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Build Your Own Home, Issue #015, Handling Building Contractor Problems
January 03, 2006

Happy New Year!

This issue of Build Your Own Home is going to be about what to do when something goes wrong with your contractor. I want to discuss what you need to do, and what NOT to do, when you have a problem with any of your contractors.

Problems with contractors can come in assorted varieties, such as, not finishing on time, not showing up, poor workmanship, not getting along with the other contractors, not doing what was requested, and on and on.

Face it… building a house is very similar to raising children, or managing employees. The contractors look to you for guidance, and of course payment. In other words you are the Dad or Mom, or the boss, benevolent dictator, or whatever term you wish to assign to your role.

To put it in a nutshell, you are in charge of keeping the peace, and making sure everybody is happy and secure on your home building project. If you have never built a home this may sound a little crazy, but it is true, you are THE boss, the guy, or gal in charge. Get used to it, accept and embrace your role, don’t try and pass the buck when the hard decisions have to be made. Ok, what am I really talking about?

Let me give you an example.

You have a specific design for your kitchen cabinets (that you have laid out in great detail with your trim carpenter) and for some unknown reason he decides to deviate from the specific plan and makes a change to one of the cabinets.

You come to the site after work, and notice the change after the cabinet is hung and you (or more importantly your wife) don’t like it.

Your first reaction is to yell at the trim carpenter, and tear the cabinet off the wall. You were specific in your design and drawings. You made sure he understood what you wanted. You would be justified in being upset and making your trim carpenter pay for his mistake and pay for the materials he wasted. (Maple wood is expensive wood.)

Here is what you need to do. First, no matter how upset you are about the deviation (screw up!) take a few minutes and collect your thoughts. Get control of your emotions. Nobody ever wins by yelling and screaming.

Find your paperwork on the design and drawings of the kitchen (that he signed). Make sure you have all the facts before approaching the problem. Pull your Trim Carpenter to the side and talk it through calmly. (Do not chide him, or belittle him in front of the other contractors.) If indeed he has a good reason for the change LISTEN to his idea. If he made the change without your consent because he just misunderstood then you need to understand why, so it does not happen again.

This is where judgment and a cool head will prevail. If it is his mistake and he is clearly responsible, he customarily pays for the materials and the labor to fix the issue. If it is a gray area you need to work out your differences so both of you win and have a better understanding of what you want.

This actually happened on our project. After talking to the Trim Carpenter about the issue I found out that he thought his idea was better than mine. He was really trying to help me. I made him understand, that in the future, any changes must be approved (in writing) prior to making them. Something that we had already discussed…. but he needed a memory refresher.

I also asked him to reconstruct the cabinet the way we had originally decided.. for no additional labor cost. He agreed. I picked up the cost of the materials (that had been wasted) in lieu of another project that we had in mind that was over and above our original agreement. Everybody won on that day. I wound up with what I wanted, and he saved face and went on to do everything splendidly from that day on.

This is why I stress that you do your research and find the right building contractors that you can work with up front. If you have a good rapport with your contractors, then building your home will be so much easier. Remember that what begins badly…. usually ends badly. Trust your instincts! For more information on finding the right contractor go to the Building Contractor Page.

You are going to encounter many of these situations when you build a home. It is just part of the process. Usually you can find a solution that benefits both parties, but not always. You need to be firm and let the contractors know you are not a pushover but approachable enough that if there is a problem you are willing to work it out…to a point.

Remember changing contractors in the middle of the building process is the very LAST RESORT. It will cost you a bunch of money and grief if you do.

My three Golden Rules for dealing with building contractors are:

  1. Choose your contractors wisely. You don’t have to marry them… but it is pretty close to being married. Can you talk to them? Are they grumpy and argumentative? Pay attention to what is NOT being said!

  2. Be careful to document EVERYTHING in WRITTEN detail up front. Make sure the contractor understands what you want in writing and have them sign it. Give them a copy of your mutual agreement. Stick to it!

  3. NEVER ever give them advance payment on work that has not been performed. Remember as soon as they are paid in full…. they are GONE.
Don’t forget that most problems that occur with contractors stem from sloppy upfront communication. The contractor is not stupid…this is what he/she does for a living! The home building process is not the time to abbreviate, or summarize, or assume. DETAIL…. DETAIL…. DETAILS…or else…you will pay for it!

Happy New Year,


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If you want more information about building your own home go to our Building Knowledge Center.
If you want information on hiring qualified contractor go to our Building Contractor Page.
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