I had prequalified the job by talking to the husband, a 65-year-old oil company executive. He seemed OK. He and his wife had just bought a small, 1940s brick house and had expensive, somewhat far-fetched ideas about a second-story addition and whole-house renovation.
But as we walked around, I soon saw red flags coming from the wife. She was mean to him in front of me, and I was embarrassed. He shrugged and followed her around, rolling his eyes behind her back. I realized this was not the job for me. I was 10 minutes into my meeting and couldn't wait to get out of there. Later, I wrote them a letter, declining the job due to scheduling constraints.
Some people are just not good to work for. How do you know? Here are a few hints:
* They tell you they've fired contractors recently or filed lawsuits against other remodelers in the past.
* They balk at paying 10% down or at the terms of your payment schedule. You can expect a rough time collecting draws during the job if they're fighting you from the beginning.
* They tell you they've met with several contractors and no one returns their calls.
* They make it clear they're getting multiple estimates. Many clients do, but if it's stated with an angry edge, watch out.
* They schedule you and a competitor or two at the same time. If this occurs, I walk out.
* They insist on a delay penalty clause if you don't finish on time, after you've given them your projected duration.
* They ask you to be dishonest -- for example, by padding an insurance estimate with items that don't really need to be repaired.
* They delay, unreasonably, the signing of your contract.
Red flags flying
Not all the clues are verbal. If the outside of the house indicates seriously deferred maintenance or the inside is a wreck, I'm on guard. More warnings are if one or both spouses actively argue or disrespect each other in front of me, if they have totally opposite ideas about the design or selections, or if one or the other is completely unenthusiastic. Are one or both focused on some aspect of the project -- say a kitchen pot rack -- to the exclusion of all else? Not a good sign. If they're bad listeners, interrupt constantly, lack focus, can't make decisions, or supply me with a wealth of really bad ideas, those are all red flags too.
I'm also wary of "experts." They've learned a great deal about how to build from that article on the Service Magic site. From the first meeting, they're not listening to your advice or trusting your opinions. They ask "skill testing" questions about construction details. Or they have an uncle they want you to use as their plumbing sub. Worse yet, a relative who knows something about construction will be "overseeing" your work.
Decline before they whine
So what to do? My advice is just say no. Do it diplomatically, but do it. Perhaps you just landed some large projects and are booked for the foreseeable future. Maybe you have health issues that could be a problem. You might just be frank, and tell them remodeling's a close partnership and you and they are not a good fit.
If you decide to go forward with a red flag client because it seems like an extra profitable job, or because you're sure the project will look totally cool in the "after" photos, be sure to add plenty of money to your bid for the extra time and stress it will impose on you and your staff. Then double it.
And if you do end up doing it, after the job's done, make sure you determine if future clients were referred to you by these difficult clients. High quality customers send you high quality new prospects. Wacky clients, likewise, send you wacky ones. --Dan Bawden, CAPS, CGR, GMB, is an attorney and president of Legal Eagle Contractors, Houston.