18 Tips for Communicating with Contractors

Having a productive and successful relationship with the man or woman who’s turning your sorry excuse of a kitchen into a dreamy cookspace requires a well-honed set of interpersonal-relationship tools. Oregon Home talked with two contractors, two architects and a homeowner who’s been in Remodelingville about how to make the most of your partnership.

[1. Reach a consensus withyour spouse about remodeling issues you differ on so that your contractor doesn’t have to plaY marriage counselor.]
When you and your spouse have conflicting visions about how your master suite will turn out, you can create stress for you and your builder, and make your project more expensive to complete. Get on the same page creatively with your partner before the contractor starts moving walls.

“You always know there’s a communications problem between a husband and wife if only one person in the couple is coming to the meetings,” says David Giulietti, the principal at Giulietti/Schouten AIA Architects in Portland. “Both spouses need to be involved during the design phase of the job. One person can’t come to the office, review design and return home and properly explain the process to the other.”

“Nowadays, e-mailing is a very effective way to communicate with everybody.”

[2. Schedule time to talk about the project.]
If you have questions about your project or need daily or weekly updates, set up a specific time for getting information rather than constantly pulling away your contractor from the job site. “I like to have regularly scheduled site meetings to talk with my clients about the project’s progress and their expectations,” says Giulietti. “After these meetings, we put together minutes with ACTION and PENDING items and identify any new work. Even if you have a complete set of architectural drawings and specifications, you’ll still have to answer hundreds of questions that come up during construction.”

For small details or problems that can be resolved easily, e-mail your contractor or make a quick phone call. “When we’re finalizing something such as cabinet details, we often e-mail sketches to the homeowners, contractor and cabinetmaker simultaneously and usually get quick answers,” says Giulietti. “Nowadays, e-mailing is a very effective way to communicate with everybody.”

[3. When searching for the perfect contractor, don’t just be a bid collector: interview a few contractors at length to find out whether your personality and workstyle meshes with theirs.]
While a bid can give you some idea of what a project might cost, most bids don’t contain the level of specificity a homeowner needs to make a final decision about a project. A quick meeting with a potential contractor and a handing over of the bid isn’t enough time for you to determine whether a contractor will be good to work with. “Rather than having contractors visit you at home and tell you how to fix up your place and how much it’s going to cost, you need to interview them the way you would if you were hiring them for a job,” says Scott Gregor, the president of Master Plan Remodeling in Portland. “Find out how they do business, how their paperwork flows. Have them give you a remodel sequence from the beginning to the end of the job. That’s how you quickly find out whether a contractor has his or her head screwed on well in terms of the way he or she does business. Jobs tend to become problematic when a contractor doesn’t know how to manage a job from start to finish or poorly oversees multiple projects. A bid can’t tell you about those things.”

[4. Honestly assess the type of client you’ll be so that you can choose a builder who’s had success working with similar clients.]
Depending on the homeowner, he or she might want to be very involved in the remodel or want to be very hands-off. Whatever your style, you need a contractor that is comfortable with the way you tend to approach projects. “If you’re looking to do a kitchen remodel and you want the builder to take care of everything, that’s a completely different scenario than if you want to be involved and make a lot of choices and have a lot of flexibility with the design,” says David Bearss, the principal behind David Bearss Architect in Hood River, Ore. “Those are opposite ends of the spectrum of builders and clients. When you interview builders, you need to know what kind of client you’ll be, and you also need to ask a lot of questions that will allow you to find out what kind of clients the builder has been working with.”

[5. Realize that choosing a contractor is a lot like dating: You both have to want to work on the project together.]
While you’re interviewing contractors, your potential contractor is likely evaluating you as a possible client, so show him or her that you’d be good to work with.

“The parties need to get together and interview each other,” says Jim Doherty, the owner of Jim Doherty Constructionin Spray, Ore. “I need to convince myself that you and I can get along. I need to look at your houseplans and see the house you want to build is something that I can do justice to. I need to interview you and see if you’re the kind of people I want to do work for. What often gets people into trouble is trying too hard to make the deal.”

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[6. After you’ve verified a contractor’s technical expertise and verified that he or she has the business experience, hire a contractor whom you understand and who understands you.]
A good contractor-client relationship can be the difference between a project that goes smoothly and one that morphs into “A Nightmare on ______ Street” (insert name of your street!). You need to ensure that the contractor you hire is someone who will listen to you and respond to your needs and suggestions.

“Even under the best of circumstances, aspects of the building process can sometimes be painful, so it’s critical to get along with your contractor,” says Dave Lyons, the owner of JDL Development in Portland. “The relationship can get quite intimate in the sense that people will be working in your house. You’ve got to feel comfortable with your choice so that when the construction is complete, you’ll have a finished product you love.”

[7. Find your contractor the same way you’d find your neurosurgeon.]
One of the best ways to locate a contractor for your project is to ask people you know for recommendations. Getting information from people you trust, or who have worked with a contractor you’re interested in hiring, can help you make a final decision.

“You don’t pick a doctor out of the phone book, so shouldn’t pick your contractor that way, either,” says Giulietti. “It’s better to talk to family, friends or other people you know who’ve had remodeling or construction work done, and get their feedback about the contractors they’ve worked with.”

[8. If you’re tackling a whole-house remodel, move into temporary digs so that your contractor has full run of the house without having to ban your family from certain spaces or pen in your pets.]
“If you have a place to go—go, because after the second week, camping out in your home loses its fun,” says Lyons. “Remember, you’ll probably have days without power and days of painting and various fumes.”

If it’s not possible for you to move into a rental home for a few months, think about doing a large remodel in stages rather than all at once. “If you can’t move out for the entire time of construction, think about doing the project in phases,” says Gregor. “Do a master plan and then do one area at a time, making sure that one job is done before taking a break or moving on to the next part of the house.”

[9. Accept that remodeling completion dates have a tendency to come and go.]
While a contractor’s goal is always to complete a remodel or new home on time, any small change in the project or any unforeseen circumstances can set back the schedule. You should treat start and finish dates as achievable goals rather than directives carved in stone. “It’s important to have start and finish dates, but you have to keep in mind that if you change the scope of the remodel or expand it, the project is going to take longer to complete,” says Gregor.

[10. Visit a few of your contractor-to-be’s former clients to get an understanding of his or her work.]
Touring one or two of your contractor’s former clients’ homes is a great way to get an idea of what your finished remodel could look like and will give you an opportunity to ask the homeowners what it’ll be like to have workers in your house.

“We visited a house that our contractor had done, and I’m so glad we did,” says Portlander Dianne Hackler, who went through a three-month remodel of her kitchen in 2006 under the management of Dave Champawat, the owner of Athene Construction in Gresham, Ore. “We were able to examine the quality of Dave’s construction and his level of detail. We could also ask the homeowners questions about him that we couldn’t ask him directly. Being able to do that made us feel even better about hiring Dave for our remodel.”

[11. A picture is worth a thousand words and can be the difference between a space you love and one you can’t wait to redo.]
One of the best ways to convey your design ideas to your builder is to collect pictures and drawings of home features that you like and want to incorporate into your home.

“I always recommend that clients put together scrapbooks of photos from home magazines and write right on the picture what it is that grabbed them about that photograph,” says Gregor. “Is it the color of the walls? The feel of the room? The cabinet door hardware? As you add photos to the scrapbook, and as I look through it, I can begin to get a good idea of your taste, and that gives me a direction to go in making recommendations.”

[12. Don’t demolish a single wall until you have a written contract that both you and your contractor have signed.]
The Construction Contractors Board of Oregon claims that the biggest cause of homeowner-contractor disputes is the written contract: not having one, having a poor one or having one that both parties ignore. A good contract includes: A contractor’s company name, address (not a post office box) and phone number; the name of the builder, contractor and license number; a detailed project description; a materials list; a statement that all permits and inspections are the responsibility of the contractor; start and completion dates; warranties of workmanship, the length of the warranty and what’s covered and what isn’t; the contractor’s guarantee that he carries liability insurance and workers’ compensation coverage; a statement that the contractor will do the cleanup; and the total price and payment schedule.

“I’ve never had to go back and pound a contract with my finger,” says Lyons. “But a contract brings a level of comfort to both the homeowners and the contractor. A contract provides a basis to work through any difficulties we might have.”

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[13. realize that you are just as accountable as Your contractor in making sure a job is finished on time.]
Once you and your contractor sign a contract and the work begins, you need to make sure you follow through on what you’re supposed to do. If you want to order expensive glass tile from France for the master bathroom’s shower, don’t wait until the day before the tilesetter is due to arrive to discover that it takes eight weeks for the tile to arrive.

“Homeowners actually cause many of the delays,” says Giulietti. “You need to realize is that you are as responsible for the schedule as the contractor. If the contractor says he or she needs decisions on the light fixtures by a certain date, and you’re two weeks late with the decision, you have to accept that the schedule just got extended by two weeks.”

[14. Try to understand the environment your contractor works in.]
A contractor working in an urban area has different resources than a contractor working in a rural area. If your dream home is a remodeled cabin in a remote part of Oregon where you’ll be able to escape urban life, realize that your contractor is working in conditions that are much different than in a city. Don’t judge the way in which the project is going based on the standard for construction work in a city.

“You need to be aware that the logistics of building in rural areas are much different,” says Doherty. “Most of our lumber comes from 100 miles away; if I run short of something, it can take a whole day to get it. Plus, a contractor in a rural area might not always have access to e-mail or a cell phone. This doesn’t mean that the job will necessarily take longer, but you have to trust that your contractor can get it done.”

[15. Tell your builder which aspects of the job are important to you and which ones you’ll NIX So Your must-haves happen.]
Three factors drive most projects: the cost or budget, the schedule and the quality of the design. Which of those is most important to you will shape the project. “If you want something quickly and you have a fixed budget, you have to be flexible with the design,” says Bearss. “If you want Italian marble for your countertops and it takes nine weeks for it to arrive, then you probably can’t have the marble. You might have to sacrifice a design aspect to get the job done quicker. If you want the best design and you have a fixed budget, though, be flexible with the schedule and realize that it’ll take time for the materials to come together.”

[16. If your relationship with your contractor goes downhill, brake before it crashes.]
If you have communication problems with your contractor, don’t let things fester. Clear up issues as quickly as possible before they have a negative impact on your remodel. You need to find out why the problem occurred and how to prevent it from happening again.

“You should put a brief hold on the construction project and have an honest sit-down chat,” says Bearss. “Admit that there were misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides of the table. If you can’t accept part of the blame for miscommunicating, the relationship will only get worse and the situation will affect how your project ultimately turns out.”

[17. Know that YOUR actions and attitude can determine a project’s success or failure.]
Even though you’ve turned over the work on your house to someone else, you still need to be proactive. How you interact with your contractor will have an effect on whether the job goes as planned.

“Be responsible for what you’re supposed to take care of,” says Hackler. “Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. You have to be aggressive if you need to be. At the same time, you have to make the crew feel comfortable in your home. They’re there to work, but you don’t want to make them feel second-rate because you’re the one who asked them to be there in the first place.”

[18. After a remodel is complete, thank your contractor in a way that’s meaningful to him or her.]
Referrals are the lifeblood of most contractors, and singing your contractor’s praises to future clients is a great way to let others know how pleased you were with the work. But, if you’re happy with a job well done, it’s nice to show the contractor you appreciate all the effort that went into transforming your home.

“Referrals, of course, are most valuable to a contractor,” says Doherty. “Though I once had a client who ordered me a full-body massage, and that was great after all the work I’d put in on the house.”