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Originally published Saturday, June 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Smart homeowners build relationships with builders

Although the recession is making it easier to hire contractors in some parts of the country and the power in the relationship might seem to be shifting to the homeowner, it should be remembered that contractors, too, have limits.

New York Times News Service

How to drive a contractor crazy

1 Avoid making decisions.

2 Change orders frequently, then become outraged by the additional costs and delays.

3 Ask a contractor to provide a solution to a difficult design problem, then use a different contractor for the job.

4 Challenge a contractor's expertise with sentences that include the words "my brother-in-law thinks," "my neighbor thinks" or "I took a shop course when I was in 10th-grade and this is what I think." If your brother-in-law was that good, why didn't you hire him?

5 Withhold final payment for months because of minor problems like missing fixtures that are on order.

6 Cling to the belief that contractors have X-ray vision that enables them to see into walls, and thus are aware of faulty wiring and plumbing or rot before the start of a job.

7 Attempt to poach the contractor's workers by taking them aside and asking them to come back when the job is finished to do another job.

8 Buy appliances or building materials online or from a discount house to save money, then expect the contractor to make everything work when the products are damaged or don't arrive on time.

9 Call the contractor in the middle of the night and on weekends about problems that can wait until Monday.

10 Hover about a job while murmuring tragically: "It doesn't look finished." It's a job site. It doesn't look finished because it's not finished.

— New York Times News Service

Admit it: You do not regard contractors as sensitive creatures.

There are times you are not even sure they are quite human. They track all that dirt into your house. They seem unable to clean up after themselves after a day's work. They are unaware that you have a life, a schedule.

But think about it: Has not a contractor an eye, perhaps one better equipped to judge a grain of wood than your own?

Has not a contractor hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick a contractor does he not bleed, let's hope, not on the white marble counter?

If you do not pay him, will he not avenge himself, perhaps ripping out the plumbing? In short, has not a contractor feelings?

If you doubt it, listen to the story of Rich Gaspar, the president of Gaspar's Construction in Seattle, who suffered such feelings of rage, frustration and pain from what he calls a client from the dark side that Gaspar sought therapy.

The job, some six years ago, was large, building a mother-in-law apartment in a basement; Gaspar describes the homeowner as a corporate hatchet man. Meeting him, Gaspar sensed he would be difficult. A month into the renovation, which was plagued with unforeseen construction problems and would climb from a $250,000 estimate to a cost of $350,000, Gaspar was certain of it.

"What he said over and over was: 'This confirms my suspicions about you' — in other words, you are a crook," Gaspar says. "The houses we are working on are 110 years old, they have asbestos and lead, and when you run in to those situations you have to deal with it. He'd come back and say, 'You always intended to charge me more. I knew this was going to be a half-million job.' I went to therapy because he was negative, belligerent and demeaning."

What kind of advice did he get?

"We'd talk about my feelings, how I could better take care of myself. There were things like write a letter, then tear it up and put it in a drawer. It was a sounding board, a place for me to release the stuff coming down on me. Conflict is hard enough for me."

Troublesome homeowner

Much has been written about contractors from hell. There is a Web site of that very name filled with horror stories and legal resources. Another site, Angie's List, permits homeowners to rate their contractors, who are given the opportunity to reply.

There also is the 1986 Tom Hanks/Shelley Long comedy "The Money Pit" in which their remodeling project of a dream house turns into a nightmare.

Comparatively little attention is paid to the homeowner from hell, to the unreasonable, irrational and selfish demands that make contractors crazy.

Although the recession is making it easier to hire contractors in some parts of the country and the power in the relationship might seem to be shifting to the homeowner, it should be remembered that contractors, too, have limits.

John Finton is the founder of Finton Construction, a Los Angeles firm that has about 30 luxury projects under construction at a time, with CEOs and entertainment superstars for clients.

"Oh — a human punching bag," commented a woman who was building a vacation house in Mexico when he told her what he did, and Finton did not disagree.

The homes he builds are between 5,000 and 50,000 square feet. The people he builds them for, "the kings and queens of society," want what they want when they want it, he says, and don't stand in line for anything.

Finton, who calls himself a "pathological accommodator," is for the most part fine with that. For many years, he slept with his cellphone next to his bed. He is unruffled by those who show up an hour or two late.

But occasionally a client goes too far.

Going too far

There was, for instance, the female pop singer who requested an evening meeting during the time Finton's mother was terminally ill with cancer, about six years ago.

It was Finton's birthday, and his mother had planned a special dinner. Finton explained this to the singer's father, who acted as her on-site representative. A short time later, Finton got a call: The singer, he was told, would see him that evening. Finton complied.

On another occasion, Finton had a cancer scare of his own. A movie executive for whom he was building a large home immediately sent over a limo to take him to the cancer hospital, the City of Hope. The lump on his chest turned out to be benign. Finton was less certain about his client.

"He'd said, 'I need you healthy so I can kick you around,' " Finton remembers. "I think he was somewhat serious."

Contractors' solution

There does not appear to be a builder's equivalent of Angie's List aimed at exposing difficult homeowners. But contractors seem to have their own ways of rating, handling and rejecting those clients.

There is even a book on the subject: "Managing the Emotional Homeowner: The Remodeler's Guide to Happy Customers," written by David Lupberger, a Colorado contractor turned consultant, and Bill Still. (The book is available at Lupberger's Web site, www.turnkeyprogram.com, for $29.95.)

Topics include "Managing Homeowner Expectations" and "The Zen Approach to Handling Homeowner Upsets." (Abridged version: Just let the waves of rage wash over you and eventually the client will become exhausted.)

One instructive chart in Lupberger's book is "The Homeowner's Emotional Roller Coaster," which illustrates the intense highs and lows a client can expect during a renovation.

Dan Bawden, who runs Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston and is both a lawyer and a contractor, found the book invaluable and has taken that chart a step further.

His interpretation, "Dan's Funk Chart," expands the list of players to include architect, family dog and children, all of whom ride a roller coaster of emotional states, from Deep Funk to Bliss.

The chart is on Bawden's Web site (legaleaglecontractors.com), which makes it easy to follow along as he explains.

"Look at the family dog," Bawden says. "When construction starts he hides so far away he goes off the bottom of the chart. He doesn't come back until the party to catch the falling hors d'oeuvres.

"Look at the children when the rough framing comes in, bouncing around, happy because they have a jungle gym to play on. The homeowner is superhappy at the beginning, then when the bids come in the homeowner and the architect both drop into a deep funk. The architect is down there because he told them it was going to cost half the amount so his creation could be built, and the homeowners are there because they know he was lying."

Screening clients

Client screening turns out to be a common practice. Experienced contractors learn to become alert to potentially destructive patterns: homeowners who belittle the work of respected colleagues, say, or brag about beating down tradespeople to get the best price.

Herbert Stanwood, a senior project designer for the nationwide firm of Case Design/Remodeling, who works at the headquarters in Bethesda, Md., has a list of difficult client types.

They include the Carrot Dangler, who boasts of his influence in the neighborhood and suggests the contractor will get more work if he lowers his price, and the Relationship Killer, who announces at the first meeting that he or she will be difficult. That's a major red flag because the client has taken a belligerent stance before the project has even begun.

Getting paid can be another issue.

"I've had people send me an interpretation of the bill and pay me that," said Kip Siebert, who runs Heritage Home Design in Montclair, N.J. "I send them a bill, they send me back another one that tells me what I really should be charging."

There are also those clients who find fault with the work to delay or withhold a final payment, knowing that it may be so expensive for the contractor to sue that he will write off the loss.

Lack of information

Once a job is under way, the problem that most seems to trouble contractors is client indecision.

"The contractor can't proceed without certain information," says Sal Alfano, the editorial director of a half-dozen magazines for contractors at Hanley Wood Business Media and a former contractor himself.

"If I don't know what the floor finishing is going to be — if it's going to be three-quarter-inch hardwood or a layer of plywood and half-inch tile, which would make it more like an inch and a quarter — there's a lot of work I can't do. I can't hang the doors, I can't even plan what the stair structure is going to be like. If I'm a half-inch off on the height of the first tread because you decided to go with thicker or thinner flooring, you're going to fall on your face."

Contractors also have problems with clients who buy materials themselves in an attempt to save money, then expect their contractor to deal with any problems that result; clients who constantly challenge their expertise; clients who call them on weekends or evenings about problems that can wait until a workday.

Sometimes the problems are not even the responsibility of the contractor. Finton, the luxury builder in Los Angeles, remembers getting one such call as he was sitting down to Easter dinner.

"A lot of my clientele, although they may be brilliant in terms of their own business, when it comes to fixing a clogged toilet — and most people would pick up the Yellow Pages — they have one number, and they call me," Finton says.

"I had a client who called me because his home had caught on fire. It had nothing to do with anything we had done; his wife had lit some candles and the drapes closed automatically and caught on fire. He said, 'The house is on fire.' I said, 'Call the fire department.' "

"I did go out there anyway," he adds.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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