It was an excavator who works for Ron Wishneski who told the owner of Five Point Renovation and Remodel, in Coatesville, Pa., about the potential clients. The couple had been taken advantage of by another contractor who left them high and dry on a whole-house remodel, Wishneski says. So he looked at the job and saw that the work wasn’t so great—mostly framing issues. The homeowner’s explanation made sense. After several back-and-forth budget proposals, Wishneski took over the job.
Things went fine until the third payment came in late. Then the relationship got worse. Wishnewski ended up in small claims court because the clients, who had signed off on every choice and change order, refused to turn over their $4,000 final payment. Wishneski won in small claims court, but the clients appealed and countersued for $10,000. Eventually they settled out of court: The clients paid Wishneski $1,000. He paid his lawyer $1,100.
It was a painful lesson. Still, would he take over another job that was started by another remodeler? Remarkably, yes—and so would most of the more than six dozen remodelers who responded to this query on LinkedIn’s Construction Business Owners Group and GuildQuality Group. But, all agreed: You must do your due diligence first.
Talk It Over
You certainly will hear enough horror stories to make you cautious. Rob Cuffe, owner of Nod-Art Design & Construction, in Melbourne, Australia, walked off a job before completing it because it turned out that after the first few payments, the client was a problem gambler who lost all the money earmarked for the remodel. “It pained me greatly not to be able to finish the job,” he says. The real burn came when the clients spread the word that Cuffe had walked away. “It ruined my reputation until the truth of the matter was revealed,” he says.
But remember, there are two sides to every story, and every stereotype must be researched: The customer is not always right and can be difficult to work with; every other contractor does not do shoddy work, and all your competitors are neither unlicensed nor fly-by-night operations.
“When people get thrown off a job, I always ask them why,” says Michael Yelton, owner-member of MY Builder, in Wolcott, Ind. “Their input [about] the homeowner is one piece of the information you need to know. It also helps you keep a good, professional relationship with your competitors and lets the homeowners know that you’re [on top of everything].”
Also contact trade partners who worked on the job. Find out if they got paid and see what insights they can share with you.
Dig deep to find out why the project went bad, says Mark Scott, owner of Mark IV Remodeling, in Cabin John, Md. Find out if the clients have unrealistic expectations, “challenging” personalities, and whether they have the budget to properly finish the project. “If they don’t,” he says, “just walk.”
Every client of a “rescue remodel,” as Scott refers to these jobs, “is angry. For all sorts of justified and unjustified reasons.” Once you take on this job, the clients will be both relieved that you’ve come to help but also leery of how this will turn out—and of your profession in general.
“I’m there to say, ‘How can we help?’” says Dennis Gehman, owner of Gehman Remodeling, in Harleysville, Pa. “We don’t say, ‘I told you so.’ They’ve been burned for whatever reason and are going to be gun-shy but want the project to be finished. We go in there as a contractor/counselor.”
To set homeowners at ease, use as much detail as you can when you talk budget and scope of work. Create clear expectations and maintain clear lines of communication. “Do whatever you can to reassure them,” says Andy McGill, owner of AG McGill Group, in Toronto.
Check the Work
Walk through the project in its current state. Check to see if the work is up to code and find out if the proper permits were pulled. McGill discovered on one rescue job that an approval sticker on the electrical panel had actually been taken from a house on the other side of the city. “Even if inspections have been made and specs have been followed, are they up to your standards?” he asks. “If not, you will have to come in and redo those things.”
If the drywall has already gone up, tear it off and see what’s behind it, says Wesley Miller, owner of WFM Total Construction, in Alva, Okla. And don’t rely on home inspectors. “Most have less experience than I do,” he says, “and around here you can get a home inspector’s license with a few weekend classes.”
Yes, re-doing work will add to the final bill, “maybe 10% on the high-end, but it depends on the project,” Miller says. “But our costs will always be higher [than our competitors] because we do things right and charge accordingly.”
Price It Right
Because consumers often have a low opinion of the remodeling profession, they’re wary of contractors who might appear to charge them double for the work. “Homeowners feel taken advantage of by the industry as a whole,” Yelton says. Go over what has already been done on the job. If there’s shoddy workmanship, explain what’s wrong and how you’ll fix it before addressing the cost. “You have to make them understand that this [shoddy work] is going to be a problem and not just an inconvenience,” he says. “I’ll charge them time and materials to fix what’s wrong.”
Many others in the LinkedIn chat concur: “Collect a retainer and work from that,” Scott says. “If they don’t keep the retainer funded, you can stop without getting hurt. If you do the work for a stipulated sum, make sure there’s a premium for a ‘difficult’ project.”
Once you’ve determined that the level of completed work meets your standards, it’s a good idea to make sure that you tailor your contract to fit the project. “If you’re coming in and minor work has been done—nothing substantial that has structural impact—then you’re fine just picking up the job where it was left off,” says industry attorney and REMODELING columnist D.S. Berenson. “But if you go into a job and structural and material work have been done that will impact the end result, then you need to be careful.”
Document everything and get a waiver or release in regard to any prior work that was or wasn’t done, Berenson suggests .
As for appliance installations and warranties, every remodeler has his or her own rules beyond what’s covered by the manufacturer. Yelton says that he will “take care of the washing machine if it breaks down because it’s our homeowner. If someone else puts the siding on wrong and there are problems in a year and a half or two, we’ll take care of it because that’s our customer.” McGill says that his company “assumes responsibilities [but] establishes parameters.” Others don’t take responsibility for anything not supplied by their company.
Once you’ve done your due diligence, taking over a job can win your company a client for life. “Our goal is to save face for [clients],” Gehman says. “We do the job right so that we build a relationship, and whatever comes along down the road, the client doesn’t even think about calling anybody else.”