Remember that great line from the Paul Newman movie "Cool Hand Luke" where Strother Martin says, "What we have here is a fail-ure to com-mun-icate?" Well, in probably 98 out of 100 cases when something goes wrong between a homeowner and a contractor, that's the problem.
Not malice, not greed, not fraud, not stupidity -- but a simple failure to understand each other.
With a few unfortunate exceptions, contractors are decent, hard-working folks who've chosen to make their living in a difficult field.
And, with a few hysterical exceptions, homeowners are decent, well-meaning people who are both excited and apprehensive about approaching a project.
It doesn't seem like a difficult match: Contractors want to get going, get the job done, make a little money and move on. Homeowners want to get the project moving, get it done satisfactorily, not pay too much money and sit back and enjoy.
But many people contemplating a home-improvement project have never done anything like this before. They've probably heard more horror stories than success stories. They may not be at all prepared for the disruption even a simple job can cause. They're vulnerable in their ignorance and they know it. So when something doesn't go according to expectations, it can escalate into a major dispute.
The way to avoid conflicts is to spell out everything in advance.
You need to have clear plans and specifications and you need to be sure that you and the contractor have the same understanding of the job. "We'd like a bathroom in here" won't do. Only detailed plans and specs will do.
You need to know what to expect in terms of disruption. If you're having the only bathroom in the house redone, will it be out of commission? How long?
People who haven't been through a project before may not realize how much of their privacy will be invaded by having strangers at work in the house. Even when the crews are not there, there may be tools, materials and other reminders lying around. Some crews are better at cleaning up than others -- but if you want the site to be squeaky-clean at the end of each day, you'd better hire a maid.
Inexperienced home improvers also may not realize how much interaction, supervision and decision-making will be required of them. You can't simply set the task in motion and wait for the conclusion. You have to be involved.
Here are some tips for setting up and maintaining a sound relationship with a contractor:
*Check out the person or firm before you hire. Are they licensed, bonded, insured? Ask friends and neighbors for referrals. Get references. Find out if the person you discuss the job with is the person you will be dealing with when work gets under way. Some larger firms may employ salesmen who turn the project over to someone else once the contract is signed.
*Be direct. Don't try to chisel the contractor. If you want more work done than originally agreed, expect to pay more for it. (And you should know exactly what was originally agreed. If you expect the contractor to haul away debris from demolition, put it in the contract. If it's not there, it will most assuredly cost you more to get the hauling done.)
*Make sure the contract sets out a procedure for changes, additions, or deletions. Any such alteration should be agreed to, put in writing and signed by both parties. "Oh, while you're up there, could you install this light fixture?" won't do. "Can we get a change order to add installation of this light fixture?" will. You should know when any change is made exactly what it's going to mean in financial terms.
*Make sure the contract includes a reasonable draw schedule. Don't agree to pay out more of the money than work completed war rants. (You should always have enough money left to complete the job if something goes wrong.) Avoid large up-front payments. (Some locales limit them; the state of Maryland limits up-front payouts to one-third of the job total.)
*Check in regularly while work is going on. Talk to the contractor; be available for decision-making. If work has to stop while you debate changing the style of the cabinets doors, don't expect the contractor to sit around waiting. He can't afford it. He'll go off to another job that pays and return to you when he can. (You're paying for services, not servants.)
Finally, be flexible. Home improvement is not an exact science. Neither you nor the contractor has a crystal ball, and neither of you has control over every event that occurs while a job is going on. If you understand the process, and stay in touch, you are likely to get smaller, rather than larger surprises.
Next: If all else fails . . .
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.
Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.