QUESTION: Why do contractors have such a bad reputation for being unreliable and either not completing a job at all or not finishing on schedule?
ANSWER: While we can’t speak for everyone on this matter, we can give you our opinion from over 40 years working in the industry, and hopefully help shed some light on this unfortunate but commonly held belief.
There are many different trades involved in the construction industry, but for the sake of answering this question we will assume the conversation is geared more toward home improvement contractors. Even narrowed down to that group we are not even close to being experts in all of these areas but can certainly speak to what we see in the painting industry or when being a part of a larger project where other trades are involved.
The first thing to point out is that when you receive a proposal for services, an estimator has typically inspected your project, discussed your goals, estimated the amount and cost of materials needed, and then based on past experience of how long this type of job has taken, calculates approximately how long it should take to complete this project. If you move forward, you will likely sign a contract with the estimated total and a projected start date and time for completion. Some companies or trades work solely on a time and materials basis (T&M) which basically means even if they do ballpark a quote for you up front, that is meant to provide perspective of roughly where the price will land. The actual billing happens on a weekly basis (or similar) for a total of all the labor costs for everyone who worked on the project, plus a list of receipts submitted for reimbursement for the cost of materials. If it is a smaller job you may only pay at the end such as when you take your car to the auto mechanic.
We personally work mostly off of a pre-determined price that we have calculated as explained above based on years of experience for how long certain types of jobs tend to take. We account for prep, application, finish, and clean-up time as well as other factors depending on the job. We almost always calculate the cost of materials ahead of time so we can provide you with one price for your project that includes everything – labor and materials. We can tell you approximately when we will start based on the current schedule and tell you that given all known factors your type of project usually takes about 5-7 days to complete (for ex.). Sometimes we may need to allow for certain portions of the job – usually a smaller portion – that can only really be done on a T&M basis. The reason for that is that with some issues (wood rot for instance) you can’t know what you will find once you start removing old trim, etc., and there really is no good way of estimating how long it will take to repair or precisely what materials will be needed. That is a discussion we have with the homeowner at the time of the estimate typically and can revisit any time they have questions about how things are moving along.
When booking jobs, it is almost always an estimate within a reasonable timeframe of when you will be able to start and how long it should take. But there are factors that can change that. The biggest is the weather. When working on outside jobs the weather is our biggest adversary; as in if it does not cooperate it can set us back quite a bit. We always try to set aside protected areas of the home to work on during inclement weather, but if we go through a rainy spell you can easily run out of covered work quickly. Therefore, there are times when it is necessary to pull off an exterior job for this reason and go to an interior. This is frustrating for everyone involved. Of course, the homeowner whose house you were on doesn’t want you to go before the job is completed. We don’t like having to pack up the equipment and move it to another project, set it up again and start something new, but we do have a business to keep operational and employees that need to work. When we get interior jobs during the warmer months, we try to work with the homeowners to see if they are okay being on our “rainy day schedule”. This is especially helpful if it is a smaller project and we can go in for a day or two and get the job done for them and then return to the exterior job when the weather clears.
Unfortunately, sometimes the job is a little bigger and depending on what area of the home is being worked on, it might be necessary to stay and complete that, so the family has usable function of the home again as soon as possible. This is definitely an area where clients can get upset. It is totally understandable, and we really wish there was a way to avoid this from happening. So far in all our years working though the best thing we have found is to openly communicate with everyone involved regarding why there is a delay, when you expect to get back, how they can reach you in the meantime, and if anything changes that at all to get in touch with them immediately.
Delays can also happen when a project just flat out takes longer than anticipated. We all run into unexpected things in the course of our daily lives – traffic nightmares, a delivery that arrives late, a product that is out of stock longer than expected, a cold or flu that keeps us at home or slows us down, and these are just some of the things that can affect a job running smoothly. Add to these things trade-related monkey wrenches like wood rot, water seep, material coverage, or even the occasional underestimation of how challenging a certain aspect would actually be, and it is not hard to see how you could run into over-time. We try to allow for some of these things when estimating a project, but it’s impossible to cover everything. There can also be changes at the request of the owner – a different color, additional work added on, a change or tweak to the scope of work. It is normally necessary to address these changes immediately for the job to continue flowing smoothly, but it can be a judgment call when you have another project to get to. Again, we have found the most important factor to be communicating with our customers. Most people will do their best to work with you when they are treated with respect and kept informed of what is going on. And if something is just a mistake than it’s okay to say that too. We are all human and pretending to be perfect seems kind of pointless.
As for contractors who don’t follow-up, don’t stay in touch or return phone calls or emails, and just generally leave people in the dark, there are no excuses for this. Some people may prefer avoidance in uncomfortable situations but eventually you have to face people and tell them what is happening. It seems to me it’s better practice to do this sooner than later. We have all heard horror stories about companies leaving a job half-way finished and never being heard from again. We definitely don’t condone this practice but feel these really are more the exception than the rule. But we can likely all agree that anyone who does this doesn’t deserve to be in business. It is really important to vet your contractor by getting & checking references, and really asking how they treat their customers ahead of time. A small investment of time in the beginning can save a lot of headaches in the future.