When you travel to a foreign country, you expect there to be some communication hurdles to overcome. When you visit a doctor, you hope they'll explain things in plain English but that doesn't always happen. The same challenges exist when working with contractors, because they focus on the steps it takes to frame a house, pull wiring and sweat pipes.
Then you've got different personalities and communication styles, combined with little in the way of a shared culture or language, which is tough in any work environment. I'll always remember Gunnar's 7 am phone calls when building our house. It took us a week to learn that we had to tell Gunnar which suggestions we simply wouldn't accept, and then the calls got much shorter (the waiting game).
Steve was even more amazing with our 4-story addition on a 100 year old Victorian. After a month, he could read my mind and answer questions before I finished describing what I wanted. We had this amazing give-and-take where he proposed changes to reuse an exterior staircase, and move our old kitchen cabinets to the third floor apartment. He built my mail slots into the wall studs and was relieved when I asked about using forced hot water heat for the addition, saving him the challenge of finding places to run ductwork in the ceilings.
Now I'm not saying that every builder, remodeler or contractor is a dream to work with. Before we found Steve, we walked away from a kitchen designer who thought half our budget should be spent on cabinets, really? We fired the first remodeler when the kitchen cabinets weren't ordered by the date the project was to have been completed. That's when our kitchen remodel grew to a 4-story addition, with Anne Whitney drawing up the plans and Steve Pearson making it happen.
The Challenges of Working with Contractors & Homeowners
The relationship we developed with my builder Steve and his team, played a huge role in my starting a handyman business. After working for IBM for 6 weeks shy of 29 years, including three years based in Tokyo, my job was eliminated (that's a book waiting to be written). While I was planning to start a business, I never imagined it would be a handyman business … but you can't send it overseas, and you get to work with homeowners versus corporate executives.
With eight years running a handyman business, and serving more than 2,000 homeowners, I understand working with contractors can be very challenging. My perspective on this topic is unique because I've lived on both sides of the relationship. But I have to credit my husband for teaching me that step #1 is to build teamwork, to create a culture of win-win.
In fact, the premise behind Home Tips for Women is once women homeowners understand concepts and terminology about their homes, they'll feel more comfortable talking with contractors. Ideally they'll also learn how to interview contractors on the phone, in person, check references and get written documentation on the work to be completed, with a list of materials, schedule including payments.
But an important part of the hiring process is seeing if your personalities can work together, that everyone has the same agenda and there's mutual respect. What is never acceptable are contractors who ignore or bully women! Unfortunately this bullying isn't just a problem for our kids. It happens everywhere – in doctors offices, with lawyers, and the work environment where roughly one-third of employees report some form of bullying.
Working with Contractors, A Facebook Conversation
While I could have written this article years ago, it was prompted by an exchange of stories on Facebook. As I read about the problems women were having, and the varied ways in which they successfully dealt with the problems, I was motivated to capture their stories and feelings to help others learn from their experience.
The discussion was also great because it showed that each woman had a different approach to firmly let the contractor (or in one case, an insurance company) know what they expected. This is very important, as each of us is unique and needs an approach that fits our personality.
And that's what social media is all about. Whether it's Facebook (where my discussion happened), Twitter or LinkedIn, these platforms are for sharing information. Sometimes it's just some good news, other times a life event and often it's about sharing problems and getting ideas for how to solve your problems, or just some emotional support .
Recognizing Problems When Working with Contractors
Finding contractors who are great workers and strong communicators, is really hard. When you do find these people, and they're out there, invest time in building a long term relationship with them. Remember my 4-story addition? That happened more than 10 years ago, yet we still call on our electrician, plumber and painter for smaller jobs. The builder's too busy but he's referred work to my handyman business including his sister.
Communication is key as there aren't too many home repairs or large remodeling projects that don't run into problems. When you're interviewing contractors and checking references, it's much more important to ask about problems that came up and how they were handled.
So what kinds of problems can you expect to run into when working with contractors? Here are the ones that came up in our Facebook discussion … and please share others in the comment section below.
- Disagreements about the products or materials to be used on the job. If you've picked out a paint brand, and especially if you've already purchased the paint, your contractor needs to use it. Raising their voice to intimidate you, so you'll change brands, isn't acceptable. If they're unwilling to work with you, you'll need a plan B, with another contractor and it could take longer to complete but not always.
- Use of incorrect materials or leftovers from another job, which puts your house at risk. We had a roofer put leftover pieces of drip edge (6 to 12 inches versus 10 foot sections) up, which compromised the water barrier. We insisted the problem be fixed before any further work continued, and to keep their crew working, they complied with our request.
- When contractors won't explain things adequately or give you bad information and you know it's wrong. In our discussion one woman was told “… all ovens run on 110, and she had to tell him, no they don't!” You're lucky when you spot this type of problem but then you've got to decide if you need to let the contractor go, or watch over their shoulders for other problems.
- When you're told you have to sign documents but noone will answer questions. This happened with paperwork for buying a house in Phoenix, and the numbers didn't make sense. The mortgage broker couldn't explain and told me just sign because it didn't matter. I ultimately signed but added a slash through each sheet saying “signed but I don't accept the numbers as stated”. This bought me time to find a new mortgage company, and a week before the scheduled closing, I switched lenders.
In Your Home, You're in Charge!
But often the challenges related to working with contractors aren't technical ones. They're about who's in charge and when it's your home, and you're the client and you have to live with the results of the project, you must be in charge. That's not to say you need to micro-manage the contractor or the project, but you need to be a member of the team with the ability to say no when something doesn't feel right. If you can't agree on everyone's roles up front, then you're better off finding a different contractor.
There are many different approaches to confronting a contractor who's a bully. Some women homeowners will let them blow up, and then quietly take control. You can (and should) lay out the ground rules for working with you, like being spoken to in a professional manner. Others prefer to explain what they don't want to hear, like “… I do not want to hear any commentary, only suggestions on how to do what I want done better, cheaper, quicker, etc.”
So what types of behavior should you be on the lookout for, so you can stop them?
- Anyone who tries to control a situation by using bully tactics, like talking fast, having a temper tantrum (yes they happen). The sooner you identify the problem, you want to bring it to the attention of the contractor and ask them to stop the behavior you find unacceptable. Once you show them you're not afraid, communications should improve or you might need to let them go.
- Contractors who ignore a woman like she's not there, and only talk to the husband. One woman shared that her contractor only talked to her husband, even though she had the knowledge and product specs. Guys will talk to the person they're most comfortable with, so ask your significant other to tell contractors who's in charge and who they need to talk to.
- Signs of disrespect like “… an estimate written on the back of a business card & slammed down on the kitchen counter”. Hopefully you spot this type of behavior before a contract is signed or work started, and this is sometimes enough to encourage a woman to do it herself!
- When you keep replaying conversations in your head, and realize (more often it's just a feeling) the relationship isn't working, it's time to part ways. Think of this as shifting your emotional energy back where you can make forward progress, even if it means finding a new contractor and delaying completion of the project.
One last tip from our Facebook conversation, “… sometimes it's worth it to look away and other times not. It's about picking your battles!”
Wishing each and every woman homeowner much success learning more about their homes, and finding success working with contractors to create the home of your dreams!