When you look up various web sites advocating consumer help or protection, you often get the advice to ask for three quotes. The idea is that by getting these quotes, you are protecting yourself from contractors that are going to overcharge you, or from contractors who are undercharging because they are unqualified. This is excellent advice, but it usually doesn’t go far enough. As always, the really important stuff is in the details (the fine print). Let’s examine the issues.
The basic objective of requesting a quote is to obtain a price for the work to be done. If you have no idea what would be a normal or fair price for the work, having three quotes helps you determine the “market value” for the work. This approach has several unspoken assumptions:
- The work to be done is clearly identified and is understood by both the contractors and the homeowners. This is known as the scope of work.
- The materials to be used are similar or equivalent.
- The process to be used is more-or-less the same for all contractors.
- The warranties provided are more-or-less consistent.
Sometimes this approach works, but often the results are not what the homeowner was expecting. Let’s examine some of the reasons why this happens.
In the beginning…
You have to know what work needs to be done. If there is a problem to be fixed, or an issue to be avoided, the homeowner has to understand what they will be asking contractors to quote on. Since most homeowners are not experts on all the home systems, getting quotes is one way that homeowners educate themselves. This assumes, however, that the contractors take the time to fully understand the needs of their prospective client, do the necessary investigation or inspection to understand the current situation, and then come up with a work scope that deals with the issues and gives the desired outcome. This assumption is often wrong, because the fundamentals of defining the work scope is not done.
Fundamentals to defining a work scope
There are some consistent and basic steps needed to define any scope of work. They include (more or less in order):
- Define the problem. This is usually the symptom(s) that alerted you to a possible issue.
- Define the desired end result. What are your expections in terms of money spent, durability, performance, appearance?
- Determine the underlying causes to the problem. If something is not working properly, there is a reason (or many reasons) why the problem exists.
- If there is more than one underlying cause (or possible cause), determine which one is the fundamental one. Sometimes with interacting causes, it helps to prioritize which ones need to be fixed first.
- Discover the existing structures that are contributing to the problem, and determine which ones will need to be replaced, or modified, or improved.
- Develop a work description that will resolve the issue and lead to the desired end result.
- Choose the appropriate materials that will fix the underlying issues and allow the work to function as intended.
- Determine the skill set needed to carry out the intended work scope.
The first two steps are usually the responsibility of the homeowner. It is certainly true that while you may not know how much the work will cost at the beginning, you do have to have an idea of how much you are willing to spend to fix the problem.
The next three steps (#3 through #5) requires knowledge, experience and training. The data-gathering is done by conducting an interview with homeowners to cover the background and history, then by carrying out detailed inspections, both inside and out, to understand the “ground truth” of the structure and the situation, followed by a development of a hypothesis of the cause (or chain of causes) that cause the problem to show up in the first place. This hypothesis may have to be tested to verify whether the correct diagonosis was reached, linking cause to effect (water test, forensic disassembly, moisture detection, thermography).
Depending on how long the problem persisted, it is not uncommon to need to address secondary effects that resulted from the primary problem. These can include damaged sheathing, compromised insulation, required elimination of mould and extermination of insects such as carpenter ants.
Once there is a good understanding of why things are not working, one can move to the steps 6 and 7. This is where the work scope has to be developed with the contractor and owners working together, to prioritize the things to be fixed, to develop the sequence of repair work and to determine a realistic budget. During this process, the discussion of which products and materials are appropriate and/or are desired will take place, and may affect the estimated budget. Especially with older homes, it is often NOT possible to fix all the issues, and a realistic prioritization of fixes and expenditures has to be made, and this can only be done by the contractor and owners weighing the various costs and benefits.
The final step requires the homeowner to examine the prior work history of the contractor, by checking the references and other sources such as government web sites where the licenses and qualifications can be found.
Ok, nice theory. What’s the reality?
The reality is that too often, a salesman (I’m using “salesman” because it is almost always a male) will take a quick look around, make some measurements and the sit down with you to discuss the benefits of the product they are selling. If they were well trained (in sales), they will use the “good-better-best” approach, and recommend different “grades” of product with the same manufacturer. However, if they have not carried out a detailed inspection, there’s little chance that they have truly determined the causes of the current issues, and even less chance that they will have a work scope that addresses those issues. In essence, you’re buying a product that you hope will somehow correct whatever was wrong, and give you the longevity, durability, and performance that the glossy brochures are promising you.
Can this approach work? It can IF the problem is simple and is directly related to the product or workmanship. For instance, if relatively new shingles are blowing off in the wind, it’s likely to do with poor installation practice. However, if you are getting intermittent leaks, mostly due to things like ice dams, then you need to look at the roof as a system.
That’s the challenge – to diagnose a roofing issue, some effort has to be spent to work out which things are working as needed, which things are not, and which are kinda working, with intermittent failures. After this is done, a discussion has to happen about the priorities, the costs and the best materials to use to carry out the work.
Every house is different, due to the history of changes that occur to virtually every house after it is built, along with the living habits of the occupants, and the microclimate the house is situated in. Therefore, changing a major compoent (such as the roof), requires a customized approach.
What should be in a well-defined work scope?
- It should be in writing. A check-off list of work to be done is a clear sign that the contractor is working to a formula.
- It should describe the current situation.
- It should describe the problem or problems to be fixed.
- It should describe the materials to be used, by specification and brand-name.
- It should describe the sequence of work to be done.
- It should describe the end-result which will address the problems to be fixed.
- If there are items of work that are not known in advance, then the points of time in the sequence of work should be identified so that the contractor and homeowners can review what is discovered and how to adjust the work scope to take into account the new information.
Such a scope of work clearly describes what needs to be fixed, how the fix will happen, what materials are to be used, and what the end-result of the exercise will be. If THIS work scope is now given to three contractors for bids, you will be getting a meaningful basis for comparision.
Are we done yet?
Getting closer, but we’re not “there” yet.
There’s the matter of knowing whether the contractor you choose (assuming they did not write the detailed work scope) are capable of delivering the result you want. There are usually three things you need to do:
- Check their formal qualifications (RBQ license number, etc.). Is the contractor/company possessing the required licences, permits, and are they in good standing? (In the Links section, you have links to the RBQ, OPC, etc. web sites where you can verify these).
- Check their references. These will be former clients where work similar to what you are contemplating, was done. You need to ask for recent work AND older work (say, older than 5 years), and you need to talk to the homeowners to see how the work was carried out. The critical point, is that you want references for people who had a similar work scope to what you are contemplating.
- Check the warranties you will be receiving for both the material and labour. Read the fine print to see what exactly is going to be guaranteed, what the exclusions are, and what the process is for reporting a problem and getting it resolved.
Finalizing the contract
Once the contractor has been chosen, it is probable that the final contract will have to be revised to reflect the actual work to be done, as often the estimated cost of the work will be higher than the homeowners can or are willing to spend. So deciding which “nice-to-have” items don’t make the cut, is part of the process. It is also quite possible that there will be several sections that cannot be fully defined until the work starts, and those will need to be clearly identified in the work scope (for example, the presence of deterioration or mold is often impossible to determine until the stripping/disassembly process is done). The protocol of how these will be decided between the contractor and homeowners needs to be specified in the contract.
- Identify the problem(s) you are having.
- Specify the end-result you are looking for.
- Diagnose the underlying causes to the problems, and prioritize the importance of resolving each issue.
- Develop a work scope that resolves the problems and arrives at the desired end-result.
- Select the candidate contractors that can carry out this work.
- Adjust/update the contract to reflect the final list of things to be done.
- Verify that the work done and results achieved correspond to what was contracted.
If you’re not getting enough detail in your quotes to decide whether the contractor understood your issues and needs, and you aren’t sure how they will deliver on their promises, it may be a good time to get another opinion. Call us for a consultation. We will go through the step #1 through #5 (Fundamentals of defining a work scope), and we will review the work scope given by the contractors. This type of work usually takes about 3-6 hours ($240-$480). Development of a work scope can take between 2 to 8 hours ($160-$640), and development of a sample quotation can also take up to 8 hours(up to $640). If a formal report is desired to document the process of investigation, then an additional 4-16 hours may be needed ($320-$1,280). All amounts are pre-tax.
© Paul Grizenko 2017