A Homeowner’s Guide to Working With Contractors

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For homeowners, finally taking the plunge with a home renovation project involves money, lots of decision-making, a fair amount of stress, and yes, working with contractors. Though it would be nice if you could snap your fingers and renovate a kitchen or a bathroom, it's going to take a lot of planning and cooperation with various contractors to get the job done right.

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Never worked with a contractor before (or maybe never had a great experience)? Here's how to get the most out of your homeowner-contractor relationship — and a completed project of your dreams.

Be Contract Savvy

Everyone hears stories about remodeling and renovation projects gone awry, and unfortunately, they're often true. All sorts of disastrous things can happen. Completion dates and budgets are left in the dust, the upfront money you handed over disappears along with the contractor you trusted, the workmanship is shoddy — and these are just a sampling. The horrifying accounts could fill a book, but the truth is that lots of these situations can be avoided altogether or at least resolved easily and successfully when there's a tight, clear contract drawn up in the first place. Not having a contract at all is something to which you should never agree.

The two most important contract-related concerns to keep in mind when dealing with contractors are first, to give careful, informed consideration to what's included in the contract and second, to sign nothing until you've read every last word of what's drawn up. Period. No exceptions. If you're feeling pressured by someone who is "just stopping by for a quick signature," take a big step back and be assertive. Make it clear that you need time to read the contract before signing. You won't hurt anyone's feelings, and you may be sparing yourself serious misery.

Your remodeling project contract is what you and your licensed contractor will refer to during discussions about all aspects of the work. Consider some key things that should be included:

  1. Project description:​ Addresses scope of work, materials and their cost, necessary building permits, cleanup, and contractor's liability and workers' compensation insurance.
  2. Payment-schedule terms​: Establishes how much and when you'll pay for different phases of the work upon completion.
  3. Start and end date:​ Establishes an approximate time frame for the project's start and completion.
  4. Change-order guidelines:​ Outlines a process for communication and approval of project changes or additions.
  5. Termination clause:​ Establishes reasons the contractor or homeowner can quit the project with no penalty incurred.
  6. Lien release:​ Releases you from liability if the contractor fails to pay subcontractors (like electricians and plumbers).
  7. Right-to-rescind clause:​ Gives homeowners one to three days to rescind a signed contract without facing a penalty.
  8. Signatures:​ Creates a binding legal document.

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If your contractor wants to include a warranty clause in the contract, reject the idea. It may be designed to limit contractor liability. Only agree to such a contract clause if an attorney will be reviewing the contract on your behalf.

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Keep a Project Journal

If you're accustomed to making notes about everything in your life, such as grocery lists and to-do lists, then keeping a journal about the specifics and progress of your home improvement project will be a no-brainer. If, however, you've never been a note taker, you should start now.

Construction project notes logged in a journal can be an invaluable source of information about what has taken place, often helping to resolve disputes and minor misunderstandings with your contractor. A journal can even help if litigation becomes necessary, although official documentation is the most important substantiation in these cases. What's more, unethical contractors are often very practiced at shifting blame and may be less likely to do so when they know you're documenting the project.

Important things to include in your journal are:

  1. The start date.
  2. Project milestones and whether they were reached on schedule.
  3. Weekly progress updates.
  4. Inspection information: dates, inspectors' names, and inspection results.
  5. Subcontractors' adherence to work schedule or lack thereof and resulting delays and problems.
  6. Contractor's adherence to work schedule and whether delays resulted.
  7. Details of all delays.
  8. Details of all conversations with the contractor.
  9. Payment details: date of and reason for payment, from down payment to final payment.
  10. Delivery dates (for materials and other supplies).
  11. Change orders outlining adjustments to what was agreed upon in your contract. These should be written, signed by all parties, and kept in your journal.

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Don't Be Afraid to Communicate

When you first meet with your contractor, share your budget so no one springs costs on you that you're not prepared to handle. Provide as much detail as possible about what you want using visuals — not just verbal descriptions — of what you're seeking. Photos gleaned from magazines and even your own rough sketches can help clarify your goal. Explaining how you use the room or rooms can inform suggestions made by the contractor.

Make sure you understand how the contractor wishes to communicate (by phone, email, or on-site) and get in touch with them every morning before work begins. As work on the project progresses, make daily notes of concerns and communicate them quickly and clearly. Take photos weekly after the crew has left to help document progress and problems.

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Confirm Change Order Information

Ideally, changes to a project after it's underway will be minimal and truly important — not impulsive whims on the part of indecisive homeowners or adjustments on the part of a contractor who can't manage the job.

Any deviation from the original project plans must be clearly outlined in writing. This should include pricing and a statement of how the work schedule will be affected and must be signed by both the homeowner and contractor before any related work begins. Avoid making casual verbal agreements without exchanging emails confirming the details.

Pay When You're Supposed to Pay

The general contractor isn't the only one with contract terms to meet. You as the homeowner must hold up your part of the payment agreement, understanding that your working relationship with the contractor can suffer if you fail to pay on time. In addition to making your required initial payment, be sure to make each payment that's due upon the completion of each satisfactorily performed phase, including the final payment. Don't pay more than the contract terms call for you to pay. Paying in full before the agreed-upon work has been completed can result in loss of motivation on the part of the contractor.

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Stay Out of the Way

There's a lot of preliminary work for homeowners to do when a remodel is being planned: conceptualizing what you want, choosing colors and materials, finding the right general contractor, and negotiating the contract. As exciting as those activities can be, there's nothing like reaching the start date and seeing contractors show up on the job site to get things started. Because you're so excited, you may be tempted to hang around watching, but this is actually the point at which you need to back off and stay out of the way while there's hands-on work being done.

For one thing, your physical presence can disrupt the workflow, resulting in annoyance among members of the crew who have to step around you and take precautions to keep you safe. Second, it can create the impression that you're overseeing them. Make your own contribution to the workflow and foster a good relationship between homeowner and contractor by not hovering.

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Indiana University graduate, writer and DIY enthusiast Kynnie Kerry creates and markets high-end home softgoods and painted furniture treatments and has hands-on experience with home maintenance and remodeling projects — floor to ceiling — concept to completion.