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Ask the Architect

Sending checks before the work gets done

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Q. We’re in the middle of construction, and our contractor has been giving us bills for the work that make us think we’re way ahead of him. It just doesn’t look like he’s 50 percent done, but we have already paid more than 60 percent, according to our contract. We keep having conversations about the percentage due, but it seems like we’re being treated more like an ATM machine than a customer. Every time we try to find out when the windows will be in, for example, he tells us they’re “on order.” The roofing was supposed to be done two months ago, but the pandemic was the excuse, even though every Friday we had to pay another bill. With nothing going on, the contractor still kept calling us every Thursday for a Friday payment. How do we straighten out this mess? We haven’t seen the contractor for three weeks, there is construction garbage piled up in the backyard and he’s telling us he’ll be sending people back but needs another check. What do you think we should do?

A. There are several ways to handle this problem. Some of the ways involve the contractor cooperating, and some involve cutting ties with him. This problem is common, and begins with the misunderstanding based on what the choice of percentage payments creates.

People who aren’t familiar with construction shouldn’t try to judge how much labor or material went into each step of the construction process. What makes it easier is a schedule of “milestone” payments, a breakdown of specific payments based on the actual items and the work completed. When the windows and doors go in, you see it’s done and can write the check. When the roofing and gutters are done, another specific agreed amount is paid for. The smoothest and most comfortable projects, where everyone is still talking to each other at the end, are done this way.

Percentage-breakdown payments may work when there’s an independent construction manager, but will cause many misunderstandings when there are job or material delays, debris, nobody showing up or no real itemized payment schedule. If you’re able, try to set a mutually agreed-on list, schedule and specific milestone payments, or be prepared to cut the contractor loose by discussing with legal counsel and other potential contractors who can finish the job, hopefully with a more responsible record, before severing a relationship.

Have a backup plan. During this pandemic, we are facing caused work to nearly shut down, except “essential work,” like roofing or plumbing, and it’s understandable that people need financial continuity to pay their bills, so it’s best to see both sides of the matter. Even though the contractor also has bills to pay, there still has to be an effort to earn that payment. Payment for no work done isn’t part of the equation. Payment for specific work done is the clear way to resolve this situation. Good luck.

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question”  in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper,  architect.