Be Your Own Best Advocate: Protecting Yourself as a Homeowner During a Construction Project

Linda Barrett Home & Design, Staff Picks

Originally published in the September-October 2017 issue of VivaTysons Magazine

Congratulations! You’ve decided to remodel your home, install an addition, or perhaps even engage in new home construction. It’s an exciting time, filled with anticipation of the wonderful new surroundings you and your family will enjoy for years to come.

This rosy picture is how the story begins. However, in reality, there are complications and unforeseen issues that can occur in any construction project. Homeowners may have different degrees of knowledge when it comes to construction, however, all homeowners can use these tips to ensure a successful project.

Engage a Contractor

There are things you can do to minimize problems right from the start. “Ask the contractor how many similar jobs he’s performed, get three references, and call those references,” recommended construction attorney Jim Judkins, a partner in Cowles, Rinaldi, Judkins & Korjus.

“Then check with the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) which oversees licenses for all kinds of trades, as to whether the contractor’s license is current in Virginia, and whether any complaints have been filed.” In addition, verify that the contractor and allied tradesmen carry liability insurance. Do an online search to see if complaints pop up in reviews.

Homeowners should always include a “retention fee” in each contract, Judkins advised. This holds back 10% of the payment, payable only when the contract is fully completed and the punch list is resolved. “It keeps the contractor from saying ‘I’m done’ and not coming back.”

Obtain up to three quotes, comparing apples to apples with detailed estimates, and accept only a complete contract. According to construction expert Matthew Furlong, president of Först Consulting Group, “A contract in Virginia must contain certain stipulations to be valid, including the important details of start dates, completion dates, and specifications of materials to be used.” Do your due diligence up front and check your gut feeling as well…do you get along well with this contractor?

Find out in advance what allowance the contractor has given for homeowner selections like finishes or appliances. If you have already chosen items, ensure they are reflected in the contractor’s budget before you sign. Once the project is underway, the homeowner must select all allowance items, materials and colors in a timely matter, and make every effort to refrain from hindering the contractor’s work.

Red Flags

  • The contractor is regularly late or a no-show
  • You see safety issues
  • Inspection failures happen on a regular basis
  • Inspections indicate serious violations

Rely on the Contractor and the County Inspector

Construction projects require permits and inspections by the county. “Be aware it is the responsibility of the permit holder to make sure these permits and inspections are executed. If the homeowner pulls the permit, they are responsible,” Furlong said.

Trust the contractor and the county inspector. There are set milestones where a building inspector is required to come out and check the work that includes: building inspection, electrical, gas, mechanical, plumbing, and foundation. If the inspector finds a problem at any milestone, he can shut down the job until the problem is resolved.

Problem Resolution

“Ninety-eight percent of problems can be solved by communication,” Furlong said. “There is always some problem discovered along the way, and it’s up to the contractor to provide a change order estimate on what it will take to repair or remediate the problem. Be sure the scope of work is in writing, and signed and dated by both parties.”

Put everything in writing, and take pictures. If you have a conversation, follow it up with an email hitting the important notes of the conversation to create a trail of documentation. Don’t let the contractor intimidate you into backing down if you see an error in construction or materials. It is much more difficult to remedy a problem later on.

If talking to your contractor about a problem doesn’t resolve an issue, there are steps you can do to protect yourself as a homeowner. Get the county involved; call your county building department and speak to a supervisor. They will open a report and send out an inspector to investigate. Or hire an approved inspection agency on your own.

Hire a Construction Advocate

If that doesn’t settle the problem, it may be time to call in a construction advocate like Först Consulting Group who is up to date on current codes and credentialed with key certifications. They can provide unbiased construction, forensic investigations and inspections, litigation support, and expert opinion and witness services. They can offer independent construction supervision, contract review and consulting, prior to, during, or following construction. “We are here to act as an independent, unbiased resource looking out for the best interest of our client, for whatever they need,” Furlong said.

“But we’re not just limited to construction deficiencies; we can consult on the best construction practices, and act as an adviser, helping homeowners to choose a contractor, review the proposals, monitor progress, and offer expert opinions as we consult,” he added.

Court: The Last Resort

Going to court is never fun, and every attempt should be made to avoid it. “Generally, if there is a dispute the parties can’t resolve, one side is seeking money,” attorney Judkins said. “This is when we hire an outside expert like Först to inspect the work, evaluate the workmanship, and determine a fair price to complete the project or correct the deficiencies according to the contract.” Keep in mind that if one side hires an expert, the other can too, and then the judge or arbitrator must choose which expert to believe.

A General Rule

“There are usually three primary variables in every construction project: time, cost, and quality. That is generally followed by, ‘You get to choose two,’ ” Furlong said. “High quality takes time, and to compress that time, a contractor would have to add skilled resources, which increases the cost. If you want the cost to remain low, the job will take more time. While it is unusual to get very high quality work at low prices, high prices do not automatically ensure high quality work.”

Your construction project should be a high point in your family’s life…that is, once you get past the actual construction. Using these tips will help you have a pleasant experience throughout the process.


Resources

Matthew Furlong at Först Consulting Group, www.förstconsultingllc.com
Jim Judkins at Cowles, Rinaldi, Judkins & Korjus, www.cowleslaw.com