Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Contracts and Contractors

By Matt Cantor
Friday February 01, 2008

Murphy must be in the contracting business. You know, the one who wrote that famous law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. He (or she, we’ve never met in the flesh, although I’ve fallen victim to his/her epistemology a time or two) was either a contractor or the client of one for enough time to codify the law and its corollaries. 

When working with contractors it is inevitable that things will go wrong. Many of them will be small and of little consequence but some can go very wrong and lead to tears. Some lead to lawyers (always a bad sign) and most have some relationship to poorly written contracts (there is no accident that they’re called contractors). 

To minimize fretting and gunfire, a clearly written contract is a darned good thing and I would recommend that you demand such in advance of any work you have done by a G.C. (general contractor). Even the setting of a toilet usually involves a short proposal on an NCR form or receipt book. 

A contract doesn’t have to define everything imaginable but the more it does define, the less likely one will experience discontent. Further, I would argue that most of the really bad workmanship that keeps me in business (I get called when things go wrong) is generated by those who are incapable of producing a cogent and detailed proposal. How can you do it if you can’t even write it down?  

So, this is a sort of test or gateway for contractors and I assure you that if you do nothing beyond reviewing a proposal (agreement, contract or what have you) with some care, you will easily eliminate the bottom tier of contractors.  

This will of course eliminate the cheapest ones but I think you need to do that anyway. I have often found that those who seemed to be cheap, were, in the long (or short) run, no bargain at all. There is no job so expensive as the one you have to do twice.  

If you’ve managed to get a proposal out of your G.C. (or, ideally, several G.C.s), what you want to start looking for is very specific information about what will be done. You can’t be too picky here. Let’s say you are doing a bath remodel.  

The contract should specify the physical area that will be worked upon; how the area will be masked off, if that is to be done; which walls will be fully demolished (or ideally, all of them); what will be done with any decay, rot or damp that is revealed; identify which portions of plumbing will be removed and replaced; which material will be used; how old and new piping will be joined; what fixtures will be used.  

The document should state if the subfloor is to be replaced; what kind of membranes will be used to line showers, tiled floor or other surfaces. If I’m painting a clear enough picture, you may begin to understand that there are actually a huge number of specifications and details relating to the way in which work will be done and that pinning them down will eliminate questions later on. 

There are also many areas in which a contractor may simply be doing it the way they are accustomed to operating that you may wish to have a say in. By seeing it in the contract, you have gained the possibility of inquiry and potential change. This applies to many things that you may or may wish to get on board with. It also induces discussion of methods and choices between you and your contractor that may never have happened were it not in writing.  

What you don’t want to hear is “don’t worry your little head, Ma’am. We’ll take care of everything,” Right? Even if you don’t understand a lot about construction methods, trust me, you want to be educated invited & involved.  

This also forces the contractor to stop and think about how they do things. They may have been doing a particular procedure or using a particular material so long that they’ve stopped thinking about it. By seeing it in the proposal, it becomes possible to question it and potentially alter it (was Heisenberg a contractor?). 

A contract also helps define and clarify the specific details that you’re asking for. A particular medicine chest that fills three stud bays (is framed into the wall several feet wide), a particular brand of toilet, a specific brand of paint that you’ve come to like. 

If it’s in the contract, you’ll know what you’re supposed to get and, if you don’t, you have a clear statement signed by both parties that eliminates the often encountered controversy over how it was supposed to be. 

I’ve been involved in too many cases where an unhappy client asked me to support his or her claim that they’d been, shall-we-say “mistreated” (you know that’s not the word they used) by that %$#*ing contractor and when I asked them what the contract specified, there was usually a long silence and then the shuffling of papers. Ultimately, most complainants don’t have the paper to back up their beef and benefit only from the learning experience. It’s very hard for a small-claims judge to do much for a client when there’s nothing in writing that clearly states what was to be expected. Yes, there are minimum standards for workmanship but they say little about what paint was to be used, which toilet was to be selected and whether a bath fan was included in the bid. 

If it’s not written down, it’s less likely to happen the way you thought it was supposed to go. Now, some smaller contractors work very intimately with their clients and the client gets just what they wanted, although they may not have a clear notion of the total cost in these situations, but, this is the less common case. 

If you are presented with a contract that seems a bit too sketchy and you like the contractor on other grounds (or they’re simply the only one you could get to actual produce a proposal), you can offer a counter-proposal that contains many more details that you’re aware of.  

Naturally, they will need to amend their proposal (you can and should try to write the contract) to include the new details and you can also ask for more specificity on the items you don’t understand also. 

Murphy has a few colleagues and my favorite is Hanlon. Hanlon’s razor says: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. 

Contractors are rarely malicious but a few … well, you know. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.