Many states put civil lawsuits online (for instance, Connecticut posts its cases at www.jud.ct.gov). This makes it easy to see whether the builder has a history of suing or being sued. (Remember to check at least the business and principals’ names.)
Don’t sign the contract until you understand, and agree to, the builder’s allocation of work done at a fixed price and work done under an “allowance.” For instance, if you have not yet selected your plumbing fixtures, the builder will estimate their cost as an “allowance”; you’ll have to pay the overage if you choose more expensive fixtures. The question is, are his allowances high enough to be realistic, given your tastes?
The contract must spell out everything: Are a finished basement, pool, pool house, and pool walkway included? Who handles the landscaping, and to what point?
If you’re unhappy with the ongoing work, get in touch with team members early, often, and courteously—and put your complaints and agreements in writing. A quick e-mail saying something like “I was glad you agreed to finish the deck by June 19; the timing is really important to me” will be valuable documentation of your oral agreement if you’re hauled into court. Print and file each pertinent e-mail, and also save it in your “incoming e-mail” or “outgoing mail” file.
Make sure you understand what steps your contract requires of you before you fire your builder. Follow these rules to the letter: Every shortcut you take can be used against you should you go to court or arbitration. (For instance, there are almost always notification requirements that take at least several weeks to follow properly.)
Obviously, you should seek the advice of your attorney. And, of course, before you notify the builder of his termination you’ll interview other firms to find out their availability and level of experience. Stress the sensitive nature of your inquiry to help prevent the leaking of this information to your current builder.
When you’ve documented your issues with your builder and lined up his replacement, you can pull the trigger—notify him of your intentions. (You should follow up the phone call with a written notification.) Keep the discussion as courteous and professional as you can. Be open to any ideas he may have on ways to avoid a legal dispute. Telling him off may be tempting, but it could jab his ego so hard that he feels he has to go to court to assuage his pride. This will cost both of you a significant amount of money, time, and further emotional drain. Do whatever you can to avoid that.
Scott Hobbs operates Hobbs, Incorporated, along with his brother Ian. The 52-year-old family business specializes in providing building, renovation, and estatemanagement services to custom residential markets in Fairfield, Westchester, and Suffolk Counties. Scott can be reached at 203.966.6006. www.hobbsinc.com