it’s often perceived this way by both parties. Knowing the job is required for properly overseeing the work.
Know the contractor. This is another difficult one because unless you are in the business, chances are you do not need a plumbing contractor every month. You tend to not know people in the different trades as well as you would if you had to deal with them more frequently. Also, opinions of others are often misleading. A few recommendations from trusted friends have completely backfired for me in the past. The way I try to figure out who they really are is by asking direct questions with clear cut answers. It is difficult to say but this is a character examination where you are trying to determine the integrity of a person. I try to stay clear from contractors who give less than clear answers. The questions could include pricing issues. For example, they often like to secure a payment of at least half the work in advance to ensure they are not at risk. I try to avoid paying more than a third in advance. I disclose this rule up front and see how they react. I also try to gauge how responsive they are. Recently one of them did not call me back for two days and when I gave the work to someone else he was surprised. What you are trying to assess is if you could trust such a person with important work. You are trying to determine if trust is even important to him/her, if they would be proud of their work and would stand by it for a long time, if they value your deadlines, and if they would be honest and reasonable with you throughout the process.
Know the contract. Often the contract is missing important details or does not exist at all. The key missing elements are often the start date, and even more importantly, the end date. Most contractors do not have these on their contracts. The second issue is that the scope of work and the breakdown of the costs are not spelled out. The third is that payment details are skewed to minimize the contractor’s risk. As in any negotiation, all of the details are up for discussion. I did not fully appreciate this until very recently. It takes some courage to bring up difficult issues but it’s far better to address them at the beginning instead of having to deal with them when some work has already been done. Recently, I have gone to the extreme of having my own contract and requiring the contractor to accept the terms or discuss in advance the issues with the contract. So far, this has worked better for both parties.