Clarification to This Article
A Sept. 2 Real Estate article about contractors attributed a survey solely to Opinion Research Corp. That group conducted the survey, but it did so on behalf of Kimberly-Clark Professional.

Beyond Repair

By Chris Kirkham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006

On past home improvement projects, Honey Levitzky couldn't be rid of her contractors soon enough. Sometimes drunk, almost always disorganized, they made the already disruptive experience more difficult.

But then she met Konstantin Romenskii through a friend at church, and she can't have him over enough. He refurbished her Silver Spring basement, drawing up his own plans, and was on call for any minor problem she had, from leaky faucets to broken air conditioners.

"I hit the lotto with this one," she said.

Gabi Nichols had a less inspiring contractor experience. She hired her best friend's husband to renovate the basement of her Chantilly home, but crews showed up sporadically, electrical outlets were damaged, subcontractors didn't get paid.

"I feel like I was really snowed big time," she said.

End of friendship.

On the surface, hiring a contractor is a simple business relationship -- money paid for services rendered. But in reality, people who have renovated their homes say, letting crews of five to 10 total strangers into one's personal space for weeks, even months at a time is an act of trust. It can go well, developing into a longstanding camaraderie where contractors are treated to Christmas cards, after-work barbecues and ample referrals. Or it can go terribly wrong, leading to horror stories of unfinished jobs and eventual lawsuits.

The terrain can be just as complicated for contractors. There are the fickle clients who don't know what they want, the nosy homeowners who get in the way and, in the worst case, the clients who refuse to pay.

The result can be a stalemate, with each side cautiously eyeing the other through a prism of past experiences and stereotypes.

"It's sort of like a marriage," said Stephen Sieber, owner of SCS Contracting Group in Burtonsville. "There's a lot of different people and a lot of different variables. It's a challenging situation."

Tales from the front lines of home renovation show both the highs and lows of the contractor-homeowner collaboration, where relationships can lead to a dream home or a months-long purgatory of missed phone calls and misplaced drywall. But by keeping a clear business plan from the beginning and staying constantly in touch about progress, many of the pitfalls can be avoided.

The Friend Connection

He seemed like the safest bet. Although he wasn't the lowest bidder for their $50,000 basement renovation, the contractor for the Nicholses' Chantilly home was a family friend who could surely be trusted.


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