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Continuing with Hubby's and my very recent moving saga, while another week of unpacking has passed, its nasty taste in our mouths hasn't. In just the past couple of days, I've discovered a broken vacuum cleaner, a missing window air-conditioner and still have more large boxes in the basement that were supposed to be placed in the living room and/or kitchen. Eek.

The next slap in our financial faces came from a very reputable business with which we've not only experienced great satisfaction in the past, but also one to which I've handed out mega referrals to friends and strangers alike. Talk about a fiasco! Without going into great detail, what was to be a week's job turned into five weeks, with kitchen and living room parts arriving piecemeal, which added to my profound distress. More times than not, what arrived had been built wrong or not at all which meant more delays. Unluckily, because of not being able to unpack kitchen and living room boxes — even with wonderful friends who had come to the rescue but instead scratched their heads at the mess — set us back even more. Fiasco indeed. Why, you ask, didn't I follow my own advice and obtain estimates? As mentioned, I had used these folks before and never dreamed in a million years that the company had changed so much in the past four years. Perhaps Mrs. Consumer Watch must revisit "Do as I say and not as I do" per my own experience and, also, helpful advice from Angie's List.

Hiring an experienced, professional contractor to help with your home improvement projects is already a step in the right direction. (I thought I had.) However, if you are new to the process or you simply wish to improve the relationship with your existing contractor, then look no further:

Be clear about what you want and don't be afraid to speak up. Homeowners with realistic and well-defined goals are usually the most satisfied, according to contractors. Be certain your expectations remain clear during the discussion stage and then, when the contract is written, take the time to both read and discuss the details with said person once again. If you have a question or you're unhappy with any part of the project, bring it to the contractor's attention as soon as possible. After all, it's your home, your project and your money. One of the worst things a client can do to contractors is let them get started on a job and then say you meant something else.

Be available for the estimate, as well as anything else that comes down the pike. Although it depends on the scope of your home improvement project and the contractor's preferences, the latter might provide you with an estimate anywhere from one day to several weeks after you submit your project because he/she must spend time researching the cost of materials, calculating the time needed to complete the project, number of workers needed and so forth. As a customer, the best thing you can do is try to be available when the contractor contacts you and forget being tardy to any meetings or conference calls. Driving to the site, discussing the job and preparing the written estimate all cost the contractor time and money. A "free estimate" isn't really free for contractors — it's an investment cost that they absorb. Obviously, when that particular one gets the bid, the money paid for the job will much more than make up any difference. Once you've contacted your preferred business, it's time to inform any other companies you're not hiring — it's unprofessional and rude to let them swing in the wind.

Make payments on time. As a customer, you are responsible for making payments to contractors according to the guidelines set forth in your contract. In the same way you would be frustrated by a late payment from your boss, contractors' impatience grows when payments are consistently delayed. The best thing you can do to maintain a positive relationship with any contractor is to keep track of when your payments are due and make an extra effort to submit them in a prompt manner. As I've explained in the past, it's always a good idea to divide the payments in three: One-third at the beginning of the job, the second segment into his or her pocket midway through the process, and the final third at the conclusion of the project.

It's imperative that you trust your contractor. Once Charlie Contractor's certifications and experience level have checked out, as well as references (with you establishing contact), decide whether the person is trustworthy before you finally settle on a contract and a thin, red dime exchanges hands. Regrettably, on the other hand, if you've landed in a pot of rubbish based on your prior usage and being keen on this person and his work, it's become a case of "he said, she said." Frankly, it still is your word against his and, if the company has a decent reputation within the community, you might come in dead last in this particular race.

If you should find yourself at odds with a contracted service provider, knowing the best methods to resolve the conflict should be at the top of your list. Tune in next week.

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.

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Ellen Phillips
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