Working With Contractors

What is a contract?

Every time you sign your name on the dotted line, you are legally staking your name to a contract. A contract is a legal document that guarantees a service between two or more people.

Generally speaking, a contractor is any person who agrees to fulfill the demands of a contract. When you hire a lawn care company to mow your grass and a plumber to fix a leaky pipe, you are dealing with contractors. The contractor then legally binds his or her name to the action spelled out in the contract – and so do you.

When it comes to home remodeling, a “general contractor” is the person who is in charge of the construction site. Contractors use their contracts, agreed upon by both the homeowner and the contractor, as the blueprint for all aspects of the job.

The vast majority of contractors are honest people who simply want the opportunity to do the things you want done, and they want you to be happy with the work. A contractor’s whole livelihood is based on your satisfaction, but every contractor has had a combination of good and bad experiences with customers.  As a result of those experiences, contractors rely on the written contract to resolve any dispute over what was agreed.

Types of contractors

In a big remodeling job involving several trades, there are two main types of contractors: General contractor and subcontractors.

A general contractor is a type of manager who is in charge of overseeing the entirety of a project. For a home remodeling job, the GC will meet with the homeowner to go over the initial project details, estimate the cost of the project, draft a contract, hire workers and handle the daily operation of the job. General contractor usually don’t perform any of the labor, but instead hire skilled tradesmen as subcontractors.

A subcontractor is a worker who is hired by a general contractor to perform the obligations of another’s contract. Also referred to as specialty contractors or “subs,” subcontractors are typically hired to perform a specialized type of labor. They are the plumbers, roofers, carpet installers and electricians who are essential to any large remodeling project. As the name implies, subcontractors work under contract with, and get paid by general contractors.

There are also specialized, trade-specific contractors who manage groups of workers under the same trade. For example, an electrical contractor could be a business owner or firm that employs a team of electricians. This type of contractor is usually needed for large projects, or highly-specialized work.

General contractors

Homeowners are used to hiring repairmen for specific jobs – replacing a toilet, putting down carpeting, etc. But when it’s a big job, like remodeling a kitchen, things can quickly become complicated. Several specialists will need to be hired, and scheduled to perform their work in the proper order. Plumbers, flooring installers, countertop specialists – all of these workers need to managed and coordinated with each other.

This is usually when a general contractor near you is needed. A general contractor will assess the project from the initial meeting with the homeowner and devise a plan to guide the job all the way to completion. Seasoned contractors should have a strong understanding of every aspect of home remodeling and be able to answer questions on everything from the types of building materials needed, the skill level and number of workers required, timelines for completion and the necessary building permits to ensure the project is finished in a safe manner and up to code.

General contractors get paid by taking a percentage of the overall cost of the completed project. Some will charge a flat fee, but in most cases, a general contractor will charge between 10 and 20 percent of the total cost of the job. This includes the cost of all materials, permits and subcontractors.

Ultimately, the role of a general contractor is to oversee the day-to-day operations of a project while acting as the communication liaison for all parties involved. As homeowners who have been through major projects can attest, this can go very smoothly or it can go badly. The most important thing the homeowner needs to do is hire the right contractor, and then make sure that contractor fully understands the homeowner’s intentions – down to the last detail.

The homeowner's responsibility

Hiring an experienced, professional contractor to help with your home improvement projects is already a step in the right direction. However, if you haven't worked with contractors before, you may not be aware of the dynamics involved in a contractor-customer relationship.

If you're new to the process, or just want to work on improving your relationship with your existing contractor, consider the following tips:

1. Be clear about what you want, and don’t be afraid to speak up. Contractors say homeowners with realistic and well-defined goals are usually the most satisfied. Make your expectations clear during the discussion stage, and then when the contract is written take the time to read it, and discuss the details again. If you have a question or you’re unhappy with any aspect of the project, bring it to the contractor’s attention as soon as possible. It's your home, your project and your money. One of the worst things you can do to contractors is let them get started on a job and then say you meant something else.

2. Be available for the estimate. Although it depends on the scope of your home improvement project and the contractor's preferences, contractors may provide you with an estimate anywhere from one day to several weeks after you submit your project. This is because it will involve researching the cost of materials, calculating the time needed to complete the project, number of workers needed and so on.  As a customer, the best thing you can do is make an effort to be available when the contractor contacts you, and don’t be late. Driving to the site, discussing the job and preparing the written estimate all cost the contractor time and money.  A "free estimate" isn't really free for contractors -- it's an investment cost that they absorb.

3. Inform rejected contractors of your decision.  Since you have likely contacted several contractors to find the best price for your home improvement project, it's important that you let the rejected contractors know that you won't be using their services. While an estimate may be free to the consumer, it can cost a contractor time, effort and money to meet with you about your project and provide an estimate.  Sure, they'll get the message if you ignore their calls for a month, but it's always more professional, polite and considerate to call the contractors personally so they can focus their time and efforts on other projects.

4. Make payments on time.  As a customer, you are responsible for making payments to contractors according to the guidelines set forth in your contract. In the same way you would be frustrated by a late payment from your workplace, contractors will grow impatient when payments are consistently delayed.  The best thing you can do to maintain a positive relationship with contractor sis keep track of when your payments are due and make an extra effort to submit them in a prompt manner. This shows the contractor that you appreciate his or her work and encourages them to continue the job in a timely manner as well.

5. Have some trust in your contractor.  Once you have verified the contractor's certifications and experience level, checked customer references and established a contract, you should trust in his or her ability to effectively finish the job. If your contractors have proved to be capable of providing quality work, try to avoid hovering around the worksite. Not only will it slow progress on the job, it can lead the contractor to believe you have no faith in his or her work.

Resolving disputes

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you find yourself at odds with a contracted service provider. When that happens, it's helpful if you know the best ways to resolve conflicts with a contractor.

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