If it wasn't one before, remodeling is definitely now a service industry. A recent NARI survey shows that a remodeler's trustworthiness and service ranked most important in a homeowner's decision to hire. Quality ranked as only the sixth most important factor.

Yet customer service remains for many companies an effort in which theory and practice diverge. Everyone understands the need to satisfy clients, but understanding doesn't get results.

So what do consumers want? Why are customer relationships so hard to manage? We sat down with 10 homeowners who recently completed or embarked on remodeling projects to discuss how they view remodelers and the remodeling experience.

Our panel members' projects ranged in size and scope from minor interior updates to whole-house guts. Panel members hired companies from an equally broad spectrum, including one-man handyman shops, father-son teams, and multimillion dollar design/build firms.

REMODELING: What was the worst part of the remodeling experience? Cynthia: We remodeled our kitchen, and we thought our first contractor had done a good job, but there were all kinds of problems. We started figuring things out because all the plumbing was wrong. From there it was just like peeling an onion. We ended up taking down all the cabinets, and that's when we saw that everything had been done completely in violation of code. He had taken shortcuts everywhere. We found live wires patched with coins. We eventually went to arbitration and we brought in another contractor who brought everything up to code and fixed the damage. You just don't want to have to ever go through that. It's just been incredibly emotionally draining.

The Panel
Single-family house
Kitchen and family room remodel and screened-in porch and deck addition
Single-family house
Living room and dining room remodel and window replacement (Betsy hired and managed all the trades herself)
Three-phase interior remodel
Single-family house
Whole-house remodel and 1,200-square-foot addition
Single-family house, built in 1870s
Roof replacement (part of largely DIY whole-house remodel)
Single-family house
Interior and facade remodel
Bathroom remodel
Single-family house, built in 1924
Three-phase kitchen and bath remodel
Single-family house
Kitchen remodel

Susan: I bought a big old house, which was built around 1875, and I've gutted it myself. But the roof was more than I could handle. I had trouble finding a contractor, and finally hired one that my consultant's partner had recommended. I came home from work one day and my porch had been ripped off. There was no Dumpster, all the asbestos shingles, the roof, all the tiles, the glass, it was all in my front yard. There was no drop-cloth, nothing like that. And then they let it sit there for almost a week and a half. Finally they brought in a Dumpster and a guy to clean it up.

Shelley: Things were moving along and going well for the bulk of our project. We had even developed a friendly relationship with our contractor. About halfway through, he showed us a cost report, and we were under budget, so we added a few extra details. And then right near the end, he came back with another runsheet, and it was double the contract price of the job. It turned out he hadn't really been paying attention to the job and there were extra costs he didn't tell us about. Up until the very end of our project, the workmanship was fantastic, but then he stopped returning my calls. There were only a few things left to be done, but I couldn't get him to come back. It just sort of fell apart at the end.

Were communication problems and trust issues for everyone? Betsy: I found it really hard to get people who were forthcoming. I'd really rather know that something is going wrong than overhear it from a workman who's telling his wife on the phone.

Craig: Our experience was a little different. If I had to use one word to describe my contractor it would be “truth-teller.” From day one, everything he said was true. He didn't sugarcoat it.

I asked a home builder friend what to look for in a contractor. He said one thing: Find someone you can trust. If you trust him, everything will work out; if you don't, it won't.

Brenda: We also developed a lot of trust in the company owner. When we were trying to figure out which contractor to go with, one company sent out a salesperson; with the other it was the owner of the company. When we had a problem with the screened-in porch, and we were dissatisfied with it, I knew I could go back to him.

Susan: I'm having a hard time with trust at this point.

Shelley: It's tough because there aren't many ways you can vet a contractor like there are in other industries.

Craig: That's true. Usually when you spend this type of money, when you make a big-ticket purchase like this, you get more information and more educational literature than you can handle. There are brochures, Web sites, consumer guides. But there's none of that in this industry.

Susan: It's valid to say if you're going to come out and give me a bid, bring a portfolio of your work, show me some samples.