Straight talk about home-building

Good communication is the key to rapport between owner and contractor

For all Lynn Graves knew, completion of her new home would be done in time to enjoy warm summer weather.

Weeks later, as warmth gave way to increasingly hot tempers, most aspects of the work remained undone.

Mrs. Graves and her husband moved into their long-promised Midwestern home nearly two months late.

"We just couldn't get contractors to move it along," says Graves, who still bristles when remembering early assurances that the work would be done on time, if not completed early.

She says she should have known better. The first home she and her husband built fell four months behind schedule.

Welcome to the sometimes-stormy relationship between homeowners and contractors.

Too often the dreamy inspiration of glossy magazine pages dissolves to "you said we said" exchanges between sparring homeowners and their hired help.

What happened?

As the Graveses discovered, communication crumbled as the builder tried to keep on time a host of interior and exterior tasks that involved a growing legion of subcontractors.

The Graveses' builder had other homes under way, too, that kept him away from their site – and unreachable – for days at a time.

Building delays have plagued clients since construction of the Great Pyramids. How homeowners and contractors resolve communication issues can mean the difference between a smooth job or raising an "iron curtain" between all parties.

For starters, homeowners must be realistic. Poor weather, material shortages, and nonavailability of good subcontractors are all potential speed bumps during construction.

One technique that's recommended by those who have done it: Compute when the house should be done and then add two months as a fudge factor. It won't get the house completed any faster, but it will increase homeowners' peace of mind.

The contractor and homeowners should work together to put in writing a schedule both sides can live with. This is the building block for what should happen and when.

As Graves puts it: "Probably what needs to happen is more straight talk about what to expect." Delays will occur, but you can adjust the schedule when they happen.

Know the subcontractors, experts recommend. Most work will be "subbed out" by the general contractor to specialists in plumbing, electrical work, masonry, etc.

Graves asked for, and received, a list of subcontractors and their phone numbers. She knew their assigned jobs and schedules. If they didn't show up, she called with a reminder.

More often than not, the strategy worked.

She sometimes learned more from subcontractors than she bargained for. Several times, the general contractor claimed to have made arrangements with subs, but Graves' follow-up discovered that the subcontractors had never been scheduled to work on the house.

"You'll hear things you do and don't want to hear," she says. "We had subs tell us 'So-and-so is trying to finish your project as cheaply as he can,' and that was information we didn't like but we needed to know."

If she were to open a business, she would help first-time homebuilders and remodelers, says Graves. "What should be a fun, exciting time in their lives can turn out to be a nightmare if they can't communicate with the people they've hired."

Ways to build homeowner-contractor communication

• Ask potential contractors how many jobs they have in progress.

• Ask for – and call – references. Inquire about contractors' communication as well as the quality of their work.

• Check with the local Better Business Bureau for any blips in the contractor's work history.

• Jointly establish a construction schedule with your contractor. Factor in delays. Remember, the contractor probably knows more about how a job should progress than you do.

• Set a regular time – at least one or two days each week – for phone or face-to-face communication.

• Learn who the subcontractors will be and when those workers will be on the job.

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