He Said, She Said: Contracting with Couples

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In the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis and drop in new construction, it’s no surprise that more homeowners are turning to home improvement, investing in what they already own, versus moving to new digs. Whether it’s a major addition, supplement to a do-it-yourself project, or repair work, the effort also can contribute to a major source of contractor stress: getting in the middle of spousal questions, arguments, and issues that arise.

Contractors who have worked with “competing couples” know the scenario all too well: The contractor gets a decision from one spouse and then hears separately from the other, realizing the two haven’t communicated — or worse, haven’t reached consensus and are hoping the first one to the contractor will get his or her way. Or one spouse asks the contractor to add a feature to the project, hoping to slide the expense by the partner. The situations are myriad, but the result is the same: the contractor is uncomfortably in the middle, professional working relationships are placed in peril, and productivity suffers.

While you may never be able to eliminate the problem without earning a psychology degree, the good news is that you can reduce much of the pain by putting a few guidelines and processes in place. Here, a summary of suggestions for contractors on how best to mitigate — and eliminate — some of the inevitable couple issues:

  1. Create a budget. Head off money squabbles before beginning any work by developing a budget for your client. Whether it’s a big or small job, unless your client has done it all him/herself before, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to know all the processes and costs involved. Include each step in the process and attach costs. Homeowners may not realize that a simple-sounding project may start with demolition and removal of the material, but then continue with obtaining permits, new framing, plumbing, electrical work, surface preparation, finishing, trim, and painting. Remember to include costs associated with building permits, codes, and regulations.

  2. Create a timeline. Unfortunately, contractors have a reputation for providing timelines they don’t meet. Be realistic with clients upfront, be honest, and you’ll find you gain their respect as well as the work. You’ll also avoid problems that arise when a wife expects her home office ready for a big meeting two months before the paint goes on the walls, and the husband learns his holiday softball team get-together planned for the new family room is going to have to wait until next year.

  3. Allow some room. Give your client (or potential client) time to review the budget and timeline before plunging in. Most couples do not realize that what’s extremely important to one person may not be to the other, and that the two may have vastly different visions of the completed project. Talking these through and coming to agreement before proceeding will save a world of stress (and money for them).

  4. Meet with the team. At the onset, make sure to meet with the couple — and other family members if they will be involved in decisions. Outline your process for decisions and obtain from the client their selection for spokesperson. Appointing one client spokesperson for the project doesn’t mean all communication is cut off with the other spouse. It does mean that everyone understands that significant decisions are communicated by one person.

  5. Set a “joint discussion” dollar amount for purchases and decisions. Ask your clients to determine an amount; anything that will cost over that amount requires joint discussion and agreement on their part. This prevents major surprises, blowing the budget on a “splurge” item not previously accounted for, and you getting in the middle.

  6. Suggest the “compromise plan.” If one person really wants something, they can have it as long as the other gets to choose something else that’s important to them. For instance, one husband really craved a hand-tiled, unique, period fireplace in a 1920s bungalow under renovation. The wife didn’t care about the fireplace — but did care about the master bath. He got to do what he wanted with the fireplace, and she handled the bathroom (all within predetermined budgets).

  7. Be specific. Make your plans as specific as possible for the homeowners so that both people are on the same page. Otherwise, it’s easy to end with one person thinking they’ll be getting a Taj Mahal bathroom while the other is thinking Motel 6.

  8. Establish a “safe zone.” Depending on the extent of the project, establish, with your clients, a construction-free space that’s clean, where they can relax, be comfortable, and not look at all the work that is taking place. For your part, put away tools you can at the end of the day and keep any rooms that stay in use as usable as possible. For example, if you’re working on a bathroom that your clients expect to use during the project, don’t leave a pile of tile in front of the toilet.

  9. Move out. The client, that is. If the project will be at all substantial, suggest, recommend, encourage, and urge your clients to move out, at least for a portion of the project. Living in a house torn asunder can stress and break even the best relationships — no matter what the couple thinks heading into the project.

    For smaller projects, suggest that the couple get away for a mini-vacation during the process and be in a place with no construction. Even a weekend can help. It can be especially helpful for relationships to plan a vacation for the dirtiest/dustiest parts of a project (such as drywalling or wood floor installation).

  10. Finish it up. A main complaint about contractors from homeowners involved in home improvement projects is that they begin and never end. Make sure you can adhere to your budget and timeframes, and communicate to your clients when schedules change.

Taking these steps can involve a bit more time and effort up front. The results you see will be more than worth your effort, with less stress, better results, and happier clients.

About the Author

Dean Bennett is president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction, Inc., a design/build firm based in Castle Rock, Colo. Specializing in custom residential design and construction, projects include remodeling, interior and exterior additions, conversions, basement finishes, landscaping and fencing, and custom finish carpentry.

The company offers concept-to-completion design, including working drawings, blueprints, securing of permits, and inspection coordination. Working with a business model of a single principal on-site throughout the project, from architectural design through final construction, Bennett effectively integrates design and construction while eliminating the need to hire separate general and sub-contractors and architects.

Bennett has worked with a national client base, many who span multiple years, since 1996. He holds a master’s degree in architecture and a bachelor’s degree in environmental design from the University of Colorado. Bennett is an accomplished fly fisherman, golfer, skier, and snowboarder, and enjoys swimming, running, cycling, cooking, and photography.

He can be reached at 303-513-2065 or dean@deanbennettdc.com.
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