Top 10 ways to annoy your contractor

Reliable and skilled contractors are worth their weight in gold, especially considering the billions of dollars Canadians drop annually on home renovations. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., Canadians spend more than $17 billion a year on renovations, at an average cost of $11,000 per job. With all that work going on, often there aren't enough qualified contractors to go around. Yet, for some reason, even top-notch tradespeople seem to have to put up with more than their fair share of abuse. The following are the most common things clients do to tick off contractors. Avoiding these mistakes will not only pave the way to a better job, but will keep a vengeful contractor from stuffing the remains of his lunch in your ventilation ducts.

To keep your contractor happy, don't:

Call for quotes with no idea what you want

When soliciting estimates for home-renovation projects, it is wise to get at least three estimates. You'll be able to get a sense of a fair price for the job and ask each contractor for his thoughts on what your options are. That said, while larger home-reno companies employ sales teams to assess jobs, providing quotes is a time-consuming, unpaid part of an independent contractor's job. Don't call for a quote and then expect the contractor to do all the work for you. You should at least do a bit of research into design and materials and have an idea of what your budget is before you call in asking for an estimate.

You also have to budget some time for quote preparation. You need to recognize that, like you, independent contractors have families and other commitments that eat up their non-working hours. They invariably end up working on their estimates over the course of several evenings or weekends. The more complex the job, the longer calculating its cost will take.

Finally, when making your decision on which company to go with, make sure the quotes that you're comparing are truly apples to apples. The quality of finishing materials can often explain large price discrepancies.

Be hospitable

“I hate being blamed for things that are not my fault,” says contractor and Canadian Home Workshop contributor Dave Paul of D.P. Renovations in Toronto. But many customers are all too willing to blame the front-line workers-the contractors who show up at the door-for delays or mistakes that are often beyond their control.

The homeowner/contractor relationship starts at the front stoop. Don't start the contractor's day off by opening the door and demanding that he take his shoes off and use drop sheets. If it's a concern, ask (politely) what measures they take to prevent dirt and damage in the workspace.

And keep in mind that when a contractor comes to work on your home-whether it's for an hour or a month-your house becomes his de facto office. When's the last time you showed up at someone's office and weren't offered a cup of coffee or a cold drink? Often, contractors will decline, particularly if it's a quick in-and-out job, but the offer helps to break the ice and tries to establish cordial relations.

“A cup of coffee goes a long way. If somebody asks you to do a little extra that's not part of the job and they don't offer you coffee, it would be: ‘No, I don't think so. It's not on the work order,'” says Art Lussier, co-owner of Scarborough, Ont.—based Superior Home Improvements.

Providing parking, particularly in dense urban areas, is another way courtesy can be extended. Contractors are leery of leaving their trucks filled with valuable tools parked out of sight; and having to schlep back and forth for tools can quickly become an annoyance. If you have a parking spot, make sure it's available for the contractor's use.

Hover continuously

With the high cost of many home renovations, it's understandable that you want the job to be done well. But designating yourself site supervisor, then parking your butt in a chair to watch the crew work all day is a sure way to get on your contractor's nerves.

“I know guys that can't stand having someone watch them work,” says 35-year renovation veteran Lussier, although he claims that it's never really bothered him personally. But he does have a warning for customers who want to watch him work. “I don't mind, but don't get in my way. I'm concentrating on what I'm doing, and if I happen to turn around with something in my hand…I may hit you.” Unintentionally, of course.

When having a home built from the ground up, you obviously won't be able to be there continuously, so visits to check up on progress or make final decisions on finishing materials are expected. “But checking up on us every hour of every day is a little ridiculous,” says James Brohman, an independent contractor who has worked on high-end homes and cottages in Ontario for the past 15 years. Rather than simply guessing on what feels right to you, discuss with the contractor in advance about a reasonable number of, and timing for, site inspections.

Ask stupid questions

Contractors can sense when you're trying to impress them with your knowledge of building practices. (The “I know what that is” comment, as Brohman describes it.) Generally speaking, they're not all that impressed. A case in point comes from a long-ago summer job I had working with a friend installing windows and doors. One of my tasks was to insulate the gaps between the newly installed windows and their openings with polyurethane foam insulation, using a canister clearly labelled as such. Invariably, if there was a hovering homeowner (see above) onsite, he or she would eventually pop the question: “Is that foam?”

“Is that foam?” became a running joke between my friend and I for the remainder of the summer and, more than a decade later, it still induces a laugh when one of us mentions it.

But don't just take my word for it. One of Brohman's pet peeves is customers who try to undermine his skills or second-guess his judgement by asking too many questions: “Why'd you do this; why'd you do that?” While genuine curiosity may be admirable, being a nag is a nuisance.

Expect them to work for nothing

“People tend to go with the cheapest price, and when they get a bad job they blame the contractor; but they should blame themselves. You're not going to get a $50,000 job for $12,000,” Lussier points out. “There are people that will rip you off, but most contractors with a good name are looking to cover their costs.”

If midway through the job you decide that you'd like to have heating cables installed under the tile after all, or think that eight pot lights might work better than the six you asked for in the contract, be prepared to pay. “Changes cost money,” Brohman says.

Paul says he can't count how many times he's given customers quotes on jobs, has lost out to a low-bidder, then has been called in to fix the other guy's mistakes. The icing on the cake: “They want me to cut my costs in half because they chose to go with somebody else and don't want to pay for it twice.”

Of course, we've all heard about contractor horror stories. But contractors can get stiffed too. Small independent contractors often live job to job, with large volumes of materials billed to credit cards and lines of credit. “I'm OK with postdated cheques, as long as I know about it [in advance],” says Paul, who once had a cheque bounce for work he did as a favour on Christmas Eve.

Ask for too many favours

On a related note, after the work order has been finalized and the price negotiated, don't treat a contractor as your onsite handyman without expecting to pay for it. “Some people figure that because you're there with a tool pouch on, you can renovate their whole house for them,” Lussier says.

Those earlier friendly gestures may buy you a bit of leeway but, according to Lussier, there's a saying in the contractor trade for customers who ask for little extras: “I can do you a favour, but after five or 10 minutes, it's not a favour anymore; it becomes a job.”

Tell them how to do their jobs

For the Type-A personalities out there, the urge to micromanage might be hard to resist but, as Lussier puts it: “If you think you're going to tell me how to do the job, you've hired the wrong contractor.”

Paul lays some of the blame on home-renovation TV shows. While he admits they're great for giving customers ideas and helping to prevent people from getting scammed: “Everybody thinks they know everything now because they're watching these shows. Being second-guessed by someone who doesn't know what they're talking about would piss off anyone. It doesn't just have to be a contractor.”

Set unrealistic deadlines

Don't start calling around for quotes in January about building a cottage from the ground up and expect to move in by the Victoria Day weekend. Arranging permits and inspections, ordering materials and scheduling the various trades to arrive in the order they're needed takes time and can be a daunting logistical endeavour.

On larger projects, material delays and labour shortages will almost invariably crop up. Then there's mother nature's input: a spring blizzard that shuts down the jobsite for a week can quickly snowball into lengthy holdups while various tradesmen are rescheduled.

And don't forget that any last-minute changes you make can escalate into days or weeks of delays. “If you want to move a window or door after the drywall's up, it's that much more of an issue,” Brohman explains. “Wires and pipes may be running beside the window. Now you need a plumber, an electrician, a framer, a drywaller…. You need eight guys instead of the one guy who could have moved it at the framing stage.”

One variation on the problem is customers who knowingly hold back on asking for specific jobs to be done. “I've had customers know that they have extra work when they call me. But they've actually been told not to tell me everything until I get there,” Paul says. “My scheduling gets thrown to hell.”

Fly off the handle

Contractors usually build in some wiggle room when setting timelines to prevent customers screaming at them because that snowstorm pushed back the cottage opening by a few weeks. It doesn't always work. And on larger jobs, miscommunications and misunderstandings between the owner and the tradesmen are almost inevitable. What doesn't have to be is “creating a huge drama out of it. Everything is fixable,” Brohman says. “All they have to do is say, ‘You missed this. Let's fix it.'”

Keep them to yourself

Good contractors have become somewhat akin to buried treasure: they're hard to find and, when you do discover one, you want to keep him all to yourself. But a lot of a contractor's business comes through word of mouth. Smaller contractors in particular-who don't have the time or budget for big advertising campaigns-rely on referrals for much of their work.

“A lot of customers seem to think they're your only customer, that I can pay all my bills just with their jobs,” Paul says. “Some of my customers have actually said to me, ‘I'm not going to refer you to anybody because then I'll never be able to get you back to my house.'”

On the contrary, contractors appreciate the extra business and may even be a little quicker to return your call next time you're in the market for some work around the house.

I happily referred a contractor who'd done a couple of jobs around our house to friends. He was so appreciative that one day he arrived unannounced at our front door with a bottle of wine and some veggies picked fresh from his garden.

In case you're wondering, I'd be happy to pass along his name. But, unfortunately for all of us, he's retired.

Safe contracting

One way to keep you (and your contractor) happy is to work together to write your contract, which defines the entire construction job, to make sure there are no surprises along the way. A good contract will keep you safe from any scams, and although not all contractors are untrustworthy, it is best to err on the side of caution. The first thing you should do is read up on your rights regarding construction and renovation contracts in your province. You can also have a lawyer go over your contract before you sign.

Homeowner and veteran renovator Hedi Erenrich advises potential renovators that “you have to do your research in terms of the contractor. Look at previous work, and be sure to get references.” She also urges you to not make any assumptions: be sure that your contractor has the abilities needed to complete your specific job. In terms of the contract, Erenrich wants to see that the contractor is “licensed, responsible for subcontractors' work and has the appropriate insurance.”

Contractor Ewan Graham of E.F. Graham Builders in Toronto says the item in a contract that should set off alarm bells immediately is an overly large deposit. He also says timelines are important in a contract. “The contract should state the parameters of the job [and the] completion date.”

Erenrich agrees, saying that there should be a “correlation between payment schedule and each task completed.”

Graham adds that the contract should deal with “how extras and changes are handled.” Also, the owner and contractor should always sign off on changes to the contract.

A few other details that Graham likes to see in a contract include simplicity, the hours of work and the presence of the contractor or a supervisor. Although Graham admits that there is a leap of faith involved for both the owner and contractor, making a contract is important for setting out the expectations of each side before a job begins.

For Erenrich, it all boils down to the relationship between contractor and homeowner. “Make sure you can have a working relationship: it's as important as anything on paper.” -Andrew Gordon

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