Working with out-of-town clients requires the perfect combination of trust, planning, communication, and technology. Remodelers who routinely work with faraway clients have learned to set up a communication structure that keeps jobs flowing smoothly. In fact, many remodeling contractors say if you're well prepared, this type of situation offers an ideal working environment. You can get the job done without daily interruptions and work long hours without disturbing homeowners.
So how do you prepare for a job with an out-of-town client? First, you need the right client. Homeowners have to be very trusting to have work done on their homes while living or working in another state or country. But as Ben Tyler, president of Ben Tyler Building and Remodeling, Louisville, Ky., points out, trust is probably already part of their personalities. He says a controlling client will most likely reject this set-up.
Insurance restorer Ron Reese, president of REE-Construction in Hailey, Idaho, says wealthy owners of vacation homes customarily have people managing other portions of their lives, so they are less apt to be nervous about managing a remodeling project this way. Many resort area homeowners trust their architects and interior designers to make decisions.
Wired to work
Even if clients are comfortable with this type of job, remodelers should set up solid two-way communication. These days remodelers use digital cameras, e-mail, Web sites, and cell phones to send information and to communicate with remote clients in minutes rather than hours or even days. A few years ago, says remodeler Jim Lydon, updating the client on job progress would have required one-hour photo developing and overnight mail. Now, the owner of James Lydon and Sons in Siasconset, Mass., sends digital photos in a matter of minutes.
Technology helped Englemann Construction complete an extensive 10,000-square-foot job in 11 months. "Remodels don't happen that fast unless you have information constantly flowing," says project manager Alan Gelet. The clients were in Australia, but he worked closely with their New York architect, traveling to the city weekly to work on details and specifications. He says on-site employees use Symantec's PC Anywhere software to access faxes, e-mail, and change orders stored on the company's office server. The company will soon post progress photos on its Web site for clients to view at their convenience. All of this electronic communication leaves an impressive audit trail. "What is said is immediately documented and saved in an electronic file," Gelet says.
On his first job with an out-of-town client, Peter Barden of Schorr Construction, Verona, Wis., decided to bring in his lead carpenter during the planning stage. "He was able to troubleshoot, ask questions, and head off many problems," Barden says. The company kept precise tabs on the job. "We had to write clearly and concisely in e-mails, and it forced us to have more structure in our meetings," Barden says.
Reese tells of a recent client who was in Hong Kong when his house was damaged from frozen pipes that burst. Although the two had never met, Reese communicated with him by telephone, fax, and e-mail and went through a minor punch list when the client returned. Reese reassures nervous clients by inviting their friends or neighbors to view the progress and report back to the homeowner.
Accounting for taste
The trickiest part of working with an out-of-town client is often the product selection, but remodelers can manage this phase, too.
Tyler directs his clients to showrooms in the area where they live or work where they choose products and send him the part numbers. However, Tyler doesn't like to do everything remotely. He prefers to have clients tour the jobsite at the end of the rough-in, in case they want any major changes, before installing finish materials.
Barden says it helps to have a local liaison. On one project, his company worked with a friend of the clients who was also their interior designer. Barden met weekly with the liaison, who would e-mail the clients with a list of questions and deadlines. "I give them a time frame whenever I ask for a decision," he explains.
On another project, Barden says his clients changed their minds on the decorative wrought iron railings after they returned from their vacation. But he had suspected that they might do just that, so he had held off on that one aspect until their return.
Collecting from out-of-town clients is often easier than collecting from local owners because many long distance clients set up wire accounts to transfer funds directly to a remodeler's bank. Peter Barden says his client set up a payment system through the project architect. Barden sent the architect monthly progress and billing reports. The architect would visit the site and forward the report to bankers, who sent a check within two weeks. "It was one of the largest jobs we did, but billing was the easiest it's been." Barden says.
Many of Ron Reese's clients insist on doing a walk-through before making the final payment. Scheduling a site visit can take longer, but Reese says it's a minor inconvenience.
Problems can arise when architects, interior designers, or clients don't understand their roles. Alan Gelet combats confusion by drafting a detailed schedule listing the deadlines for various product decisions. In it, he warns that for every late decision, the job will be delayed by "X" days. Gelet informs the client of any changes with an updated schedule attached to the bi-monthly bill.