The Trouble with a Good Economy or How not to get burned by busy contractors


I’m not very happy with painters right now. It could be drywallers, or framers or roofers. I just happened to have a couple jobs involving painters right now. I blame it in part on the economy. The trouble with a good economy is that it brings out the worst in some people. Fortunately, there are strategies we use to help us and our clients avoid getting burned.

So, we’re putting up a thin wallcovering called Di-Noc at one of our commercial buildings. It’s a good product, but requires very smooth walls with a high-grade primer. The superintendent lined out the owner of the painting company on the job (in-person, on site), but then went on vacation. The crew came two days late, hadn’t been told the scope, and did the wrong work. With the Super gone, I knew I needed to check on them. Unfortunately, after I got them straightened out, they were in a hurry. They were behind schedule before they got to my job, and I was dumping more delays on their plate. Painters in a hurry are a bad thing. Long story short, there were a lot of defect, which yours truly spent an afternoon marking up so they could be fixed.

We flew a certified Di-Noc installer in from Boise, because the local guy stinks. Fortunately, he could spot patch and prime, which got us back on track and kept us on schedule. But, not without hassles for both he and I.

Then there’s my home. The builder, Destination Homes, is doing their 1-year warranty work and touch up, which includes re-caulking nearly everything outside (Good caulk can last 5 years, but new houses usually move a lot, which splits the caulk). The painters asked me to check their work and sign off on it. To their horror, I got out my ladder and checked the second story windows. They hadn’t touched anything above the first story. I got them working again, and I let their warranty officer know of the problem with his sub-contractor. Tonight, I get to climb back up there and see if they did an acceptable job this time.

Two things happen when the economy is going well that can complicate building a home. 1) Contractors get busy. The best contractors are the most in demand. That can put pressure on them and their crews to hustle. My building engineer/handyman, Jose Zavala, is fond of saying “hurry up and slow down.” When you hurry, you make mistakes. Fixing them inevitably takes longer than doing something carefully the first time. This is something we can’t emphasize enough with the contractors we work with, especially in the current economy.

The first house I built was with Woodside Homes in a booming economy. I was very frustrated when we decided to sign up, and instead the sales agent put us on a waiting list. It was a month before we could sign a contract. In retrospect, I wish they had made us wait even longer. Their unfortunate superintendent was spread too thin, and there were mistakes made that should have been avoided. By contrast, the homes they had built 6 and 12 months earlier—when the economy was slower—were of notably better quality.

Good developers, like Ivory Homes or Destination Homes to name just a couple, take care to moderate their sales to match the abilities of their crews. They also make a serious effort to not overload their superintendents so that they can adequately inspect the crews.

Even with reasonable precautions, no company is perfect. This is one reason why RPA walks new homes during construction with their clients. When work is inspected, especially when contractors know beforehand that it will be inspected, it is amazing how much better things turn out. That is why I got out my ladder to check the caulk, and why I checked the other project 4 days in a row, both before and after the crew arrived. Good contractors won’t mind you checking things. It’s what they would do if they were in your shoes. It’s the right way to do business.

Some cities take this very seriously as well. Salt Lake City and South Jordan slow down building permits to match them to their inspector’s schedules. Also, both cities have a reputation for having uptight inspectors. Personally, I prefer the hassles of dealing with an up-tight inspector. Building codes help ensure minimum standards for quality and safety, but they only help when they are enforced. North Salt Lake’s inspectors are pretty casual by contrast, and construction crews figure that out pretty quickly.

That brings us to problem 2) The good contractors are the first to get busy. Consequently, people hire not-so-good contractors. Combined with high-pressure-schedules and less supervision, this is a recipe for trouble.

The framing crew on my first house drank on the job. Woodside eventually replaced them with a decent outfit. But, all the trades that came after suffered from their mistakes. For example, the cabinet company built their stuff right, but when they went to install it, they discovered that the kitchen window was 6” to the left. One side was actually under where the cabinet should have hung Their shoddy work also caused me trouble when I hung blinds, laid new flooring, and cased windows. Wish I’d known then what I know now!

There are a lot of great strategies out there to find and retain the best sub-contractors. David Weekley, one of my favorite builders, has an interesting trick. They pay their contractors every week. In construction, it isn’t unusual for sub-contractors to have to carry costs for months waiting to get paid. DW’s quick turnaround has several effects: 1) DW attracts good contractors. 2) their crews are very loyal. They aren’t going to go work on some other builder’s homes first. They are going to work on DW’s homes first. 3) they want to protect that relationship, so they do their best work for DW. 4) Before approving checks, work should be inspected, which means DW has to keep up on inspections to be able to keep up on payments, and inspections keep quality up.

If you are thinking about building, don’t be afraid to ask your prospective developer what they do to ensure that quality doesn’t slip in a hot market like this one.

My biggest fear in writing this article is that people will say “Geesh. No way I’m going to build a house now.” I hope that isn’t the case. Used homes have plenty of problems too, and often they are harder to discover. New homes offer so many advantages. The message I want to convey is that you can be in control, and get a great home. To find out more about how RPA can help you to have a great experience building a home, give us a call or shoot us a message: 801-910-4125.