As a home improvement expert I have seen and had to negotiate a lot of miscommunication between customers and myself as well as other home improvement experts. Sometimes, unfortunately, the other home improvement expert is truly at fault and the customer is truly correct in their complaints. Other times the disagreement simply comes from a homeowner not clearly understanding the nature of the home improvement beast. So when do you know, as a home improvement consumer, when it is founded to complain and when it is unfounded? Read on to find out.
The first, and most common complaint, I encounter in my business is that of time estimates. This is a sticky situation as most homeowner’s demand an estimate of both time and money upfront, before any work begins. From a home improvement experts point of view this is nothing more then a large headache and a big nightmare. Why? Houses are like people. Therefore, each one is different and unique in its own special way and each has its own distinctive set of problems. You could have 100 cookie cutter houses in one development, all built by the same company, and yet each one is still slightly different from the others. Why exactly? Because the land under each is different so modifications have to be made to each house to accommodate the terrain. Then there are the owners and the builders themselves. A large company may employ hundreds of different contractors, each with their own distinguished way of building a house. Each homeowner then does a little DIY here and a little there to make the home theirs. Combine these factors and you would be amazed how a home improvement expert can walk into one house, complete a job in a few hours, and then walk into the same identical house, in a different part of the same development, and do the same job as the first house but take days to complete it due to complications that arise from the differences in the two houses.
Now let’s get back to the time estimate problem. Say you ask me to estimate how long it will take to tear down, rebuild and line your chimney and I say, “That will take my men approximately 80 total hours of labor or one week for two men.” Now suppose that we hit some major complications with your chimney that require additional work. This could increase those estimated hours up to a final tally of say 90 hours total labor. This is usually where the fireworks begin for most homeowners.
So when is it ok to complain about hour overages and when is it not ethical to complain? Typically if the hours worked are a good 25% more then the hours estimated then you should question the contractor, but in an inoffensive fashion. Simply ask the contractor for an explanation of what caused the hours overage. If the contractor explains that they hit, say a large unexpected blockage in the chimney that had to be broken out in order for the liner to be put in place, then this is a legitimate overage and you need to pay your contractor for their services. However, if your contractor says instead, “Sorry, that’s just the way it goes.” and refuses to explain any further as to the overage then you may have a good reason to complain. Long story short, a real contractor will have a real reason for their overages and should be paid accordingly for their quality work. An illegitimate contractor wont have an explanation and should only be paid the estimate cost. Should they push the issue, push them to give you a reason for the overage. You, as a homeowner, have that right. If they put a mechanic’s lien on your home and still have no explanation, take it to court. Any lawful judge will throw their case out and rule in your favor.
My next biggest complaint, from homeowners, would be that of the materials costing more then the original estimated price. As any legitimate contractor would do I have to set down with these owners and explain each and every overture, in detail. A time consuming and annoying occurrence but a necessary one to put our customers at ease. But why do these overages occur? Well, for the same reason time overages occur. Each house is different and unique so one may require 400 bricks to rebuild its chimney while another may require only 350. A good contractor will always try and over estimate their materials costs to cover any problems that may occur. However, even the best over estimates can still be too small for the job. Another factor is the fluctuation of building materials costs. One day 2x4s could be $1.50 per board and the next $2.25. One can never predict these costs as they are governed by natural laws. What I mean by this is that a major forest fire in a major lumber producing area, such as Canada, can make lumber prices soar right after an estimate has been given to a customer. The only time you should ever complain about paying more for materials is when a contractor cannot and will not come up with proof as to why the costs have gone up.
Also keep in mind here that most legitimate contractors do include a handling and transport fee in the materials cost so, if they have a receipt for lumber that shows $100 and they are charging you $110, that is perfectly acceptable. However, don’t accept any cost that is more then 20% of the original bill that the contractor paid. It is ridiculous to expect to pay a higher markup unless of course the contractor can prove that they had to go to extraordinary lengths to get your materials, like, for example, having to drive to another state for a special order building material not found in your own state. As the owner of my own home improvement company I can fully justify handling and transport charges. When I set up my jobsites it takes me gas money and my own time, out of my own day, to acquire and then deliver all of your building materials to your jobsite. Just because a contractor isn’t on site working it doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t still working for you behind the scenes. If the markup is 20% or less and your contractor has a valid reason for the increase in materials cost, pay your contractor accordingly.
My final disagreement that occurs on jobsites occurs around the final cleanup. All too often a homeowner will request that you clean up something unrelated to the jobsite itself. In a case like this you can be accessed an additional fee, over and above the original estimate, if the contractor so chooses to do so. This is perfectly valid as they are doing extra work that was not originally agreed upon in the estimate and you should pay the extra fee. However, if your contractor tries to charge extra for cleanup that was originally agreed upon at a set price in the estimate or doesn’t do the agreed upon clean up then you have a legitimate reason to complain and not pay this portion of the bill. A general rule of thumb I follow is that a person’s property should look far better when I leave it then when I found it. Therefore I sweep down all walkways that may have gotten debris on them and do the same with all porches and/or floors that may have become soiled. If a contractor leaves these areas filthy and/or leaves cigarette butts and/or trash all over your property then you have a legitimate reason to not pay for the removal and clean up until they come back and make it right. The final cleanup should also include, at no extra charge to you, the homeowner, repair of any damage caused by the contractor. A good contractor will check for damages and take photos prior to a job starting up in order to ensure that no disagreements in this area occur at the end of the job.
As a final note, expect to pay for any and all extras that you throw at your contractor during the completion of the job. For example, after beginning a recent chimney job we were asked to clean the area around the chimney inside of the house and clean the gutters of the home. This was not in the original agreement and therefore are being charged out as an added cost over and above the original estimated cost. If you hire someone to build you a garage and then ask them to fix your driveway while they are there then don’t be surprised to get a much higher final bill and don’t be surprised to have the job take a longer period of time. Should you and your contractor follow these simple rules of jobsite courtesy you should have a lasting and professional relationship with your home improvement expert.