Who To Call When It's Time To Cry "Uncle"…
And Uncle Harry Is Out Of Town (Or Out To Lunch)

Part 2 of 2       Return to Part 1


By having a good contract, you have established the rules by which your project will be done.  You and the contractor now have a framework to do business.  However, "stuff" happens and you may find that the contract may need to be flexed a little to keep the wheels of progress turning.

Ever hear the expression, "Money is power"?  This should be your mantra in dealing with a home improvement contractor.  By knowing how your money is being spent and by controlling the flow of money from your pocket to his you control the job.  So a few simple rules to keep the power in your pocket...

  • Minimize up-front payments...

    Some articles on this topic insist that any up front payment is unwarranted.  I think this is an unrealistic position.  First, if the contractor must purchase custom materials for your job, it is reasonable for him to want payment in advance, especially if these materials cannot be returned if you change your mind.  To protect your interests and pocketbook, you can either let the contractor give you a list and make the purchases yourself, or let the contractor place the order but you write the check to the supplier... not the contractor.   By controlling the money, you prevent the unscrupulous contractor from taking your money and hitting the road... one of the more common consumer complaints.

    California law, for example, allows a  maximum up front payment of 10% or $1000.00 on any job.  This is a reasonable position.  It gives the contractor some working capital, shows him that you are also committed to the job, and still keeps monetary control of the job in your hands. If you live in an area where there are a limited number of quality contractors, a so-called "seller's market", an upfront payment may be the only way to lock in a busy contractor.  Check with your local or state government to see if you have similar rules

  • Get all job changes in writing

    Jobs don't always go smoothly; unexpected things can happen that change the job.  Usually, this means more cost to the homeowner.  If you accept the contractor's explanation of the problem and the cost, make sure you receive an amended contract or a work order that you and the contractor sign.   It describes the problem, the solution, the particulars of labor and materials and a payment schedule.

  • Only pay for completed work...

    Your contract should have a payment schedule.  Depending on the job, you should only make payments that reflect the job's progress, not some arbitrary timetable.  At the half-way point you should have paid approximately half the cost.  Under no circumstances should you pay the contractor in advance for any work not completed except for 1) the up front payment mentioned earlier or 2) when there has been a work order signed by you requiring extra work.

    A typical problem situation... contractor approaches homeowner and says that he is out of money, rubs a tear from his eye and sobs that he needs more cash to complete the job.  The homeowner pays more money and the contractor disappears.  Job not completed, contractor moves on to another job and the homeowner is left in the lurch.  Though it is easy to be sympathetic to a beleaguered contractor, the fact is that this is a business transaction, not charity.  You can always hire someone to complete the job... if you have money to do so.  Giving that money to the contractor before completion of the work is asking for trouble.


When I first sent this article to my editor/agent Lin Erickson, this last section did not exist.  Her first response to this article was, "This is an excellent piece of work... but I believe you have ended this article on a very anti-contractor note."

And, as is almost always the case, she's absolutely right!  I have been personally involved in hundreds of homeowner nightmares involving contractors who were irresponsible, lazy, or just downright dishonest.  And so from my perspective it is very easy to get into a negative jag when it comes to this topic.

Still, the undeniable fact is that the vast majority of contractors are hardworking, quality craftsmen and businessmen who are trying their best to live up to the expectations of their clients.  They must take responsibility for materials that arrive late or are defective, subcontractors that don't show up on time or do low quality work, laborers who become ill (or decide to live off you and me via unemployment), the whims of Mother Nature and Big Brother, and Lord knows what other unexpected events.  They must act like politicians in dealing with the local building inspector, psychologists when dealing with a displaced and inconvenienced homeowner and still, through all this, keep a positive attitude. Or at least try!

I made a personal decision years ago to not enter the contractor fray and instead slide into the somewhat less complicated world of the handyman.  I have nothing but respect for the men and women who each and every day improve the lives and homes of the folks they work for.  And you should too.

Back to Part 1

To read our companion article... "Hire a handyman and never have to say you're sorry…"click HERE...

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