The construction of a new home – or the renovation of an existing one – can be one of the more stressful, unpredictable, and potentially economically significant undertaking someone partakes in during their lifetime. A large line-item in a project like this is the flooring component; after all, flooring covers every square foot of the home! While most clients are (rightly) concerned with the style, colour, durability and price of their potential new flooring, many are not aware of the value of entering into a proper contract with their flooring provider.
Some may ask why I am bringing up a topic like contracts, when flooring discussions should really be more about fun things like beauty and style and function. The short answer is that I feel like I must share what I have learned after my 23 year career in the retail flooring industry; a career where I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of clients, hundreds of contractors, and a multitude of flooring installers. The often untold truth is that the general landscape of the flooring industry, as well as the construction industry in general, is not pretty: buyer-beware is unfortunately sound advice. Let me explain in three brief points below.
The first factor to consider is that most residential clients are entering into the construction arena and their flooring purchase as lay people; they rarely – if ever – spend time in this world and are therefore immediately at a disadvantage compared to the professional they are engaging with. Flooring in particular is not generally in the public consciousness and is typically only bought a handful of times in a persons’ lifetime. The average homeowner that walks in a flooring showroom is quite unaware of the intricacies of what they are going to purchase and how it going to be installed. And even if they did have significant knowledge from some time ago, it is likely out of date as the flooring industry evolves rapidly in respect to both technology and installation best practices. The reality is that much of what is going to happen from the moment the client walks through the door to the final completion of the project is a mystery to them; it is therefore incumbent upon the flooring professional they are working with to be ethical, transparent and forthcoming in what this “journey” is going to look like. Herein lies the first opportunity for unscrupulous people to begin to take advantage of those who are innocently naïve.
The second point to consider is that flooring installation is notoriously unpredictable. I can foresee some surprise at this, with some perhaps asking “Really!? how hard can it be?” Hard. Very hard in fact. Each and every home we walk into is unique; this is part of the fun of being a flooring professional! Some houses are built in the early 1900’s, while others are being built as we speak. Construction practices used to build homes have changed significantly over time, and every home also has its own unique living history of work, renovations and additions. So when a client wishes to, let’s say, install a new hardwood floor in their existing home, the flooring professional must become a mini detective in order to determine what exactly the home is offering to us as the “canvas” with which we will install the new flooring on. The perennial problem is that of course we do not possess x-ray vision so we can only assess that which we can see while the existing flooring is still installed (or in the case of new construction, what is currently built). It shouldn’t take much imagination to appreciate that once the old flooring is removed on Day 1 of the work, we can be presented with a whole host of unforeseen circumstances that must be dealt with but were not part of the original plan/scope of work. What are some of this circumstances? Well, just to name a few: an unlevel subfloor, a loose plywood subfloor, mold, old paint/chemicals on the subfloor, water damage, illegal/improper subfloor and floor joist installation, insect damage, pet urine/odours, excessive moisture in concrete slabs, an additional layer(s) of flooring hidden under the visible floor covering, etc. etc. I suspect you get the point; there are A LOT of surprises in flooring installation. And when these surprises come up is exactly the time you hope you have a solid contract with the flooring specialist which you entered into the project with. I would be negligent if I did not mention that it is common knowledge in the construction and flooring industry that potentially unethical actors take advantage of scenarios like this to make additional, excessive profit. Or, perhaps even more insidiously, they use these scenarios to make up for the intentional under-bidding they did on the original quote in order to “get the sale”, but had every intention to make up the profit later by overcharging on the additional/unforeseen work. Like I said above: buyer beware.
Following upon point 2 above is the reality that the construction and flooring industries seems to attract bad actors. Now, please let me be clear: I am NOT saying that “all”, or even “most” people in our field are unethical; most definitely not. I love the people I work with in our industry, which is why I still do it. I am saying however that in my career I have seen my fair share of those who seem to have deliberately entered into this industry where the money being spent is high and the knowledge base of the average client is low. This is the perfect combination for unethical individuals who like to take advantage of people, so it should be no surprise that these types are active in our field.
If the above three points I have presented are true: most clients are innocently uninformed, flooring and construction is extremely unpredictable, and there are certain types who like to prey on these uninformed clients during unpredictable situations, what is the remedy I am proposing? Well you may have guessed from the title: a high quality contract entered into by both the client and the contractor before any money exchanges hands and work begins.
The type and quality of contracts I have seen during my 23 years in retail flooring obviously ranges widely. Business done on a handshake, common in my early years, is dead and gone; but there are still many flooring providers entering into large-scale, complicated projects with just few simple notes being presented to the client in advance. In my mind this is wholly insufficient and potentially a real financial danger to the client.
As Ethical Flooring grew and matured as a company, I decided that each and every potential client would be provided with the “rules of game”, in the form of our contract, before they agreed to do business with us. What this means is that there is a little bit of reading to do before signing the contract, but it should take no more than 5-10 minutes. When one is spending potentially tens of thousands of dollars on new flooring this should be worthwhile investment of time. Ultimately, the value to the client is that we have gathered together every possible scenario we could think of and presented to the client exactly how it will be handled (and at what cost, if any) if it should occur. For those with a technology or engineering background you can think of it as presenting “if – then” scenarios. If “this” happens, “then” here is how it will be dealt with. The goal is to be as transparent as possible and shrink the knowledge gap between us and the client. With the scope and detail of our contract, we have intentionally limited the ways in which we can act and bill for additional work in the instances of surprises and/or change orders. We have also laid out exactly what to expect during the installation process and even how – in those extremely rare cases where it is relevant – we will handle unresolvable complaints/disagreements between us and the client concerning the quality of our work.
And this brings me to my summary and final point. I highly recommend that as a client you do not enter into any major renovation or flooring work without a detailed contract being signed by both parties in advance. This contract must explicitly outline what work is not included on the original quote that may be likely (or even has the potential) to occur, and at exactly what rates/prices this additional work will be billed to you at. To put it another way, please do not enter into any contract with anyone which allows for open-ended (or undefined) costs to be arbitrarily added by the contractor if and when these unforeseen circumstances occur. It should also lay out the general pain points that may be faced during the course of the work, and even how disputes will be transparently handled should the relationship between the contractor and the client turn sour. The person doing the work for you is the professional and they should know their trade and the potential issues they may face while performing it; it is incumbent upon them to make you aware of these in advance to and make it clear in writing how they will bill you for these additional costs. This advice, if followed, may just: save you money, diminish headaches, and (hopefully) eliminate small claims court appearances. That sounds like a good recipe to being your renovation journey with!
-Kevin is the President of Ethical Flooring and is responsible for business growth and excellence