What to Do When the Client-Contractor Relationship gets Rocky

How much will it cost

You are three months into your six month renovation. All of your friends told you horror stories about their contractors, but you read our article “Choosing a Contractor with Confidence” and followed all of our suggestions. Everything started out great. You were so proud of yourself for doing it better than your friends. Bragging rights are a powerful thing. But now the relationship with your contractor is getting rocky. It seems like the construction schedule has slowed down. You keep creating lists of things that do not look right and your contractor just says they will get to them. Calls to your contractor don’t get returned right away. You thought you were their most important client. Maybe other clients are getting more attention now.

Like any relationship, there will be ups and downs over the course of a lengthy construction project, even between excellent contractors and well intentioned clients. What should you do?

First and foremost, it is important to humanize the players. Remember that we are all in this together, working toward the goal of delivering you an amazing home. As a contractor we try our best to be sensitive to our clients’ situations. We know that a construction project is often one of the biggest events in a client’s life and that undertaking one can create an enormous amount of stress. We keep in mind that most of our clients’ belongings are in storage and they are most likely living in an apartment, or worse, with their parents. We understand that a client’s nerves are likely to be frayed. A good contractor will work hard to empathize with the client and not get defensive. On the flip side, we also try to gently remind our clients that we are people with families, and yes, other clients. Try to keep in mind that your contractor is often not the cause of your stress but sometimes ends up being your target.

Second, ask for a meeting with your contractor to review the project. Inform your contractor ahead of time that you would like a report on the budget, the schedule and any other concerns you have. This allows the contractor to come prepared with answers and solutions to your concerns. Present everything to the contractor in a factual manner. Try not to let the meeting devolve into a complaint session. These types of meetings should really take place on a bi-weekly basis as a preventative measure.

Third, be clear in your expectations moving forward. Here are some expectations to which we believe all clients are entitled:

The schedule: A good contractor should be able provide you with a current construction schedule and identify any events that caused changes to the schedule. Sophisticated contractors use cloud-based project management systems, such as Builder-Trend or Co-Construct, that have a construction schedule component. Contractors that are highly organized and confident in their process share the scheduling component of the project management platform via an owner’s portal. Schedules should be adjusted as needed, for things like weather or change orders that require additional time. If your contractor doesn’t have a schedule that is communicated to you in some manner, this is a big red flag.

The budget: Your contractor should also be able to provide you with a detailed budget and any changes to the budget. Typically, any changes to the budget should be approved before the costs are actually incurred. As with schedules, sophisticated contractors use project management systems to manage the budget. Owners can track change orders and allowances through the owner’s portal. There should not be surprises when it comes to the current costs. If your contractor is repeatedly telling you that you are over budget, but not quantifying the numbers for you, you should request that all construction stop until both you and your contractor can come to an agreement on costs for the rest of the project.

Workmanship: If you have concerns about workmanship issues, your contractor should be willing to discuss these with you. There are a number of standards that can be used as a benchmark for workmanship, including the Residential Construction Performance Guidelines, published by the National Association of Homebuilders. If something is outside of the performance thresholds then it is clearly an item that needs to be corrected. Even if your contractor doesn’t use this book, it is a good source of what is considered standard. As a homeowner, it is important to keep in mind a few things. First, proper construction follows a specific sequence of events. Just because you think the paint job on one wall is not good, that doesn’t mean it will be fixed the next day. It might only be the first coat, or the contractor might be waiting to get into the punchout stage to address the paint issue. Give the contractor the benefit of the doubt that your concerns will be addressed within the proper order of events. A good contractor will have a much more extensive list of items to be addressed that you do not even know about and often generate multiple internal punchlists before the project is turned over to the homeowner. That said, if there are glaring issues that you have concerns about, these can be discussed at a formal meeting and your contractor should be able to give you a plan for addressing the issues.

Above all else, both parties should treat each other with respect and dedicate time to communicate with each other on a consistent basis. If you do not feel like your concerns are being adequately addressed, then you can request work to stop until everyone gets on the same page. If there are huge red flags, you may need to bring in a third party to assess the contractor’s work and assist with getting the project back on track.