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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask the Builder: Babysitting your contractor

These two holes in the concrete block shouldn’t be there. Also note the sloppy mortar joints and missing mortar.  (Tim Carter/Tribune News Service)
These two holes in the concrete block shouldn’t be there. Also note the sloppy mortar joints and missing mortar. (Tim Carter/Tribune News Service)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

In autumn of 1993 when I started Ask the Builder, I knew I’d become a clearinghouse of homeowner complaints, misery and frustration. Homeowners from all across the fruited plains of the U.S. might understand I was an independent voice and someone who didn’t have a dog in their particular fight. That prediction came true, and lately I’m seeing a deeply disturbing trend.

You should be keenly interested in what you’re about to read whether you’re going to hire a handyman to do a two-hour job or you’re getting ready to build a new home. Based on the incoming email I receive, you must take a far more active role in your projects than you ever have before. It needs to be done before the bidding begins, just before you sign the contract, and as the job progresses.

A few weeks ago, a visitor to my website invested in one of my paid consultation phone calls. He had hired a contractor to build a two-story room addition on his home. The contract price was just under $500,000. That’s a vast sum of money to put out and hope all goes well.

The topic of the call centered on the quality of the footings that were just poured. While the workmanship was not perfect, it was acceptable based on the photos he sent me. Just after this, the problems began.

It’s important to note the homeowner paid an architect to draw a fairly complete set of plans, including details showing how some things should be installed. One of the details showed the foundation drain tile in relationship with the footing. The drain tile was supposed to be placed alongside the outside of the footing and covered with washed gravel.

Within the past 24 hours (as I write this), the homeowner scheduled another call. The concrete block walls had been laid and the foundation drain tile had yet to be installed. The contractor created ugly gaping holes in the bottom of the walls. Had he looked at the plans, he would see the holes would allow water to pour across the new basement floor.

The holes in the foundation were unnecessary. A simple 4-inch pipe should have been placed under the footing that allowed water outside the foundation to get to the washed gravel under the slab. This water would then flow unimpeded to the sump pump.

Let’s now get personal. Three years ago, my daughter was in the final stages of drawing her new house plans. I helped her with all sorts of details in the drawings. She drew hundreds of specific elevations of both the inside of the house as well as the outside.

I had impressed on her that you must have excellent plans for any job, as the plans communicate to the builder and his subs what you want. She and her husband are busy, and it would be impossible for them to be on the job site each day babysitting the builder and his subs.

Each of these pages showed exactly where light fixtures would be, electrical outlets, ventilation hoods, the height of shower faucets, etc. As the house was being built, each day errors were discovered where things were either forgotten or in the wrong place. It was a nightmare, to say the least.

The first and foremost problem in my opinion is that you and millions of other homeowners are far too trusting. You trust the builder and his subs. You feel they always have your best interests at heart.

Based on the thousands of complaints I get per year, you’d be wrong. Gone are the days when most contractors and subs were proud enough of their work that they’d autograph it.

In my daughter’s case, the builder admitted he just gave the plans a cursory look in the bidding stage and never really looked at them again. Can you believe that? He also made a grave mistake and never gave a set of the plans to his lead carpenter early in the job.

With a set of plans, the carpenter could look at them the night before or over a weekend and see what challenges lay ahead instead of guessing while the crew awaits a decision.

I believe the same thing is going on with the homeowner building the room addition. The evidence strongly suggests that no one is paying attention to the plans. From your point of view, you make the assumption that the builder has a full understanding of all the details of the plans as well as his subs. Stop doing that and verify that he does.

You must have a deep understanding of the plans yourself. Armed with this knowledge, you need to have a meeting with your builders going over each page of the plans before they bid the job.

You need to then have a meeting with the builder you decide to use before you sign the contract. Take his bid and go item by item in the bid looking at the plans to make sure what he bid is what’s on the plan.

You then need to meet with the builder at least once a week to make sure he and his subs understand critical aspects of the job. You need to talk with the builder or his subs and go over what the plans show and make sure they understand what is expected.

I know, you never thought this would be necessary, but trust me, it’s the only way you’re going to get what you’re paying for. Unless you can find a builder like me.

Subscribe to Tim Carter’s free newsletter and listen to his new podcasts at

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