Contractors Need to Educate

In Chris Hill’s last article for AEC forensics Monthly, he wrote about how effective communication between contractors and their clients (and other parties) could go a long ways towards preventing legal disputes. In this article, he continues that thread, highlighting the importance of client education. The only thing that I would like to add, is that besides helping avoid conflict, client education is an excellent way to market your services and transform clients into evangelists. A well informed client is a happier client, and a happy client is better than any advertising money can buy. [Ed.]

I know the title of this post makes a contractor cringe. The first thought is likely to be something along the lines of “I have enough to do without having to hold an Owner’s hand and teach them the ropes.” However, one thing that you should never forget (if you want to avoid having to call me with a claim) is the following:

It is up to you, the construction professional, to set expectations and to educate the owner as to how the project will run.

This is particularly true for residential construction. Most homeowners are not experienced in the ways of construction. They are also (understandably) emotionally attached to their home and seek perfection. They also want to get the work done as inexpensively as possible. This combination can cause a homeowner to act in ways that are not conducive to a well run project.

To save costs, homeowners seek to self perform work or supply materials to a job and thus remove that portion of the scope of work from the contract. As a residential contractor in particular, you need to see that allowing a homeowner to control his or her costs this way is fraught with disaster. Delays, questions about scope of responsibility, and squeezed profit margins (not to mention the frustration of subcontractors and your own people having to work around a homeowners brother in law painting when he can fit it in) can only lead to disputes on the back end. If a homeowner starts to try and pull your scope from you, take it as a red flag that this could end up a troubled project.

Even in commercial construction where the owners are supposedly more sophisticated and aware of the construction process, expectation setting is key. As the construction professional, you must have your contract and scope of work drafted in a manner that leaves as little doubt as possible as to what is and (importantly) what is not included in the contract. A well drafted contract is the first step in the necessary education and expectation setting process. Your local construction attorney can assist you with making sure that your contract includes what it needs to in order to protect you from disputes that may arise from the inevitable and hopefully minor glitches that will occur on a construction project.

The next step that a contractor needs to take, particularly in this economy, is to discuss the progress of the project with all involved from the owner to the architect and the subcontractors. Communication of this information outside of the bare contract documents can only smooth the process. An owner that understands the process will be less troublesome than one that doesn’t. Having a written change order provision in the contract is a must. Following that provision after explaining it to the owner will make your life as a builder much less complicated.

Education, communication and solid contract drafting on the front end will lead to many fewer frustrations and disputes during and after construction.

About the Author

Christopher G. Hill, LEED AP is Virginia Supreme Court certified mediator, construction lawyer and owner of the Richmond, VA firm, The Law Office of Christopher G. Hill, PC. Chris has been nominated and elected by his peers to Virginia’s Legal Elite in the Construction Law category on multiple occasions and is a member of the Virginia Super Lawyers “Rising Stars” for 2011 and 2012. He specializes in mechanic’s liens, contract review and consulting, occupational safety issues (VOSH and OSHA), and risk management for construction professionals.

Chris authors the Construction Law Musings blog where he discusses legal and policy issues relevant to construction professionals. Additionally, Chris is active in the Associated General Contractors of Virginia and the Board of Governors of Construction Law and Public Contracts Section of the Virginia State Bar.

Image courtesy Corey Leopold