Anyone But Chuck

As the building market continues to escalate and there is a higher demand for contractors, Chuck should worry us all. You know him, right? “Chuck in the Truck,” “Dan with a Van,” the Craigslist contractors who have cost us all a job or two. Guys who can start next week and will save homeowners $5K if they pull the permit themselves.
“Don’t worry, it’s only a deck…,” they will tell them. No, it is a vital structural element attached to your largest investment.
The perfect storm has hit for Chuck. Rising prices for those of us that do it legally, rising costs of high quality components, and an unbalanced and scarce labor market make Chuck’s promises stronger every day. It used to be typical for Deck Specialists to bid projects one to two months out. Clients who really wanted you would wait. However, when homeowners hear, “maybe in the fall” or “we are already booking into next year,” it can influence decision-making for their project as well as their choice of contractor. Desperation and immediacy cloud their vison, ignoring the possible ramifications of hiring someone who is not qualified to alter their home.
I’m convinced there’s an ad somewhere that lists me as the guy to call when homeowners get burned by an underqualified “contractor” and are faced with an unfinished or unsafe project. Or maybe it happens so often the rest of you get them too? It’s tough to tell these homeowners there’s nothing I can do but tear it down and do it right. The sub-par materials that have been lying in their yard for two months are now garbage, and I’m not going to put my name on anything unless we build it. Usually what they “saved” the first time around just about covers what I charge to tear it down and haul it to the dump. The one common theme we hear with all of them? “I wish I had known….”
Last season we decided to add a component to our sales pitch for the purpose of educating our clients of the possible pitfalls of hiring unlicensed contractors. We believe even if they don’t hire us, homeowners should be informed of the risks and liability they are incurring by becoming the contractor of their own project. With proper education and an understanding of what they are gambling, it might just make it a little tougher for Chuck.
Our process starts with the permit, what we refer to as the legal document that states who is ultimately responsible for the project. If your contractor cannot even pull your permit, are they really a contractor? We all would hope that building officials will spot potential issues or questionable materials, but their primary focus is on code compliance, not quality or workmanship. It is ultimately the permit holder’s responsibility to ensure best construction practices are followed.
Next, we focus on warranty and how who builds their deck can affect them down the road. While most reputable brands will offer material replacement in a warranty situation, they typically do not cover the true costs of labor and disposal. If the contractor is no longer in business or did not install the product to the letter of the instructions, they may get nothing but a pile of new material. We let them know what we would charge to remove all the railings, tear off, haul away, lay the new decking, and reinstall the rails. We show them how the potential outcome would cost them much more than what they are “saving.”
Finally, we discuss liability and the potential costs if Chuck or his uninsured employee were to sustain an injury on their property. We inform them of how the insurance companies will jockey to avoid responsibility, and how the cost of a jobsite injury will ultimately fall on the homeowner’s liability insurance. Home liability policies are not meant to cover construction sites and usually have caps that a major jobsite injury would easily surpass. If there are permanent disability claims the typical caps wouldn’t make a dent in the settlement. Once the lawyers get all they can from the homeowner’s insurance company and have squeezed any remaining blood from the turnip contractor, they are coming after the homeowner. Suddenly $5,000 and a couple of months wait doesn’t seem all that bad.
If you consider yourself a Deck Specialist, please start informing your clients as you pitch. If we all work together to create the awareness of the roulette table our clients are betting on, maybe some will choose to place their bet with a licensed contractor that is qualified, reputable and operating legally. Whether it’s your client or mine is no longer the point, let’s all try to they do not become Chuck’s next client.

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