We consulted several top-end remodelers for tips on keeping subs on schedule. Eric Borden of Tom's River, N.J., Steve Farrell of Palo Alto, Calif., Pat Hurst of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, and Ben Tyler of Louisville, Ky., all echoed variations on a common theme: Success with subs is built on well-established relationships shaped by mutual trust and respect. Yet by its nature, remodeling breeds uncertainty, for which the only effective remedy is constant, open communication.

Before the Job Begins

  • Create the schedule before estimating the job. This gives you a first chance to catch those "who does what" gray areas of subcontractor responsibility and factor them into the bid.
  • Create a schedule that accurately displays which subs can work concurrently and which ones can't. A critical path schedule will keep you from expecting the same sub to be at two different jobs at the same time.
  • Don't skimp on detail in a schedule. In addition to the major tasks, list material order dates, calls for inspections, and calls to confirm subs.
  • Don't underestimate the time it takes to do good work.
  • Know your subs' productivity rates. The drywall sub who does unbelievably pristine work may not be the fastest. When you know the strengths and weaknesses of each sub, you can plan accordingly.
  • Bring the subs into the process as soon as possible. Within a day of winning a job, call all the subs and have them pencil in the expected dates for their work. Once they know your schedule, slight adjustments are easier to accommodate.
  • Call subs regularly to keep them posted about expected start dates. Avoid "the boy who cried wolf syndrome." You don't want to get heavy with subs about starting on an exact date only to put them off another couple of days because of a delay caused by weather or an inspection (or myriad other reasons).
  • Expect subs to be flexible and open in return. Not only should you keep subs apprised of changes, but you want them to update you about work they have coming up. So if a sub calls and asks, "I have a job that'll take about a week and a half, will this throw you off?" you can counter with something like, "I can't afford another delay, but I'm still a week out before you can start. Can you get that job started and then sneak two guys over here to get me going?" Most subs who want to work for you will go out of their way to accommodate you if you ask.

Contract Basics

Some legal counselors suggest clearly specifying the start and completion dates in subcontractor agreements, but these may become null if you have to postpone. A better strategy is to spell out the rules for clear communication in subcontractor agreements. Old subs wouldn't still be around if they didn't already know these rules, but they are helpful for informing new subs of what you expect.

Specific language may include the following:

If a job schedule cannot be met, Trade Contractor must notify the project's Lead Carpenter as soon as possible.
If you are not available by phone, be sure to return the phone call as soon as possible. All phone calls must be returned within 24 hours. No excuses.
If you will be out of town or unavailable, please notify our office as soon as possible so we can plan for your absence. This courtesy helps us plan for future projects and is appreciated.
Always communicate your start time with the project's Lead Carpenter.
You are required to be on the jobsite at your scheduled start time. If for any reason you cannot be there at your start time please notify your Lead Carpenter in charge. (We understand that things may come up that cause inevitable delays; however, there is no excuse for not calling if there is a change in schedule.) The project's Lead Carpenter will then notify the customer of our delay.
If the sub causes a delay, the contract should require the sub to reimburse the contractor for any actual damages caused by that delay. This might include charges for extra supervision or overtime work by your employees. The contract should describe those delays or failures that would constitute a breach of contract and that would allow you to look for a replacement sub. These might include a failure to complete the work by a certain time, a failure to pass an inspection, or work that does not meet your quality standards.

  • Make sure to include in your subcontractor agreements clear statements of who is responsible for obtaining permits and securing inspections.
  • Set specific work hours for the job — for example, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays; no work on Saturday. This will prevent a sub from showing up unexpectedly and catching your clients off guard.
  • Your bookkeeper should keep tabs on every sub, tracking not only W-9s but the expiration dates on a sub's insurance certificate. Before a job is scheduled, run a list of subs by the bookkeeper so he or she can call for a new certificate, a current Independent Contractor's statement, lien waivers, and any other required paperwork before the project starts.

Staying on Track

  • Visual aids that clearly show the dates of all work, major material deliveries, and subcontractor start times will help develop a psychological urgency to meet the schedule. Distribute these to subs and post on the jobsite.
  • Subs should always be able to contact you, and vice versa. Keep the communication immediate by using pagers, cell phones, and fax machines.
  • Use a cloud-based construction management program to share documents. This will streamline subcontractor management at every level, but don't be shy about including sketches, photos and other images that you can attach to a text or email. These will ensure subs have critical details when they need them; this can save many trips to the site and avoid delays.
  • Review schedules frequently and don't hesitate to make mid-course corrections if necessary to get things back on track.
  • Foster a corporate culture of cooperation. Subs, like anyone else, are more inclined to perform for a company where everyone — front desk, helpers, leads, and carpenters — is accommodating, not combative.
  • Donuts and coffee always help grease the wheels, but nothing speaks quite as clearly as the dollar: If you want subs to be on time, pay on time.