Taking The Con Out Of Contracting: A Code Of Conduct For Builders?

Returning from work to his home in the Berkeley hills, my client slid some frozen food in the microwave. He put his dog on a leash, figuring he would take a stroll while his dinner cooked in the oven. When they returned about 40 minutes later, more had cooked than just dinner. Several firefighters were attempting to douse a fierce fire in his kitchen. As it was discovered later, the flames were ignited by faulty electrical wiring.

My company was hired to restore the kitchen to its original state; it had been completely remodeled less than a year earlier. As we went to work, my electrical contractor quickly discovered that most wiring was not installed according to code. Eventually, corrections were made throughout the house, including attic and basement, costing over $15,000. Later it became known that the original contractor had been so busy that he had hired a supervisor to run the project, and never bothered to check on the work himself. To make matters more complicated, the owners had met a self-proclaimed kitchen designer through the church they belong to. They never bothered to check the designer’s credentials (as it turned out, she did not have any), and thus unknowingly got stuck with an ill-educated designer who, in turn, did business with an equally unsuitable contractor.

Another awful story is that of a woman who embarked upon a major renovation of her San Francisco home. She paid the contractor a very large sum in cash upfront, at his request. He completed most of the demolition, and then disappeared with her money. Ouch!

Tales like these send chills down my spine. The kitchen fire was a stroke of luck, as someone could easily have been hurt or worse. Unfortunately, these stories are common place, and I can not recall any time in my 27 year career in construction that the remodeling industry ever had a good name. No wonder! Did you know that in 2004, more than 20,000 complaints were filed with the California Department of Consumer Affairs, all of which involving building contractors?

I would like to see our industry’s reputation improve drastically. And that means that the behavior of many contractors and clients has to change drastically also. To that end, I suggest that all bona-fide builders commit to a professional code of conduct. I would hope that government agencies such as California’s Contractor State License Board make allegiance to this code part of its licensing requirements. Medical doctors take an oath to not do harm. Why don’t contractors do the same?

The following is a draft of a proposed contractor code of conduct. I encourage you — building professionals as well as homeowners — to comment and improve on this list:

I pledge to:

1. Cultivate respect and trust among my clients and associates through clear communications and transparent transactions.

2. Use contracts containing all language and forms required by law, and as I deem fair to my business and customers.

3. Guarantee my work against defects in workmanship for one full year upon project completion, in writing.

4. Not start a new project without providing a thorough estimate of labor and materials expenses. If I am unsure, I will seek advice from peers or another qualified source.

5. Discuss and resolve with my clients any cost-overruns as soon as they become apparent.

6. Not mix finances from one job with others. The client will keep 10% of the total project cost until the job is 100% complete.

7. Dispose of construction debris and hazardous materials in a legal and environmentally responsible way.

8. Provide quality work by taking the time to do the job right, and use the right materials.

Of course contractors can not do this alone; clients have to make efforts, too. Do some research before diving into a major project. The License Board in California offers a great deal of information. Do not hire just anyone, licensed or not. Insist on and check references! In the many years I have been in business, fewer than 1 in 20 clients asked for and checked on past projects. If you feel intimidated or otherwise uncomfortable with someone you’re about to hire, keep looking. Thankfully there are credible professionals who have your best interests in mind.

Obviously this is by no means a cure-all for everything that ails the remodeling industry. It does, however, address some key concerns and often-heard gripes from clients. Improving the way we do business makes good sense for everyone involved.

How do you deal with clients? Why do they trust you? How can we, as a group, improve the way we interact with customers?


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