Chapter 7

Let the Job Begin!

Your start date may be almost immediately after signing a contract, or delayed by mutual agreement. It may be better to agree to start later than you wish if the contractor wants to finish a current job before he starts yours. (You may also want to avoid starting late in the week with demolition if no one works on the weekend.) You will probably be more interested in the completion date; be sure to address this in the contract if it is especially important. A "liquidated damages" clause requires the contractor to pay a specified amount per day for every day the job exceeds the contract time. It is probably unwise to agree to a clause that requires you to pay if the contractor finishes early, as you have little control over the schedule. The schedule should be realistic for both you and the contractor.

You should expect to allow for extending the contract if bad weather may be a factor. This can include days when it is too cold to paint, even if it is not actually raining. If rain seems likely while the job is underway, it should be the contractor's responsibility to secure any exposed part of the job, but this is no substitute for avoiding the problem. It is better to extend the contract time than risk having your roof covering stripped off just before the first rain hits. Of course, it pays to plan far enough ahead that you can schedule the whole job at the best time of year for the work.


The need for changes can arise on almost any job, although fewer changes are needed when the project is well-planned before it starts. Every change should be in writing. It is a good idea to go to your stationery store and get a supply of blank NCR forms that create their own carbons automatically, unless the contractor carries such forms with him at all times. The Change Order should state the date, the exact nature of the change, and the amount to be added to or deducted from the original contract amount. You should document changes in colors or styles, substitutions of one product for another, any extensions of the completion date, and changes or additions that are to be done at no extra charge to you. You and the contractor should both sign, and with the NCR form you can each have a copy on the spot.

In some cases, a contractor will agree to a few additional "freebies." Later in the job, when there have been disputes, the contractor may feel that you are not being fair. He could then say, "If you are going to be unreasonable about this, I will just go ahead and charge you for that extra item I did last week." Document every change when it happens, and you will avoid similar discussions later in your job.
Do not make side agreements with subcontractors or workers without consulting the prime contractor. The contractor is responsible for following the specs, managing the job, and negotiating with the people he hires. If a contractor has a supervisor or foreman who can negotiate changes, get a letter in advance authorizing that person to sign Change Orders.

Concealed Damage

Some repair or remodeling projects have the potential for "concealed" damages, and you will need to know who is responsible for paying for their correction. A common example is the discovery of dryrot in the wall behind the tub when your bathroom is being remodeled. Before the job started, neither you nor the contractor could see this. Even if a structural pest control report was ordered prior to the job, it will exclude concealed damages from the report.

If you want the contractor to be responsible for everything, this should be stated in the contract documents. The advantage to you is that there will be no addition to the contract amount after you are committed to the project. The disadvantage is that the contractor will bid the job with an amount already included to cover this type of work, and if there is no damage you will be paying a higher amount than necessary. Discuss the possibility of concealed damage with your contractor before you sign the contract, and decide how to handle it up front.

Examples of things that come up during the demolition part of a job include bad roof sheathing after the roof cover (shingles or tar and gravel) is removed, faulty electrical wiring, dry rot in bathroom floors, and termite infestations or dry rot in the wood framing. The chances of concealed damages go up greatly in older homes, homes with unprofessional room additions, and homes that were built in rural areas with inadequate inspections during construction. Discuss these possibilities freely with your contractor early in the planning stages so you can minimize unpleasant (and expensive) surprises later.

Protecting Personal Property

Take an active role in protecting your personal property. Do not leave valuables laying around. Park your car down the street on the day that exterior spray painting is to be done. If you don't think the workers are taking appropriate precautions to protect your furniture, landscaping, or carpet, say so before any actual damage is done. It is very difficult to prove that a worker stole something even if you suspect them, so don't let your tools (hammers, shovels) get mixed in with the contractor's tools. Don't be afraid to speak up; let your contractor know right away if you have any complaints or concerns.

Consider buying a roll of plastic to protect your existing floors, furniture, etc. even if the contractor does not do this. It is wise to plan on doing some extra daily clean-up, especially if you are living in the house while the work is going on.

Quality Control

The building inspection department of your local community may issue permits and inspect for code-compliance, but they don't inspect for quality. You should be satisfied with the work being done. If you have any complaints bring them to your contractor's attention immediately. If you are not satisfied with the drywall texturing, don't wait until after the room is painted to complain. This is not always possible if you are away from the job site during the day, but try to be prompt and observant.

You should inspect the work frequently. If a friend or neighbor brings up criticisms, check with your contractor before you assume the work is not being done correctly. Your neighbor may not be familiar with the current standards or procedures for the trade in question. Even if you have questions, you should be able to discuss them with your contractor without being accusatory. If there is an actual dispute, take the time to work it out. Lawsuits are expensive, adversarial, and time-consuming. If the dispute is extensive, there still may be a way to obtain successful mediation. You may be able to avoid any such bitter disputes if you were careful in your contractor-selection process.


The contractor or his crews may make a mistake at some point. A sidewalk could be formed and poured differently than it was shown on the plans, or a wall could be framed a few inches shorter than intended. In some cases the mistake will not show up until later, such as when the windows that are delivered don't all match the framed openings. Be prepared to deal with these occurrences.

Sometimes a mistake can ultimately lead to a better solution. Your willingness to cooperate with a contractor in such a situation may result in getting something else extra as compensation. This is like getting a free airline ticket when you are "bumped" from a flight. If you agree to compromise it may benefit you in the end, but you should be able to insist on correcting the things that are important to you.

It is important to inspect the progress of the job regularly. If you see something shaping up that looks like a mistake, speak up. It is best to tell the contractor, but if it seems serious it could be wise to mention it to the tradesman. If the tile setter is about to install brown tile when you know it is supposed to be blue, let him know that there could be a problem. Try not to take an excited or adversarial approach. Stay calm, and give the contractor a chance to correct the mistake. The sooner the problem is identified, the easier it is to correct.

Progress Payments

Both you and the contractor should be very interested in the status of progress payments. It is wise to keep a separate account for the project so you can easily see where (and when) the money has gone. Of course, you have the money available to pay for the job or you should not have entered into the contract. The contractor should have enough "working cash" to pay his bills during the course of the job.

The payment schedule should be clear. Sometimes a contract calls for a percentage of the total (five payments of 20% each, less the 10% contingency deducted from each payment, is not uncommon). The payment schedule should identify clearly the "triggers" that cause the payments to be due, such as the pouring of the concrete foundation or the completion of sheetrock nailing. The contractor should give you advance warning when a payment will be due (one to three days is helpful) and you should be ready to pay as agreed.

The completion payment should be due when the job is "substantially completed," but you and the contractor may agree on withholding a small amount to cover "punchlist" items. It's not fair to hold up thousands of dollars over a small piece of trim that needs to be corrected, but it's risky to pay the full amount if you are not satisfied. When your job is essentially done, it is natural for the contractor to be spending most of his time on the next job. You need enough leverage to be sure he comes back and finishes the small stuff.


Remember, a construction project is stressful. You will be spending a significant amount of money for a result that you can't see until it's done. You will have strangers coming to your house, creating noise and dust. You may not be able to use part of your house during the project. If your entire kitchen is being remodeled, you will be seriously inconvenienced. If your bathroom is being remodeled, be sure to ask that the toilet be left functional overnight, unless you have another bathroom that is not affected. The power or water may be turned off at times. Paint, adhesives, and carpet all emit odors when they are new. Dust will settle in areas that are not directly involved with the remodeling. Think of this project as an adventure and a learning experience. Try to avoid other stressful circumstances during the time this work is being done.

An accurate construction schedule can help minimize stress. If you know in advance what you are to expect, you can plan ahead. If the contractor doesn't adhere to the schedule, you will become annoyed on the days no one works on your project, even if the completion date is not yet delayed. While many things can cause a construction schedule to slip, good communication with the contractor can help alleviate your resentment. Having a "liquidated damages" clause in the contract, where the contractor must pay for every day the job drags out beyond the stated completion date, can help ensure that the job will stay on track.

At the beginning of the job, coach yourself and your family. Review the many disruptive things that are apt to happen. Remind yourselves to look ahead to the goal of a newly-remodeled house, not at the daily frustrations. Think of your contractor as part of a team that includes you, the neighbors, the workers, and anyone else affected by the job.

The first few days can be the worst, especially if much demolition is involved. The noise and dust can be severe, and it is an emotional hit to see someone tearing a part of your house down. This experience will make you realize that there is no turning back, even more than the relatively passive experience of signing a contract. Feel free to talk about the emotional aspects of being part of this process with your family and friends, as this can help you deal with the stress.

It is especially important to review the job with children if they will be present. They should be told not to distract the workers or touch the tools, and they should be made aware of special hazards like extension cords, saws, etc. You will find that children can learn from being included in the process, and some things will become more clear to you if you take the time to explain them to the kids. Older ones can make valued contributions to the planning process if you keep them informed. The successful implementation of a complex project will be a learning experience for everyone, and your kids may learn valuable lessons about professional relationships early in life.

Plan a happy celebration at completion, even if it's just refreshments for your family and the contractor (if you are up for it, throw a housewarming party!) It is good to finish a job with everyone satisfied. If you ever need to contact the contractor later, it is wise to have parted on good terms. Keep this in mind throughout the entire job, so that small disputes don't spoil an otherwise successful relationship.



When the job is essentially complete, it is a good idea to create a "punch list." Allow plenty of time to walk the job with your contractor, noting anything that still needs to be done. Be very specific, so it will be clear to both of you what is necessary to finish. Have your plans, specs, and change orders available for reference if necessary. The completion of the job usually triggers the final payment to the contractor, except for the retention if you have written that into your contract. Sometimes the job is finished except for one or two small items, such as a missing light fixture that is on back-order. In such cases it may be reasonable to negotiate a partial payment of the "final" payment.

Final Inspection by Building Inspector

Most jobs of any size require a building permit. Be sure that you receive evidence of the final inspection by the Building Inspector and that the job has been approved. Keep this with your other important house papers. It will be very important to be able to prove that any work done to your house was done legally, especially when you want to sell. There should be a permit number, the dates of the interim inspections, and the date and signoff of the final inspection.

Lien Releases

In many states, the law provides for the filing of "mechanics' liens" against your property if the workers or suppliers are not paid. This is because the dollar amounts are often significant, and it is rather difficult to repossess framing lumber or labor. If you pay your contractor in full, and he does not pay his suppliers, they still have the right to file a lien. This is a complex area of the law, but you can avoid liens by having the contractor get unconditional lien releases for you from the primary workers and suppliers. The risk of liens is small on small projects, as a lien must be followed up by a lawsuit in order to enforce it. If you received "preliminary lien notices" from subcontractors and suppliers shortly after the start of your project, don't panic. These people are protecting their interests by putting you on notice that they have lien rights. It is especially wise to get lien releases from anyone that sent you a preliminary notice. Lien laws may vary from state to state.

Notice of Completion

In California if you choose to file a Notice of Completion with your county recorder, it will shorten the period of time allowed to suppliers and subcontractors for filing liens. It must be filed within ten days of the completion date. Filing a Notice of Completion is not necessary, but may be a good idea, especially on large jobs. Check with a title company for more information about how to file the Notice of Completion.

Unresolved Problems If you have serious unresolved problems, you have several options to address them. You can file a complaint with the License Board, take your case to Small Claims Court if the dollar amount is within their limits, or hire an attorney and perhaps file a lawsuit. Sometimes the threat of any of these actions is enough to get the problem resolved, especially if your complaint is that the contractor fails to take care of something at the end of the job.

Mediation and conflict resolution can be done by neutral third parties, and may be faster and less expensive than some of the more aggressive options. You may be better served by a negotiator who can help warring parties identify their common interests and come to a satisfactory compromise. Lawyers are trained in adversarial procedures, with "winners" and "losers." Money paid to a lawyer will not guarantee that you come out ahead. If you need help solving a dispute, try to find someone who will help you to a fair and balanced solution.

Give your contractor an opportunity to address your concerns before you take drastic action. Remember, this project was a partnership, and a good relationship at the end of the job has long-term value. As with any professional--your doctor, your accountant, your car mechanic--a legitimate relationship based on mutual trust and ethical behavior is an asset for years to come. Treat it with respect.

Next Chapter: Special Hazards and Safety Devices
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