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Getting the Best Work from Your Contractor

Published: March 4, 2011
Working with a contractor takes effort and know-how in order to keep your project on time and on budget.

Checking Contractors Work
Managing your contractor is your biggest job during a remodel. You must make sure the project stays on target, on time, and on budget.
Get apathetic or lose your focus, and you may pay for it-literally. Here´s what you need to know to stay organized and keep your contractor and construction team on the ball.

Avoid allowances

Make important decisions about finishes and hardware before your contractor delivers an itemized bid. Otherwise, the bid will contain "allowances," estimates that may grossly overstate or understate the cost of items you eventually pick.
Allowances ultimately can send your budget reeling. If you can't pinpoint the master bath tile or kitchen sink, at least give your contractor an accurate ballpark price for items you're considering. Guess higher, rather than lower; that way you're more likely to come in under-rather than over-budget.

Establish communication

Discuss with your contractor how you prefer to communicate. Establish a regular meeting time, perhaps at the site for a few minutes before work each day. Exchange cell phone numbers so urgent questions-from either party-can get answers quickly and keep work moving.
Your contractor may ask you to speak with the project manager who is running the job. Whatever the arrangement, chat at least once a day.
These discussions are your opportunity to hear progress reports, review work schedules, ask questions, and voice concerns. Daily chitchats help identify and remedy problems in their infancy. And even though no one likes change orders, it's better to spend a little more to fix a problem then to live with it for the next 10 years.

Keep a project journal

Part scrapbook, part diary, part to-do list, a project journal will help you stay organized.
Use a notebook to record progress, remember questions you want to ask your contractor, jot down ideas, record product order numbers, and anything else that comes along. It'll help you keep things on track, communicate with the team, and provide a record of exactly who said what when-which could help you iron out disagreements later on.

Track all changes in writing

No matter how well you planned, your home improvement job will change as it moves along. You may encounter unforeseen structural issues, or you may decide to include additional work.
Any good contractor can handle these changes-just make sure all costs are specified in writing first. Tell the contractor at the outset (and put in the contract) that you want to sign off on written change orders for anything that's going to add to the bottom line of the job. That means the contractor has to give you a bid (a description of the change and a fixed price for what it will cost) and you both have to sign it before the work is done.
This eliminates misunderstandings about the scope and price of the new work. Also, it helps you keep track of your bottom line.

Check all work

It's easier to nip problems in the bud than to undo mistakes after the fact, so diligently check your contractor's work.
As fixtures arrive on site, compare model numbers on the boxes against your receipts, invoices, and the contractor's bid to ensure that the correct product was delivered. Check locations of walls, windows, and door openings against blueprints.
To the extent that it's possible, conduct these investigations after hours or during lunch breaks so you don't seem like you're looking over the workers' shoulders (even though you are).

Pay only for completed work

Money is power. As soon as you've paid the contractor, you no longer have the upper hand.
It's crucial that you keep the payment schedule in line with the work schedule. The contract should establish a series of payments to be made when certain parts of the job are completed. For example, your contract could stipulate that you'll pay in three equal installments, with the last payment made after the project is complete, and after you and your contractor agree the work is satisfactory.
Never put down more than 10% upfront; that's too much cash to hand over before any work is complete. Your contractor should be able to get any necessary supplies on credit.

Be a good customer

One of the best ways to get quality work out of a construction crew is to make them enjoy working for you. That means making decisions quickly and paying on time.
It also means being friendly and accommodating of the workers in your house: designating a bathroom they can use, greeting them by name each morning, and perhaps serving cold lemonade on a hot day. Complimenting their work (as long as you feel it's worthy of praise) can be a great way to motivate others to do their best.

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