Doing It Right the First Time
Consumers Should Educate Themselves about the Construction Process
By Jason Watts
Most consumers who have a construction project search the Yellow Pages, call a contractor or two, and get a couple bids. Maybe someone referred them to a third contractor and the consumer was able to get three bids. The consumer picked the lowest price because that’s what we, as consumers, are conditioned to do with things we don’t understand.
This seems like the proper way to get a construction project completed. Right? Wrong. Let’s imagine the construction project the consumer had completed was a roofing project. During the summer, everything seemed fine, but rain in fall brought about numerous leaks. The consumer calls the contractor who did the work once. Twice. Three times. No one comes out. On the fourth call, the consumer threatens to sue. Still no action is taken. On the fifth call, the consumer discovers the number has been disconnected. Now what? The consumer is forced to spend more money hiring another contractor to fix the first contractor’s negligence. More materials, more waste, more cost, more time—definitely not sustainable.
Obviously the contractor is to blame. But what about the consumer? He must take some responsibility for not understanding what the project entailed and for choosing the cheapest guy in town. Let’s start this whole process again, focusing on what a consumer should know and what resources are available to help him make more intelligent decisions.
Step 1: Education
The first thing a consumer with, in this case, a roofing problem must do is answer the following questions:
- What do I know about roofing?
- What do I know about different roofing materials?
- What do I know about the materials’ life expectancy and how it impacts cost?
- How are roofing materials installed?
- What kind of roof do I currently have?
- Is there more than one layer of roofing materials on my building?
- What kinds of warranties are available and what do they cover?
- What is my budget?
There are additional questions a consumer may have in reference to his specific project. The Rosemont, Ill.-based National Roofing Contractors Association has many tools available on its Web site offering guidelines to ensure consumers make educated choices when replacing a roof system on a home or business.
Step 2: Choosing a Contractor
Once the consumer understands his project and knows what he wants the finished project to look like, he must choose the right contractor. Following three simple rules should help in the process:
- Don’t just get a bunch of bids.
- Don’t make your final decision based solely on price.
- Do attain recommendations, qualifications and certifications for each contractor.
Don’t just get a bunch of bids.
A consumer can call 10 contractors from the Yellow Pages that will give him bids, but is that really what he wants? What does that tell him about the contractor other than he can use a tape measure and calculator?
A consumer should interview each contractor that is providing a proposal for his project. This doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down interview, but the consumer should be at the construction site when the contractor comes to look at the project. Chances are if the contractor does a thorough job of evaluating the project to provide a proposal, the contractor also will be thorough when actually working on the project.
A thorough evaluation upfront also decreases the opportunities for hidden costs. For example, if the contractor doesn’t actually get on the roof during the inspection, he may not realize the building has two layers of shingles already installed. Once the contractor realizes this--during the job--he is going to want more money to remove the additional shingles. Suddenly that cheap price isn’t so cheap anymore.
Don’t make your final decision based solely on price.
Let’s say our consumer received three bids and one is significantly less than the other two. It is so much less that it seems too good to be true. It probably is! The consumer should go back to the interview process. Was the cheap bid from the contractor who couldn’t meet with the consumer on the jobsite? Was he the one who left his quote scribbled on notebook paper taped to the door? Of course these things don’t mean the contractor won’t do a good job, but it does mean he doesn’t understand the consumer’s expectations. In this type of situation, if the consumer is uncomfortable with the bid, he should toss it. However, he may want to call the contractor and ask some qualifying questions about the project and bid. Then he should ask for a typed, formal bid outlining what the contractor will provide.
Do attain recommendations, qualifications and certifications for each contractor.
Each contractor should provide recommendations, qualifications and certifications to a consumer. The following is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:
- Ask for three to five references, which should include past customers, and call them all. Some companies may provide pages of references; they’re betting a consumer won’t call them all. Ask for a shorter list or call all the references the contractor provides.
- Inquire about the contractor at the Better Business Bureau.
- How many years has the contractor been in business? This may not make a difference, but after doing your due diligence it may be a deciding factor.
- What other project(s) has he completed with a similar scope as your project? Compare this list to the reference list; if the reference list doesn’t include any of these projects, you should call these owners, as well.
- What associations does the contractor belong to? This may include professional groups and the local Chamber of Commerce. Because most associations cost money to join, members show they are willing and able to spend time and resources to improve their company through their chosen associations.
- Ensure the contractor has proof of insurance.
- What kind of training has he and his crew received from the manufacturer of the product he is going to install? This is important when it comes to manufacturer’s warranties. Years in business may be a factor; a contractor may not have any formal training but does have successful projects completed during a number of years that prove the firm is conscientious and reliable.
- Has the contractor invested in any independent training? This demonstrates commitment to providing a quality project.
- What kind of warranties does the contractor offer?
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, there always will be contractors who take advantage of the unsuspecting. The more a consumer knows about his specific construction project, the products to be used, manufacturer of those products and contractor completing the installation, the more likely his project will be completed successfully. Today’s consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about renewables and green, but that certainly doesn’t mean they should be naïve about the basic construction process. They must investigate, ask questions and embrace the process as a new learning experience.
Jason Watts is vice president, business development at Sheffield Metals International, Sheffield Village, Ohio.