Miscommunication with contractor slows renovation as it enters home stretch

October 23, 2013

(Justin Pierce)

Pierce, a real estate investor based in Northern Virginia, for the past few months has been chronicling his quest to reconstruct his Temple Hills house for a fall sale.

It’s been a crazy week.

We are rushing to meet our latest revised deadline on this Temple Hills project. It’s the last week and I’m determined to get this home completed.

It’s do or die time. It could literally cost me tens of thousands of dollars if I don’t get this home listed for sale in the next couple weeks. Winter is the worst time of year to try to sell a home and winter is only weeks away.

A few days ago, however, I visited another project of mine that’s being renovated by the same contractor and was very disappointed with the finishes. He had completed the painting but had never asked me for paint colors. The color was very light without much contrast to the trim.

He had put the old light switch and outlet covers back on rather than replacing them at a cost of just pennies a piece, and the result was a very old, tired and dingy look. The baseboards were replaced in almost the entire home except for one bedroom where they just painted the old baseboards.

I purchased a beautiful solid hickory hardwood flooring for the home. The contractor installed it and then put back the old ugly air vents. Those are about $6 a piece to buy new. It just really looked like a lot of corners were cut.

It was a shame because he’d done good quality work on everything up until that point but then topped off his work with old ugly accents. When everything else is new your eye is immediately attracted to the ugly.

Sometimes home flippers can be very foolish when they try to save money, and regular home sellers fall into the same trap. Some savings don’t add up to much in terms of dollars but they can cost you dearly when it comes to appearance and good will. Choosing a home is very personal and emotional. People buy based on feeling. If a home or some aspect of the home doesn’t make potential buyers feel good then they often go on to the next home.

I tell my contractors this all the time. Buyers know they are looking at a flip home when they walk in the door. They know that many flippers cut every corner. When they see evidence of poor work, even just one example, they get turned off or they start looking closer for more problems and when you’re looking for problems you’ll find them, real or not.

At this point, I sent to the contractor a long punch list of items needing to be addressed for the first project. Then I rushed over to the Temple Hills project to make sure I got ahead of any similar issues there.


(Justin Pierce)

When I got there I found that the painting was almost halfway complete and again I was not asked for colors. The contractor’s argument was that I had been there when they were painting and hadn’t said anything about the color. The paint color was so light that I thought it was primer. He informed me that if he had to repaint that it would make it tough to meet the deadline just five days away.

It was a Sunday morning at this point. I called a handyman/painter I know and asked him if he could rush over the same day and repaint the upstairs the correct color and keep the project on track. He said he could; we agreed on a price and we were both on our way.

I had planned to take my kids to a pumpkin patch and corn maze in rural Virginia that day, but all personal plans are expendable when you’re a small business owner. I spent half of what was left of the day at home improvement stores finding specific items that I wanted used in the Temple Hills project.

Normally I wait for the contractor to ask me for my selections when he’s ready for them because too often the contractor loses the instruction or the item is out of stock in the store by the time the project is ready for it. But clearly we were having communication problems and a more active participation on my part was in order.

I sent the contractor a picture of a $280 vanity with top. I sent him a picture of a $1.90 per square foot tile for the bathrooms. And I sent him the specific colors I wanted used in the home. I also sent examples for the front door, the light fixtures and faucets.

The contractor responded that he would get the items but he believed these items to be upgrades. Right then I knew the problem. First, the contractor was thinking like most contractors (most business owners, really) and trying to save every penny. And, second, we had a communication problem. In our conversation and contract I specified that we would use mostly “builder’s grade” products and we would throw in a fewer higher-end items for some sizzle.

In my vocabulary, builder’s grade means about middle quality, middle cost. In the contractor’s vocabulary, builder’s grade means the cheapest thing you can find.


(Justin Pierce)

It was a stressful couple of days but it was also very productive. The contractor and I found solutions to the problems and it went a long way to bring our vocabulary more in line with one another, which should greatly improve future projects.

The contractor also showed a willingness to correct the problems and work toward a solution. This really showed me that I had a contractor who  I could work with and every expectation that future projects would improve. Hopefully, the contractor learned something similar about me. We’re in this together. In the end, that home represents both of us. I would rather negotiate a change order than end up with work that doesn’t make sense for the project.

In remodeling projects, it is extremely difficult to write down detailed scopes of work and materials lists. Often general terms are used to outline expectations. However, writing down and agreeing to a price range on finishing materials is a very good use of time.

Follow Pierce on Twitter at @justinpierce1.

Read Pierce’s previous posts:

Setback may push Temple Hills renovation beyond Oct. 1 deadline

Crews make up for lost time in pop-top project

With plan approved, race is on to reconstruct house for fall sale

Pop-top renovation becomes pop-back plan

Gone are the low lying fruit of real estate investing

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