By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Baruch Hashem you and your spouse have been financially successful. It is time now to hire a contractor to redo the house, build a new house on land that you just bought, or simply redo the kitchen. You bring in two or three contractors, and their quotes seem rather reasonable.

Indeed, the contractor seems to be a nice, affable guy–not at all like the experience of your cousin who just went through three contractors and still did not get his job done. “This will be a piece of cake,” you think. You hire the one who came in with the middle price, and you liked his work. You figured, however, “Let me use my business savvy to knock down his price a little.” You succeed. You forge on ahead, eagerly anticipating your construction project being completed on time and on budget.

Soon things fall apart. The contractor brings in new problems and the costs skyrocket. The contractor tells you, “The price quoted did not include fixing the very serious wiring problem encountered. The entire underfloor must also be replaced. We did not know this originally.”

You get angry. You hold back his last payment. The project ends up being late and over budget. You look at it as “things are square.” It may not be so simple, however. Contrary to popular thought, there is such a thing as an honest contractor. There are also such things as dishonest clients.

Customers and clients who have stiffed a contractor of the last payment or two are often halachically considered pasul l’eidus and cannot ever be a witness for a wedding, kesubah, or tenaim until they straighten things out with that unpaid contractor to his satisfaction.

There are also such things as dishonest contractors, of course. Contractors also will often make unrealistic bids just to get the job and depend upon jacking up the price later when they encounter various problems. This author once heard a contractor state that the initial price really has no connection whatsoever with the final price charged because there are so many possible variables and angles where additional money can be charged.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. After a contractor is hired, he has absolute power over the project. It can become very expensive to fire the contractor and hire a new one, although it is often done.

In his book Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets (University of Chicago Press), Barry LePatner writes that when contractors put in a bid they are actually not competing on the lowest bid for the same job; rather, “they compete for the future right to increase the initial cost of their agreement.”

LePatner is a leading attorney in the construction industry. He suggests some solutions to the problem of dealing with contractors. Although his suggestions apply primarily to larger projects, he makes some suggestions that almost everyone can use. He writes that the contract should be tougher and deal as much as possible with limiting the scope of project escalation. He also suggests that experts could be hired who are given an incentive to make sure there are no needless cost overruns.

Selena Maranjina, another author, gives a number of steps to help ensure that dealings with a contractor run smoothly:

  • Know what you want. This is critical. Too many people sign up with a contractor to have a certain job done, but in middle of the job they realize that they want something else. Maybe they wanted to expand a living room, for example, but later decide they’d rather devote some of the new space to an expanded kitchen. Such a change is a big deal and can wreak havoc with a contractor’s plans, perhaps causing him to have to undo some of what is done already or spend more time than he’d budgeted on your home. It can also end up costing you a lot more than it would have if you’d been sure of what you wanted at the outset.
  • Expect messes, then work to minimize them. Contractors often scratch their heads when they run across clients who are surprised that working on a house can be messy. (“How come there’s so much dust?”) If you’re going to have work done on your house, take some time to find out from your contractor what kind of mess you can expect and how you should prepare the work areas. You’ll save yourself from some unpleasant surprises and you can minimize the pain, too. For example, if a wall is going to be torn down, you can prepare for that by removing as many objects from the room as possible and covering as many things in that room and nearby rooms as you can. (Clouds of dust don’t know to stop at thresholds.)

You might also want to find out ahead of time about any safety issues. When certain kinds of work are done, there may be fumes or dust that are best to stay away from. If you have asthma, for instance (and even if you don’t), you might want to sleep somewhere else for a few nights while some work is being finished.

  • Don’t assume the world revolves around you. It’s easy to forget that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but trust me, when it comes to home repairs and renovations, you’re probably not the only client in your contractor’s life. Some contractors may be able to work only for one client at a time, but many will be juggling a few while they work for you. Part of the reason for this is that they may have promised to start work somewhere at a certain time, while work at another site has dragged on a bit longer than originally expected.

If your contractor is a cooperative one, he might oblige you when you enlarge the scope of the job over time. (“Actually, we now think we’d like a new sink as well as a new toilet.” “Before you paint, could you change all those light fixtures?”) But if he’s doing this for you, he’s probably doing the same for other clients–and that can consume extra time.

  • Be prepared for delays. Don’t forget the role of weather in all this, as well. If you’re having outdoor work done, rainy days will likely delay things. Temperatures also matter–it might be too cold to paint, for example. Even indoor work can have such delays; sometimes wood that gets installed indoors (floors, cabinets, etc.) needs time to dry out or warm up or otherwise stabilize before being locked in place.

A final timing consideration is one of language. Make sure you’re on the same page with your contractor. If he estimates that the job will take “ten days,” don’t assume that that means two weeks. It could end up taking ten days of work over the course of a month, due to the weather or the contractor’s schedule.

  • Your help can hurt. Sometimes clients like to hang around contractors while work is being done, “helping out.” This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Find out from the contractor exactly what kind of help is and isn’t welcome. If a floor is being torn up, you might offer your brute strength in tearing up some tiles. But think twice before attempting to install sheetrock or change an outlet. A little learning can be a dangerous thing, and if you do certain things on your own initiative, you may end up causing damage or generating more work for the contractor who may have to undo what you did.
  • Your job may cost more than you expect. You’re on a budget, right? Well, make sure your contractor is fully aware of it. (A good one will probably discuss this with you, anyway.) Expect some variation between the estimate you get and the final cost. You might even want to plan to spend 15 to 30 percent more, in total, on the job. Why? Well, things happen. Over the course of a few months, the price of lumber may skyrocket. In the course of renovating your home, there may be some expensive discoveries, such as lots of rotted wood under vinyl siding that’s removed. The cost can also rise if you keep adding to the scope of the work, or if you opt for more expensive materials (many of which are good to opt for, as they may last longer or look better).

One good way to discuss your budget with a trusted contractor is to say something like, “We’d like to spend no more than X dollars on this job, but if need be, we can spend an extra X dollars–and absolutely no more than that.” This can help him decide where he can upgrade materials and where he must be more frugal.

Following these recommendations will help ensure that you do not get ripped off and, more importantly, that you not rip off someone else.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

 

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