JohnRgt

Dealing With Construction Contractors/Workers

24 posts in this topic

I've been coordinating some construction work on a property I'm responsible for.

Because of foundation issues, this project has dragged into December. (Fortunately, we've had a mild fall this year in NY.)

The problems I'm having fall into two categories:

1)

They contractors and crew chiefs are constantly contradicting each other and themselves. I can't get an answer I can trust. Consequently, I spend hours researching and verifying everything on my own. When they're wrong, or I find a solution that's better, all heck breaks loose.

2)

Although I checked out every contractor as much as I could, coordinating everything has been a nightmare. They don't show up when they're supposed to. Worse, they sometimes show up when they're not scheduled to.

Other than withholding funds until all the work is done, and maybe introducing a penalty clause for delays, does anyone have any idea how to get these people to do the work as and when they promise?

(There's a third category of issues, namely, the amount of time and expense involved in getting permits for every little thing. But sine I don't see municipalities that have strong regulatory practices pulling back on permit reqs anytime soon, I've made my peace with this particular drain.)

Aside from the time these games have cost me, my relationships with various employers have been strained.

Other than doing all the work on one's own, how does one get anything built in a predictable timeframe?

(I am doing a lot of the work on my own early next spring, but I don't have the expertise to tackle all of it.)

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've been coordinating some construction work on a property I'm responsible for.

Because of foundation issues, this project has dragged into December. (Fortunately, we've had a mild fall this year in NY.)

The problems I'm having fall into two categories:

1)

They contractors and crew chiefs are constantly contradicting each other and themselves. I can't get an answer I can trust. Consequently, I spend hours researching and verifying everything on my own. When they're wrong, or I find a solution that's better, all heck breaks loose.

2)

Although I checked out every contractor as much as I could, coordinating everything has been a nightmare. They don't show up when they're supposed to. Worse, they sometimes show up when they're not scheduled to.

Other than withholding funds until all the work is done, and maybe introducing a penalty clause for delays, does anyone have any idea how to get these people to do the work as and when they promise?

(There's a third category of issues, namely, the amount of time and expense involved in getting permits for every little thing. But sine I don't see municipalities that have strong regulatory practices pulling back on permit reqs anytime soon, I've made my peace with this particular drain.)

Aside from the time these games have cost me, my relationships with various employers have been strained.

Other than doing all the work on one's own, how does one get anything built in a predictable timeframe?

(I am doing a lot of the work on my own early next spring, but I don't have the expertise to tackle all of it.)

JohnRGT

I sympathize with you, but can't make any specific recommendations. I can make a general comment which may be helpful. I have found that the most stressful job you can have is responsibility without authority. It seems that this is the case here. You are responsible for certain results, but don't have the full authority to bring them about. You must depend on others, yet bare the responsibility for failure to deliver.

If there is some way you can lay failure to deliver charges at the feet of those who are responsible, it will go a long way to taking the stress off you. Nothing can be as frustrating as having your concerted efforts negated by the less concerned. Make it clear to them in negotiations, that you won't take the rap for their failures. Your employers should be put in this picture as well; let them know the limits of your control is all you will take responsibility for.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Arnold,

Thanks forthe support.

Nothing can be as frustrating as having your concerted efforts negated by the less concerned.

Almost an axiom!

Make it clear to them in negotiations, that you won't take the rap for their failures.

Unfortunatley the consequences of the crews' willingness to take their time are all mine. I have to be here when they work, and so I can't meet my obligations with other employers (I work in the food industry. This time of year is uberbusy and yet, I have to take days off, beg to be left off the schedule with little or no notice, etc. I'll pay for this less than reliable attitude next season, when the people with the lucrative side-jobs simply don't call.)

Your employers should be put in this picture as well; let them know the limits of your control is all you will take responsibility for.

I should've made clear that by "my employers" I was referring to the food industry concerns I work for. The people who own the property won't be using it for some time. I'll have every little thing done long before they return. However, there are jobs which, once started, must be fiinshed ASAP or the building will suffer.

Anyway...

My solution to all this:

Open a contractor business!!!

;-)

There's too much money involved, and the work too important for solid character not to be a huge competitive advantage in an industry that seems to take its customers for granted. (I'm joking, but not by much. Once my neighbors saw the design I came up with for the driveway retaining walls, they asked for estimates...Mind you the design is textbook retaining wall. It's just that too many people in the building trades in this area don't bother with things like good drainage, collection tanks, back-up pumps, etc, preferring to overbuild the retainers rather than building them intelligently -- overbuilding requires far less steps, coordination, customization, and expertise.)

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My solution to all this:

Open a contractor business!!!

;-)

There's too much money involved, and the work too important for solid character not to be a huge competitive advantage in an industry that seems to take its customers for granted. (I'm joking, but not by much.

Why joke? There's a serious lack of competence in the world and I believe people hunger for it. I think a key issue would be choosing the best people you can find, not just anybody off the street, a top general business principle that is often ignored.

Other than that, I strongly suggest that you subscribe to Angie's List (www.angieslist.com), which is simply a customer feedback oriented listing of local service companies, with nationwide scope. As a new house owner I've found it very valuable to both find and preliminarily assess potential service companies. It doesn't guarantee that the top rated companies won't have some problems, but if nothing else it's an excellent way to avoid companies that have serious complaints against them (including how they've handled those complaints, since they can respond to customers posting on the list. One plumbing company responded to what sounded like a genuine customer complaint with a nasty response from their lawyer; that was enough for me to not consider them.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

John,

Here in Las Vegas, becaue of the regulations, we have companies that can do everything for you, at a cost of course. These types of companies go to the municipalities for you, do the research for you, find the builder and do all the sub-contracting for you. Of course this comes at a certain cost but worth it to some people.

This is not to say that you would not want to check-up on these types of companies. But, you would have a legal-binding contract that they would have to live up to.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Why joke [about starting a construction business]? There's a serious lack of competence in the world and I believe people hunger for it.

I am going to give the neighbors estimates, but only after I build the retainers for the property I'm responsible for (I figured I could build these units thee or four times, and still bring the project in for less than the average quote I was given. If I'm not happy with what I can build, I'll pay for the "pros" to come in out of my own pocket.) I'll see how starting a little construction business looks after I go through the process with the neighbors.

I do wonder, though: Can the people commissioning work be at least partly to blame for the ridiculous practices one sees in the building trades? Can the market's pragmatism be a huge contributor to the narrow-sightedness I find so aggravating?

These tradesmen aren't incompetent. They just seem to think that their ubercompromised approach "cuts to the chase." If they have to handle the customer a bit in order to do what they know is best, well, they do.

Example:

When I insisted that estimates for the retainers include gravel backfill, drain lines, a runoff reservoir with an electric pump, etc, I repeatedly heard, "and you're going to pay for all that!," in a tone that implied that I had pushed them to the point where they had no choice but to be blunt. (Bad breeding on my part...)

They seemed to know that what I wanted was the ideal solution. They just wouldn't accept that I was willing to pay for anything more than a robust concrete wall. That the building's foundation had shifted dramatically due to bad drainage didn't give them a moment's pause. That neighbors had taken the robust wall approach only to have these behemoths blister and bulge after ten years or so didn't move them a single mm. That the monster wall doesn't do thing one to alleviate the drain burden on the property seemed irrelevant. "You're going to pay for all that!" was where the argument stopped.

At any rate, any densely populated area can absorb one more side business in any field, so I'll certainly be looking into making some income from my new knowledge and experiences -- if only as an excuse to buy more power tools!

;-)

My thanks to all who have contributed to this thread.

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Here is my attempt at an explanation:

Prop. 1: One consequence of the recent real estate boom is that houses are flipped very quickly, sometimes every 2 years, or even faster. This is even more the case I assume for modern made houses (by definition, all the houses that are *not* flipped very recently are houses that were not built recently).

Prop. 2: Home buyers don't recognize quality, long term work. Quality, long term work is hard or impossible to recongnize from short term work (which often looks perfectly fine until you try to live in it for a couple years). The market is so hot that home sellers don't have any incentive to provide documentation of the work that was done.

Ergo: Contractors are most often asked to build pretty and cheap, rather than long-term and expensive. They are not used to doing the long term work or dealing with customers who care about such barbarous relics as sound foundations.

This is based on my look at houses in the Seattle area.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Over the weekend I had a brief conversation with a succesfull NYMetro contractor.

In his opinion, the reason behind both the Band-Aid approach to repairing crucial structures like retaining walls, and the schedule issues everyone complains about, is the inability of customers to look at things mid- to long-term. He claimed that if he could raise his prices by 10% on large jobs and 15% on small ones, his customers would enjoy the build quality of his house – and he could deliver on time.

He offered one related warning:

Unless you have solid reason to believe that a given contractor only thinks long-term, don't believe anything he says Re completion date, the quality of the workmanship and materials, or, most important, that the solution he's advocating is anything more than a Band-Aid.

Once again, the market generates the "traditions" it deserves.

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Over the weekend I had a brief conversation with a succesfull NYMetro contractor.

JohnRGT

"Succesfull" should read "successful".

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
He claimed that if he could raise his prices by 10% on large jobs and 15% on small ones, his customers would enjoy the build quality of his house – and he could deliver on time.

He offered one related warning:

Unless you have solid reason to believe that a given contractor only thinks long-term, don't believe anything he says Re completion date, the quality of the workmanship and materials, or, most important, that the solution he's advocating is anything more than a Band-Aid.

2 quick comments here:

1 - It might be rational to only be willing to pay for band aid approach. E.g., if you know that the likelihood is you will move within 5 years, why pay for a long term solution which the next buyers (unless inordinally well educated) will not be willing to pay for?

2 - How can you say whether the contractors are interested in lg term or short term?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

2 quick comments here:

1 - It might be rational to only be willing to pay for band aid approach. E.g., if you know that the likelihood is you will move within 5 years, why pay for a long term solution which the next buyers (unless inordinally well educated) will not be willing to pay for?

2 - How can you say whether the contractors are interested in lg term or short term?

On 1:

I'd say that having a pair of housing inspectors look the problem over would give one a feel for what potential buyers would hear. (IN my experience, inspectors charge a lot for written appraisals, but charge only a fraction of their standard rate for a verbal walk-through, or to give an opinion on a specific problem.)

Also, the few highly regarded contractors I talked to did ask about the owner's intent before they started suggesting solutions.

I'd also talk to a couple of realtors about the state of the market, and what they think about the impact a given repair approach would have on the price of the property.

On 2:

Given the amount of money involved, how much can be compromised irrationally or done wrong, and how integrated a house's various systems are, one needs to have some understanding of the related trades.

Peart Re the Internet: "I can hold the Universe in a grain of sand."

Once one has a basic understanding of things, one can then start looking through references from like-minded home owners (their must be at least two or three in any town :) ), talk to a number of contractors, etc.

All I know about construction I've learned on my own. While it's not a large knowledge base, it was enough to have the aforementioned contractor ask me if I were ever in the trades.

Sure, all this research adds up to a huge imposition: one should be able to hire a professional with good references, haggle out a price, and expect reasonably smooth sailing form then on. Present-day culture, however, doesn't seem to allow for that.

Related example: I got so fed up with the lies and shortcuts of auto mechanics that I've done my own repairs for years. I've always liked working on cars and have always held on to them for a very long time. $60-$100 for a given car's shop manual allows me to execute any repair I care to buy the tools for (these manuals walk you through almost every possible repair.) I'm now so sure of my abilities that I plan to paint my uber-complicated shaped car myself. I'd love to be able to just drop the my car off and get a good paint job, but the few shops that enjoy top-notch reputations want at least $4K to do the job right; I'd rather do it myself, getting some practice at a skill I'd love to have.

I hope this helps.

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

$60-$100 for a given car's shop manual allows me to execute any repair I care to buy the tools for (these manuals walk you through almost every possible repair.) I'm now so sure of my abilities that I plan to paint my uber-complicated shaped car myself.

Hi John!

I'm so glad you're going to try out the painting. Have you done it before? I paid for a friend to do ultra-great painting and rustproofing. He made sure to get all the spots. The tricky part is the drying, as I understand it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi John!

I'm so glad you're going to try out the painting. Have you done it before? I paid for a friend to do ultra-great painting and rustproofing. He made sure to get all the spots. The tricky part is the drying, as I understand it.

Hi, ElizabethLee --

Thanks for the support.

As part of my preparation for the project, I plan to refurbish a couple of junkyard body pannels in order to fine tune my technique.

Drying is certainly tricky, but the entire process is a series of intricate steps -- compromise on any one step, and the whole job is ruined.

The car's galvanizing is in good shape, and except for a few spots on the spoilers, I haven't found any rot or rust. All I'll be doing is sanding down to the prime coat, sanding it smooth, re-priming, smoothing out again, and spraying on as many layers of wet-sanded paint as my time and budget allow. A good sealing, either a pro or me, and I should be good.

I've always found working on cars to be relaxing and fun, so, I'm going for it within the next 18 months or so.

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I do contracting work for computers and have the other side of the coin.

I have to use that line myself sometimes because I might quote a customer on a specific job, they change the specifications to something that I would agree is better, but then don't want to pay for the better solution.

They want the cheap prices of the simple solution with the quality of the good solution.

I prefer to do the good solution so provided I get it all in writing, I am happy. :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

2 quick comments here:

1 - It might be rational to only be willing to pay for band aid approach. E.g., if you know that the likelihood is you will move within 5 years, why pay for a long term solution which the next buyers (unless inordinally well educated) will not be willing to pay for?

I just reread Joss' post.

I never said that anyone should over invest in a property's maintenance, so I'm not sure where 1 came from.

The repairs I was responsible for weren't small issues -- I was dealing with serious foundation and retaining wall repairs/rebuilding.

Certainly the industry has specific expectations for a given structure, and if inspectors traditionally "pass" a structure with flaws that would give pause to an astute buyer, there's probably little reason to go all out on the maintenance of a flipper -- especially if reputatble realtors concur Re one's market predictions.

But my issue all through this thread has been that even when the owner wanted and was willing to pay for a longterm approach, it was impossible to get contractors with reasonable reputations to snap out of their pragmatic mindset. Worse, once I got through that armor, many simply refused to undertake the job.

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

While waiting for the train, I bumped into a restoration contractor I know with an incredible reputation (he specialized in restoring homes on Long Island's north shore, aka, the Gold Coast.)

He has quit the construction business.

Basically, he quit because the 40- and 50-somethings that now own these properties can't get their heads around the idea that fundamentals of physics and engineering aren't negotiable. He also got tired of spending half a day writing up an estimate just to be underbid 80% of the time, then hearing through the grapevine that many of the jobs he didn't get ended up costing far more than he bid. (A big part of his reputation was that he never ran into cost overruns, and that he absorbed unexpected costs.)

He also confirmed that what I've heard from other contractors and posted above: people are cutting corners to "save" ~15%, and there's no way to get them to see that the cut corners will cost them far more than that down the line.

So what does he do now?

He sells high-end lubricants and performance enhancers for large diesel engines (heavy-duty construction equipment, generators, etc.) While he misses restoring beautiful homes on the North Shore, the diesel world is far saner.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Basically, he quit because the 40- and 50-somethings that now own these properties can't get their heads around the idea that fundamentals of physics and engineering aren't negotiable. He also got tired of spending half a day writing up an estimate just to be underbid 80% of the time, then hearing through the grapevine that many of the jobs he didn't get ended up costing far more than he bid. (A big part of his reputation was that he never ran into cost overruns, and that he absorbed unexpected costs.)

He also confirmed that what I've heard from other contractors and posted above: people are cutting corners to "save" ~15%, and there's no way to get them to see that the cut corners will cost them far more than that down the line.

Can you provide a name? I realize he's changed industries, but it would be useful nonetheless. And do you know why he talks specifically about 40- and 50-somethings as not understanding why cutting corners is no good, as opposed to other age groups?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Can you provide a name? I realize he's changed industries, but it would be useful nonetheless.

I am, by the way, not seeking to be a customer, but I do look for bright lights.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Basically, he quit because the 40- and 50-somethings that now own these properties can't get their heads around the idea that fundamentals of physics and engineering aren't negotiable. He also got tired of spending half a day writing up an estimate just to be underbid 80% of the time, then hearing through the grapevine that many of the jobs he didn't get ended up costing far more than he bid. (A big part of his reputation was that he never ran into cost overruns, and that he absorbed unexpected costs.)

I faced the same situation as an always-on-time-and-on-budget contract software designer and project manager. I managed to do quite well by going after repeat business, referrals, and recommendations from past clients. I wonder if that contractor could do something similar.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I faced the same situation as an always-on-time-and-on-budget contract software designer and project manager. I managed to do quite well by going after repeat business, referrals, and recommendations from past clients. I wonder if that contractor could do something similar.

We didn't get into the details of his decision (I got the feeling that he was more interested in discussing his new venture than talking about why he shifted fields.) I'd assume that someone that built a reputation as a reliable restorer of homes in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country, has a feel for generating leads from happy clients. Further, his experiences are in-line with what I've heard from other people in the building trades in this area: overall, workmanship and a reputation for the sort of thoroughness that pays off in the longterm are taking a back seat to price and getting the job "done" quickly.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Basically, he quit because the 40- and 50-somethings that now own these properties can't get their heads around the idea that fundamentals of physics and engineering aren't negotiable. He also got tired of spending half a day writing up an estimate just to be underbid 80% of the time, then hearing through the grapevine that many of the jobs he didn't get ended up costing far more than he bid. (A big part of his reputation was that he never ran into cost overruns, and that he absorbed unexpected costs.)

I faced the same situation as an always-on-time-and-on-budget contract software designer and project manager. I managed to do quite well by going after repeat business, referrals, and recommendations from past clients. I wonder if that contractor could do something similar.

I think it has more to do with the gov't breathing, heck constantly threatening your existence (for example, saw dust can actually be considered an environmental hazard!). It's get old, fast.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Can you provide a name? I realize he's changed industries, but it would be useful nonetheless.

I am, by the way, not seeking to be a customer, but I do look for bright lights.

I know what you mean. One of the "bright lights" I enjoy is my Hilti 905 AVR demolition hammer. With the clay spade attachment it becomes a remarkably effective, easy to us shovel -- recommended for moving mountains-worth of clay, manure, etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Can you provide a name? I realize he's changed industries, but it would be useful nonetheless.

I am, by the way, not seeking to be a customer, but I do look for bright lights.

I know what you mean. One of the "bright lights" I enjoy is my Hilti 905 AVR demolition hammer. With the clay spade attachment it becomes a remarkably effective, easy to us shovel -- recommended for moving mountains-worth of clay, manure, etc.

What a fabulous idea. I'm putting this on my immediate To-Buy list.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites