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"Home Renovation: Completing the Project"

Home Renovation: Completing the ProjectYou’ve carefully planned and budgeted your home improvement project and have engaged your contractor. Now come the hard parts―living through the mess and making sure that your project is completed according to the terms of your contract.

This article, the third and final in a series on home renovation, discusses some of the problems that can arise as your project moves to completion. It looks at some of the most common pitfalls in home renovation and then considers how you can resolve your dispute if your project goes wrong.

Common Pitfalls in Home Renovation

Few projects stay exactly on time or on budget, but no project should become a nightmare. Here are some common problems that you should be aware of as work begins.

Failure to Start

Your contract should specify an exact start date for the project; such a stipulation makes it more likely that work will start on time. However, situations can still arise that delay the start date: bad weather, for example, or delays in supplies of materials. Whatever the reason for a failure to start your project on time, you should expect your contractor to notify you of the reason for the delay.

If your project does not begin on time and you haven’t heard from your contractor, contact him immediately. If your contract has specified an exact start date, you should insist that the project start right away. If an exact start date was not specified, establish a definite date in the future by which you expect work to begin.

If your contractor continues to fail to respond, consider talking to your lawyer. He or she will be able to help you determine whether your contractor’s failure to respond constitutes a breach of contract and can draft a letter to the contractor spelling out what remedies you will expect in the event of a breach.

Delays and Failure to Complete

Your contractor’s responsibility is to do his best to keep the job moving forward and to apprise you of any foreseeable problems or delays. You should also be diligent in keeping the lines of communication open with your contractor. Do not hesitate to call if you are concerned about the progress your contractor is making. Remember that in construction, as in most businesses, the squeaky wheel gets the most attention.

If delays stretch into weeks or months, you may be facing a failure to complete. Failure to complete can be far worse than failure to start. You may be living in a torn-up home with no sign as to when the project will end. Your contract should provide for a completion date as well as a start date and also provide for penalties if the project is not completed in a timely manner.

If it seems clear that your contractor has abandoned the job, see a lawyer and begin the process of forcing the contractor off the job. Your lawyer will be able to help protect you against the possibility of mechanic’s liens being filed against your property by subcontractors and suppliers.

Shoddy Workmanship

Your contractor’s work must meet certain standards, most of which are established by states and municipalities in building codes. A local building inspector will ensure that your project is in compliance with these standards.

As the homeowner, you should be alert to signs of shoddy workmanship that do not amount to a code violation. The signs of shoddy workmanship will probably be apparent: corners that do not meet, for example, or appliances that do not quite fit in their spaces. When you see signs of such workmanship, talk to your contractor immediately and request that the problem be fixed.

Your contract should provide you with the right to an independent inspection over the course of the project. If your contractor won’t take responsibility for shoddy workmanship, insist on taking advantage of this right. Ask the inspector to provide a report detailing the problem, its cause, how it can be fixed, and the likely cost of repairs.

If your contractor still refuses to fix a problem after receiving an independent inspector’s report, you’ll probably have to prepare for the possibility of going to court. Talk to a lawyer right away so that you will know what sort of evidence you should gather and how you should proceed with your contractor.

Resolving Your Disputes

The best way to resolve disputes that arise during a home renovation project is to maintain a good relationship with your contractor and stay on top of your project. Ask questions as they come to mind and work with the contractor to negotiate solutions to the problems as they happen.

If problems escalate and you face an unresponsive contractor, you may need to take more serious steps to resolve your dispute. If you believe you are facing a breach of contract, let the contractor know in a phone call or, even better, in a face-to-face conversation. Keep notes of your conversation. If this doesn’t produce a satisfactory response, you will want to talk to a lawyer. A simple letter may be all that is required―it will give the contractor notice that you are prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to resolve the problem.

The terms of your contract and a conversation with your lawyer will help you decide if further steps need to be taken. Your contract may allow, or require, alternative dispute resolution in the event of a dispute. This may take the form of arbitration or mediation (discussed in the cover story). If alternative dispute resolution is not an option, you may be able to resolve the matter in small-claims court, depending on the estimated cost of resolving the problem. Or you may need to pursue a lawsuit against the contractor. Your lawyer will be able to help you decide which means of dispute resolution is best for you.

In any case, you will be seeking either specific performance of the contract, which forces the contractor to do the agreed-upon work, or damages that will cover the cost of repairing the problem.

(Summer 2006)

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