Do You Trust Your Contractor?

Many  years ago, my friends Jim and Laurie hired a contractor to build a new home for them.  Jim asked me to stop by the empty property before the contract was signed, to look at some of the plan details and to meet Larry, their likely contractor.  I was doing construction but hadn’t yet started my own San Francisco contracting business.

Larry and his business were problematic – full of obvious business and technical issues.  Larry answered nearly every question with “Don’t you trust me?”  After he left, I explained to Jim and Laurie what I thought were the objective problems with Larry and his business.

They signed with Larry despite my cautions.  A couple of years later, Larry was in prison and Jim and Laurie were paying other people to finish the job.  About half the money they had paid Larry had simply disappeared.

Trust is an essential element of any relationship between a homeowner and a contractor.  Never mind fraud: we homeowners trust our contractor to use good judgment in his or her technical choices; to know when to ask us for our input or approval; to respect our property and our financial and emotional investment in it.  In return, we contractors expect homeowners to pay on time; to play it straight about schedule requirements; to be reasonable about expectations and changes.

Trust doesn’t mean doing without a contract, and it doesn’t mean we should be imprecise about business terms or incomplete about the details. I always liked Ronald Reagan’s principle about arms treaties – “trust but verify” – as a model for working with a contractor.  You must trust your contractor in order to pay him or her to work on your most valuable possession, but you should nevertheless have the means available to verify that the right work has been done correctly.  That means a well-specified project and a well-written contract.

If you insist on a clear and complete contract, and if you insist on verifying adherence to the contract, if something goes wrong, you’ll have controls in place.  Maybe something happens in your contractor’s life to make him more susceptible to temptation; maybe an employee starts taking shortcuts; maybe schedule pressures make something change; or maybe you were wrong to trust the contractor in the first place.  With the documents and the practices in place to monitor things, you will catch problems early, when they’re small.

So, trust but verify.  Your basic trustworthy contractor will be perfectly happy with that.  The contractor who doesn’t like it, or who says, “What, don’t you trust me?” needs some extra scrutiny.

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