It's a familiar scenario: Your clients have just returned from Lowe's or The Home Depot, and they've decided they can save money buying replacement windows “for less” than they appear on your job estimate. “It happens, not just with windows but cabinets, doors, you name it,” says Robert Criner, owner of Criner Construction in Yorktown, Va. “It makes things tough when a homeowner can buy a Pella window at one of these big boxes for the same price I can.”
“It certainly is confusing to homeowners when they see a flyer and start comparing product prices,” agrees Jim Mirando, president of Excel Interior Concepts & Construction in Lemoyne, Pa. “They don't understand everything that's included in our price.”
Be Up Front Criner doesn't hesitate to explain to his clients the concept of markup and all it includes. “This gives us a chance to clarify how we do business — and to emphasize that we're not a cookie-cutter operation,” he explains. “Usually our work involves part of a larger project, not just the replacement of a single item. We want everything to tie together. We explain the lengths to which we go to make sure exterior trim will match existing, and how the window must be integrated with the housewrap and flashings so it doesn't leak.”
Criner doesn't shy away from telling customers that to provide a comprehensive level of service, his company needs to make a profit. At the same time, he educates them about quality differences between products — what makes one window prone to leak and another not — making the case that his knowledge as a product buyer has tangible value. “Essentially, I explain why they should pay more for me to do this job,” he says.
Criner admits this doesn't always prevent a homeowner from trying to save money in a moment of weakness. “We just had a client come back from The Home Depot saying, ‘But they were having a sale that was going to end this weekend.' I made it clear that I still needed to make a profit, and that I'd have to mark up my labor more to cover what I wasn't making on this material. I also made it clear that I wouldn't warrant anything that went wrong with these products.”
“If a homeowner wants to supply materials, we're very clear that the warranty covers only the installation, not the material,” says Michael Fast, owner of MRF Construction in Tacoma, Wash. “If they choose to go with their own products, then it's their headache.” More often than not, Fast says the homeowners back down once they understand what's involved. “We spend a lot of time up front discouraging clients from supplying materials, explaining the simplicity of a one-stop warranty and describing the kind of finger pointing that might arise if something goes wrong with a product,” Fast says. “Most reasonable people want to avoid that sort of hassle.”
Give and Get a Warranty If an owner insists on supplying the material, the contractor should be explicit in the contract that the owner warrants this material is “fit for its intended purpose.” According to Quenda Behler Story, a construction attorney and author of The Contractor's Plain-English Legal Guide (www.craftsman.com), the customer in this case is actually giving you, the contractor, a warranty. “If a problem arises with the window itself, it's his problem. Of course, if the window is obviously flawed before you install it, you have the obligation to say so, and negotiate a replacement,” Story explains.
In turn, the contractor provides a warranty on the installation only. This way, if the flashing leaks in the first major rainstorm, it's your obligation to fix it. But if the window fogs up because of a broken glass seal, it's not your fault. “He picked it out, he can deal with it,” Story says.
It gets trickier down the road, when even the best of windows degrade. Weather-stripping and jamb seals wear out and latches loosen. Inevitably, the window will leak. “Any warranty should be limited,” says Story, recommending limitations anywhere from two to 10 years. “A limited installation warranty of 90 days won't work. The courts will only uphold the limitation if a reasonable amount of time has passed.”
The warranty period must be long enough for installation problems to show up. Two years is usually sufficient as far as the courts are concerned, Story says. After that, it's hard to know what might have happened to that window. “A contractor should not warrant anything he can't control,” she concludes. —Clayton DeKorne is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vt., and Brooklyn, N.Y.