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Playing nice?

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Builders and remodeling contractors offer these suggestions to help homeowners survive a construction process (and help the builders keep their sanity).

+ Agree on a definition of "crisis." Builder David Lupberger defines it as "a situation involving fire, smoke or water," and the homeowner can call him at any time. If it doesn't involve one of those three elements, it isn't a crisis, and the homeowner can't call him at home at night.

+ Establish a way for homeowners to ask questions and get prompt answers. Some builders agree to talk to the homeowner each morning between 7:15 and 7:30, and again each afternoon between 4:45 and 5 p.m. The rest of the time, they're working and can't sit down and spend half an hour shooting the breeze with you. Other builders create a notebook on-site where homeowners can write questions, and the builder promises to provide an answer within 24 hours.

+ Get out of the way. Lupberger once took over a job for another builder who had gone bankrupt. The client was dictating what was being bought and where and which subcontractors were doing the work. She insisted on going to Home Depot and buying her own plumbing and electrical fixtures. "When the plumber came to install something, he'd find there were pieces missing, so he'd have to come back a second time, and there's an additional charge for that," he said, not to mention the time delay. "You pay for the trade contractor to buy materials. If something doesn't show up right, they have to pay for it."

"We had a client who wanted to buy plumbing parts on the Internet. Those items don't always have all the parts included either," said Kathe Bierhoff of Herr Contracting. Other clients have hired people to work on the house without telling the contractor. "The contractor should not be the last person to know."

+ Prepare for sticker shock. "If you budget $10,000 for cabinets, you're going to spend $12,000 to $15,000," says builder Tom Stephani. "If you budget $20,000, you're going to spend $25,000. Accept the probability you're going to bust your budget, and allow for it."

+ Be prepared to spend the time it takes. There are endless meetings, shopping and product selection to be done, finances to arrange, paperwork to deal with. Clients have to make a major commitment of time during the process and do their part promptly, or the job will be delayed.

+ Ask all the questions you like. An informed client is a good client. But builders balk when clients demand an explanation and a justification for every product and procedure on a job site and want to know why the builder isn't using the same materials their friends used when they built their house. "You have to go through a whole proving process of showing that what you're doing is correct and the price is right," Tom Cosper says. "That's a delaying process. They wonder why the job isn't moving fast enough, and you can tell them, "Stop making changes and second-guessing everything we do. We have to slow down and prove to you that what we're doing is correct'."

+ Pay the bills promptly. "Some people find every reason to delay payment. That slows us down, and when vendors and subs don't get paid, it reflects on us and creates hard feelings," Cosper said.

+ Establish ground rules. If there is a family pet, who is responsible for the animal and where will it be kept while remodeling work is in progress? (Remodelers tell horror stories of cats run over by a contractor's truck, or closed into a wall.) If there are children, parents and builders need to establish zones where the kids may not go, and parents need to enforce them. Building areas are dangerous, and tools aren't toys.

+ Put it in writing. After each meeting, some builders send out a memo detailing what was said and what was agreed to. If anyone disagrees or has a different take on what happened, that's the time to raise the issue. Change orders need to be in writing as well. Some builders allow five changes without penalty but after that charge as much as $175 per change to deter clients from constant flip-flopping and asking for alterations on a whim.

+ Be realistic about the subs. Steve Thomas, Norm Abrams, Tommy Silva and Richard Trethewey _ the painstaking, attentive, personable stars of This Old House _ are not working on your project. "Do expect excellent workmanship," Mark Cagni of Cagni Construction in Clearwater tells his clients in a letter he sends them before work starts. "Do not expect perfection." Your contractor does not personally select the workers every subcontractor hires.

+ Remember the Golden Rule. Surprise the work crews with coffee and doughnuts now and then, or spring for a pizza lunch. "I once had a homeowner who met my guys with coffee and coffee cake every morning. They would have taken a bullet for her," Lupberger said. "I know she got some extra work" as a result. "To the degree you acknowledge the work people have done, you buy a great deal of craftsmanship and commitment."

If you're going to build a house, "you need to be flexible. You need to be able to keep your emotions under control," says builder Tom Stephani. "You need to have the time and ability to make decisions and stick with them. If you can't do all of those things, you ought not be building a house."

Works both ways

Syndicated columnist Tim Carter offers advice on how homeowners can select the right building contractor at his Web site (http://www.askthebuilder .com/cgi-bin/column?255). Click on the Builder Bulletin attached to that column for a list of questions for homeowners to ask contractors.