In the decade since buying our current house, we have dealt with numerous contractors. Sometimes the experience was good; other times, not so much. I had originally intended to use this post to reminisce about the different contractors we have hired over the years, but as I was putting my thoughts together,a pattern emerged. Whenever the experience was good, we had a written contract. Our bad experiences came when the contractor-client relationship broke down and in those cases we had only verbal agreements. Consider these two examples:
Case Study: Verbal Agreement
When we discovered water and structural damage to the back dormer, we hired a contractor recommended by our real estate agent. It was not a complex job—we agreed on a price, took a quick trip to the building supply store and the job was finished the same day. He handed me his business card which listed his services as complete renovations, additions and basements. At the time, I had gutted the second floor to the framing so, out of curiosity, we asked him how much it would cost to completely finish the second floor. Happy with that answer, our next question was, “When can you start?”
And with that, we hired him. He started the project when promised and everything progressed well. We paid him in installments whenever he requested, and paid extra when he did extra work. That we were working without a contract didn’t seem to be an issue.
However, towards the end of the job, our relationship broke down. That was when he informed us that his original price did not include painting, hanging doors and installing trim. It turns out that we had differing ideas of what “completely finished” actually meant.
The price he gave for the “additional” items on the punch list was so steep that it was obvious he was either trying to make up for under-estimating the original job, or he just wanted to cut ties completely and was pricing himself out of the market. Whatever the case, we parted ways and we were left with unexpected work and expense. Based on how our relationship ended, we won’t recommend him to anyone else nor will we hire him again ourselves. And even if we wanted to hire him for another job, I highly doubt he would come back here anyway.
Case Study: Detailed contract
By contrast, we had a completely different experience with the plumber who updated our hydronic heating system. Sure, he gave us a ball-park estimate on the spot when we asked for one, but he stressed that he still had to work out the actual numbers and the amount could change in one direction or the other. A few days later, he presented us with a detailed written estimate that laid out exactly what work he was going to do along with the payment schedule. The first installment was due when the contract was signed.
The entire job took more than a week. As usually happens during a big project, a “while you’re at it” request came up. It wasn’t a difficult job– it took less than half an hour with parts that he had on his truck. But before could do that job, he had to work up another estimate which he presented the next day. And that estimate included its own payment schedule.
Most other contractors would have probably done that job on the fly after a verbal agreement and separate payment. That is what I expected in this case. Instead, we had to wait another day. At the time, it seemed an inefficient way of doing things, but looking back (especially as I peruse the assorted receipts in my file cabinet) I absolutely appreciate his obsession with putting everything in writing. There was never any question how much we were paying. There was never any question what entailed the “complete job.”
Cause and effect
So, here’s the million dollar question: do contracts make good contractors, or do good contractors simply insist on written contracts?
Certainly workmanship plays a much larger role in any quality renovation or repair than does a piece of paper. But it is very telling that our bad experiences involved people who did work “on the fly” without a written agreement. That is reason enough for us to insist on a written contract for any future work we have done our house.
I also talk about contracts on the Thumb and Hammer Home Improvement Podcast
Share your contractor experience, good or bad, in the comments below.