YOU STAND IN A ROOM staring at ruined flooring, missing electrical devices, no light fixture, and wires hanging out in other areas. The door and window trims are recessed and partly buried under drywall, and lumps of rough plaster are on the walls. A mountain of garbage sits in your driveway. It’s been two months of dirt and disruption. The worker demands full payment. The contract that you signed, with his first name and your full name and address, reads, “Install drywall and tape in back room: total $1,000.00—$600 deposit, balance on completion.”

In this scenario, the worker installed drywall and tape. He didn’t finish the plaster and sanding, nor did he paint, as these services were not included. He didn’t deal with any trims, and left them in place. He didn’t protect the flooring he assumed you would replace anyway. He never removed garbage as garbage removal wasn’t stipulated. He worked in sporadic fits of a few hours here and there because no time frame was given. You could end up in court, but with slim chance of success—the contractor has fulfilled his contractual obligations. Phrases like “we talked about”, or “you said you would”, or “verbal agreement”, or “common sense”mean nothing.

He wasn’t bound to do anything more than follow the letter of the original written agreement. Both the material cost of a hundred bucks and his time were already paid with the $600 deposit. He can walk away smiling if he wants. But your wound is self-inflicted. The fact is, anything not expressly included in a contract can be said to be excluded. The scope of work is intended to document what all parties have in mind, leaving little undefined.

Methods, materials, timings, quantities, processes, costs, and warranties should all be included in the scope of work. It should fully identify all parties, with a methodical timeline of events outlining the work involved, including clearly defined payment and hold back landmarks (i.e., money that remains unpaid until certain conditions are met). The process for extras and what-ifs should also be stated clearly. No one should be paid in advance of the work they perform at any stage. Deposits are good faith placeholders and should be tiny tokens, except where special order or custom built fixtures are involved. The same applies to “startup” costs:the contractor can show up, demand a big payment stating it’s required for materials, and then disappear.

Payment upon delivery of materials is more appropriate. Finishing and fixture items should be clearly identified and costed, or else allowance lines included, like,“Install standard 32” x 19” bathroom vanity w/sink with purchase allowance of $400 total.” This allows the contractor to be flexible in pricing a job before all the finish details are in. And this way, the customer can budget and go shopping for their preferences with sizes and quantities in hand.

Standard daily practices should also be stipulated,like, “Clean and remove debris from job site daily,” or, “Toilet to be left functioning nightly except as requirements.” Outlining an estimated time frame for completions a best practice. Contract law is its own field for specialists, but a good example of an informal bathroom renovation agreement is posted on The Point’s website:

Homeowners and contractors alike should be interested in protecting themselves fully, even when paying cash. Knowledge is the most important tool in the box.

By Darrell Jennings