Home & Garden Columns

About the House: The Foreman Problem

By Matt Cantor
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:58:00 AM

Contracting is called contracting because it’s about writing contracts. It’s about sales, which are contractual. Contractors aren’t builders, they are people who write and perfect (that’s the legal term for bringing to completion) contracts. We’ve come to think of contractors as people who wear tool belts, but for anyone who has ever hired a contractor only to find them inexplicably absent for the duration of the job, this understanding of a contractor’s role in building can prevent woe and direct you through a morass of remodeling problems. 

Unless specified, a contractor isn’t obliged to have anything more to do with your job than to sign the contract, take a deposit and wish you well. And, of course, make sure that somebody does the job in accordance with the specific provisions of the contract (your contract had lots of specifics, right? like assuring the contractor would call you, talk to you, tell you everything was O.K. and they have enjoyed the time they shared with you). It’s a cruel world out there, and then, your health care gets voted on by congress. Time to wake up and smell the sawdust. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that contract law allows contractors to defraud the public and vacate promises of work. It does not, but it says very little about who you have actually hired. Ask around, and you will find more than a few folks who, having hired a given contractor, often because of their trust in that particular person, later found themselves working with a gang of subordinates who cast a sorry or limp shadow of the absent hero. 

So, it’s a good idea, when you sit down with the contractor you’re hoping to work with to ask whether they will be doing the work. Often, the answer will be that they will be checking on the work from time to time, but they won’t actually be swinging a hammer. If you never ask, you might never know until the work is well under way. 

One can specify in a contract that one wishes the contractor to be on-site and perform certain services (within some reasonable bounds, indentured servitude now being largely outlawed), but this is a very slippery slope, and I would argue that it’s always better to start off by hiring someone to do things the way that they are accustomed to doing them. Then the marriage has a chance. 

Many small contractors (2–5 person firms) will be on-site much of the time anyway, and if you’re looking for that boutique experience, you might want to stay with a highly ranked person in a company of roughly that size. Once a contractor has more than, say, 6 or 7 persons on staff, nobody is going to see them all that much of the time, since the lion’s share of their energies will be going into keeping all those other people productive, efficient and paid.  

As contractors, our lives and days change as we evolve into business-folk. We change hats and clothing, manners and venues. Many don’t make the switch. Some back up, drop down to handyman status or leave entirely. Some find the upward-mobility a natural ride. It varies with each contractor and each has their own gifts and curses.  

Discerning these attributes should be the mission of the consumer. Shopping for contractors is like figuring out what kind of suit you’re looking for (or overall, or ripped tee). Will they be on-site? Will they supervise well? Will I get a good deal? Will the work be to my liking? Will I enjoy the experience and feel taken care of? These needs will vary with the buyer (yes, you will bring much to this table) and the contractor. Small can be very intimate and make a lot of room for positive change and adaptation, even though it can be slower. Larger firms are often quicker and can usually tackle tougher problems. They may also have plusses that a small one does not, such as a connection with an engineer or architect. 

There is no one model for everyone, but there is one element in this equation that is worth asking and learning about and that is the job-site foreman or superintendent. 

These mini-contractors are both employee and boss. They are liaison and worker. Often, they are a job boss (telling everyone else what to do) and organizer, but above all, they are yours. These sergeants in the field of contracting hold sufficient rank to do all the things your absent contractor cannot, and, often as not, will do better carpentry and clean up than the boss.  

Now just as contractors vary, a foreman comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Meeting a proposed foreman during the shopping phase is an awfully good idea. If there are several foremen (these can, of course, be women) then meet them all, just in case there’s a switch. It is quite common, in my experience for these persons to be quite similar in a given company since they will reflect the predelictions of the boss (ever meet two or three ex-husbands of the same woman?). 

The job foreman is empowered to make a range of decisions, but this will have its limits. They may have to consult with the general contractor or wait for a call back on some issues, but this is a finer point. The take-home message here is that if you have a foreman dedicated to your job and you like them, you will often be happier than the person who has the contractor on-site every day. The politics of this are sort of like good-cop, bad cop. There is face-saving too. The foreman “feels” like they belong to you when they’re on your site and they can “seem” to go to bat against the contractor to get you more of this or less of that because they have an investment in you and the outcome of “their” job. It’s very much like organizational politics and you’re the winner if you have a stalwart foreman that you like and with whom you have a good working relationship. 

If you are thinking of working with a mid-sized contractor who does not use a foreman or superintendent system, think again. This is often a sign that the contractor has either not matured organizationally, or is just cheap (which is also foolish). For contractors, spending enough to keep people happy is smart business, and no successful contractor can last long with a string of unhappy clients dragging behind them. The ones that shine, are those who spend enough to keep the jobs moving along at an appropriate pace and keep good replicas of themselves on-site to create, solve and please.