Communication: A Town Topics Column

by Lasley Brahaney Architects

QI'm about to start a renovation project on my house. How much communication can I expect from the contractor?

AI received an e-mail from a friend in upstate NY who is ecstatic because the contractor remodeling her kitchen meets with her every Monday morning to fill her in on the coming week’s activities – even if nothing is expected to occur that week. She couldn’t say enough good things about this man – she raved about his honesty and integrity.

But praise like this is not the norm when people discuss their house renovation projects. One often hears horror stories about being under construction - cost overruns, shoddy workmanship, too much dust and debris. But the one topic people complain about most consistently is the lack of communication between the people doing the work and the people for whom the work is being done.

If you’ve hired a contractor to work on your house, don’t assume that s/he knows how much detailed involvement you want during the construction process. As the client, you should be very clear from the beginning about the amount of information you expect and want shared with you. At one end of the spectrum, some people say, “I’m so busy; I can’t be bothered with minutiae. The contractor should take care of everything and send me a bill when the project’s done.” At the other end, some clients want to be consulted on every single decision – from the height of the base molding in the utility room to the brand of insulation put in the walls. Most homeowners’ communication needs fall somewhere between those extremes.

Before the contractor starts working on your house, it would be wise to establish a mutually agreed upon level of communication to be used throughout the life of the project. Some people enjoy having regularly scheduled meetings at a pre-set place, day, and time. Others feel that phone contact is sufficient, and at the end of each call they set a date for the next. Still others want to be informed of issues only if problems arise but wish to know that if they do have questions, someone will be available for answers. Whatever you want, it’s best to be clear about it up front.

Most homeowners will become confused and angry when their work is halted with no explanation. Emphasize to the contractor from the beginning that you would rather know about the delays up front than be avoided until the problem is resolved. For instance, if the wrong size bathroom tiles arrive and have to be sent back thus delaying the installation of the plumbing fixtures, you will understand the issue at hand and be able to make alternate showering arrangements in the interim.

Naturally, nobody likes being the bearer of bad news and people, including some contractors, are very good at steering clear of conflict. Whatever your communication comfort level is, don’t be afraid to ask for it so that everybody understands and agrees on the parameters right from the start.