Nailing It Down: Always use written contracts when hiring workers

  • Sat Feb 22nd, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

Nailing It Down

By Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty

If you have plans for a remodel or repair of your home, this is the time of year you should be preparing for that project. Perhaps you hope to add a deck or patio, enlarge a room or replace the roof. Or maybe you “just” plan to hire someone to paint the house or install new flooring.

When it comes to successful relationships with contractors, a clear description of the work and a written contract head the list.

Last week we hit some of the high points on the formal relationship with someone you hire to work in your home. Today we’re going to talk more specifically about the written contract. Once again, we’ll mention that we are not attorneys and don’t offer legal advice. Instead, think of us as your experienced neighborhood advocate who has worked with a lots of contractors and written contracts over the years.

Make sure it’s in writing

Besides your name, address and project address if different, a contract should name the construction company, all of its owners, all pertinent addresses, phone numbers and the contractor’s license number, bonding agent, bond amount, as well as his insurance company and the liability coverage amount and any expiration dates available.

To verify this information and check for complaints about the company and the owner as well, call the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries and the Better Business Bureau.

Your contract should include references to a dated “scope of work” and any drawings or other specifications (such as a manufacturer’s installation specifications). If you’re not capable of doing this, there are construction management firms and architects in the area, including us, who can help you for a fee.

Also, include general conditions of the work site such as the hours available to work, keeping a clean site or even toilet use by workers. You can require a porta-john/wash station be provided in the bid documents.

The contract should clearly state the price agreed upon for the job, including all materials, taxes, fees and permits. If you are working on a cost plus materials basis, find out the cost of each man on the job and if there is a mark-up on materials. Do what you must to have no surprise extra billings.

This is also the place to define progressive payments. Using a brief description of the progress required for a payment works well. It should also state that before any payment, the contractor, any sub-contractors and any materials company having delivered materials on your property will each turn in an “unconditional lien waiver.” Small incremental payments are actually better than large payouts.

Dates are key

Dates are also important elements to your contract. Time delays may occur, but what do you want to happen when the contractor doesn’t call or show up for a couple weeks or drops off the earth? It happens. This is one place where material and subcontractor lien waivers for work already paid for can save you from paying twice!

Adjustments to time and penalties for not showing up or not finishing the job in the contract period should be clearly stated. A 10 percent of each payout withholding is leverage to finish the work.

What about other changes to the contract? Your contract should say something like this: “The owner and the contractor expressly agree that no material changes or alterations in the work, price or time shall be made unless in writing and agreed upon by both parties and signed.”

Getting building permits

Your contract should also address who will be responsible for any permits, building code requirements and arranging for city or county inspections.

Permits are required for most work done on your property and initially you should be the person to call your local official when writing up what you want done. If you have a designer or architect drawing up a plan, they should be held responsible for knowing and designing with respect for the applicable building codes.

Your contractor is also expected to follow the local building code and certainly to follow any professionally designed plan provided and that has been “plan checked” by the city or county plan checkers, before a building permit is issued.

This very important step in the process is often not communicated and causes lots of problems that end up in the courts.

We don’t advise allowing any work to be done until the permit is in a sealed bag and attached to the outside of your house!

Observe inspections

You should also be aware of each required inspection. The building official will clearly mark on the permit card when they want to inspect the work. Pay attention to any notes written on the permit card by the inspector. Attend the inspections whenever possible. Know what is going on; it’s your project!

Don’t mix in verbal contracts

A final note: Don’t mix verbal agreements with written contracts. Write every little change down for everybody to sign and date. If it adds or subtracts from the contract amount, write the money changes down and everybody signs.

The better the contract is written and followed, the less likely there will be problems. And long after the work is completed, both parties can bask in a job well done.

Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is executive director. This is a nonprofit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing for all residents of Grays Harbor County. For questions about home repair, renting, remodeling or buying, call 360-533-7828 or visit 710 E. Market St. in Aberdeen. Our office is fully ADA-compliant.