What might look like a bulletproof contract is no guarantee that a customer won't go ballistic over the smallest thing — and feel completely justified in doing so. For instance, not too long ago, a homeowner in the Chesapeake, Va., area threatened to withhold $11,000 of a $33,000 window replacement job that Virginia-based Mr. Rogers Windows had completed. The reason: The blinds couldn't be reinstalled exactly as they had been, even though the contract the homeowner had signed warned that this might be the case. A face-to-face meeting with Mr. Rogers' sales manager, Joe Davis, coupled with a minor installation adjustment, resolved the issue.
Marshall Roofing, in Lorton, Va., wasn't so lucky. After the company cut back some siding from a home to install new flashing for a roof replacement — something that the company's contract indicated might be necessary — the homeowner proved irreconcilable. He threatened to blast the company on Angie's List, the online bulletin board where homeowners rate and share their experiences about home service organizations. Since Marshall Roofing gets a steady stream of leads from that list, and since excellent customer service and communication are hallmarks of the roofing company's culture, “we couldn't afford the bad word of mouth,” president Troy Marshall says.
CUSTOMER, PLEASE READ THE CONTRACT Regardless of what their contracts oblige them to do or not do, most contractors will make concessions for clients. “If I can throw $300 at a problem to make it go away, I'll do it,” Davis says. In the example just mentioned though, Marshall Roofing wound up replacing the siding on one façade of the customer's home.
Misadventures like these motivate contractors to revise their contracts to mitigate future risk and strengthen their case should an unhappy situation ever land them in court. “A contract is a history of your company,” observes Brad Beldon, president of San Antonio-based Beldon Enterprises, whose residential roofing arm, Beldon Roofing, does between 3,000 and 4,000 roof replacements a year. recently updated its contract to limit how long the document is valid.
At Renaissance Exteriors, in Maple Grove, Minn., “We keep adding and adding to our contracts,” says president Jeff Pattison, whose current document includes a mediation clause.
More home improvement companies' contracts now state that arbitration must be a customer's first recourse to resolve conflicts. Product liability, scope of work, and payment schedules are other areas where contracts appear to be most subject to revision.
Over the years, Joe Hall Roofing's contract has expanded to five pages and includes photo documentation that calls attention to details of the re-roofing project. “A good contract should be a closing tool,” says Brett Hall, president of the Arlington, Texas, company. company. The four-page contract that Win-Dor in San Diego uses has six places where customers must sign or initial to indicate that they understand what they are agreeing to. “People don't read contracts, and even if they do, they don't think they are responsible,” says Gary Templin, Win-Dor's president.