Who Buys the Materials Impacts Job Site Success

“Oh yeah, and by the way, we ended up getting the 36" stove instead of the 42" model you recommended for us. The appliance guys gave us a better deal on the smaller unit, and we can live with it just fine. Can we make the cabinets work with the 36" unit? Do you think the builder will have any problems making the change?”

Ever get that kind of phone call? Your clients have decided that they’ll go out shopping without you and can figure out what’s best for their project – in spite of all of the careful thought you’ve put into the layout, details and finishes.


Welcome to Planet Post Recession. What we all did on our projects just a few years ago has changed – and some of that now involves who buys what.

Jobs used to follow a fairly time-tested path – the design professional would detail the work and usually specify the products, too. The client would then review the plans and perhaps visit some showrooms and suppliers. A builder was selected and he’d go out and order or purchase whatever was called for on the drawings and install it all. That was the way projects got built.

Things are different now: There’s more price pressure, there are more vendors and stores offering consumer direct sales and, perhaps most important of all, the Internet has given customers far more access to items that were once part of what we professionals supplied.

Your clients now grab their iPad, punch in “contemporary French country light fixtures,” hit the search button and off they go. They can shop around at different Web sites on the Internet looking for the best price and what they like, put five of the lights into the shopping cart and they’ll be on the jobsite in five business days. The price of the fixtures was really good and – even better for them – they’re not paying any mark-up.

But just how smart is it to encourage all of this if you are a kitchen and bath dealer?

The Control Factor

When a designer specifies products for the job, it’s essential that these products get used. As a professional, you’ve thought things through and many items depend on each other to work together. This is especially true with cabinets and appliances, but it’s just as critical with tile, stone, plumbing and lighting fixtures.

When your client buys direct, there’s a big danger that things will get changed, downgraded or simply misordered. Now I’m not suggesting that you have to go out and buy everything yourself, but there’s a far better chance of things going wrong if the customer does the buying.

Take cabinets, for example. What is often the most complex part of the work is the easiest to screw up. One wrong dimension can do it – either during the initial site measuring or in the list of different cabinet box sizes – and it’s an error that’s both costly and time consuming. You or your trusted cabinet dealer should be putting that order together.

Beware the consumer who takes your plans and shops them around big box stores or small custom cabinet shops. Those companies may not be providing the same products and finishes you had in mind, and they may not fabricate the work correctly.

Or how about the windows? Let the builder deal with these. Please! Again, it’s complex, putting a window order together. A customer who has not done any remodeling work before should not be in charge of taking dimensions of the rough openings. And can they figure out jamb extensions, hardware, weather stripping details and so on? Usually not.

Perhaps the best way to avoid problems ahead of time is to talk clearly to your client about who’s responsible for what – before the job begins. If you or your builder are the ones controlling things, there’s a way better chance that things will go as designed, specified and planned.

If the client really wants to buy a specific item – light fixtures, for example – there has to be clear and well-communicated expectations around how, and when, the ordering is done.

Staying on Schedule

Let’s look at a situation where a client decides he or she is in charge of ordering the tile for the job.

In your drawings, you’ve called out a horizontal black and white subway pattern for the backsplash – and you’re insistent that any electrical outlets need to be cut out of full tiles only.

Many clients would think that tiles are going to be needed at the end of the job, so no rush on ordering them, right? Wrong! Any builder worth his salt will want those particular subway tiles there at the start of the job, so he can figure out where to rough in the electrical boxes, where exactly the countertop and backsplash heights are and how the cabinetry location works with those tiles. What many end-users don’t know is that a lot of tile products, especially the hand-made ones, often come in a different dimensions (or thicknesses) than specified – so it’s good to have them on site as construction work commences.

Tile is just one example of a product that if not ordered at the correct time, can negatively impact the schedule on your project. As the design professional, you will probably have a good handle on the long-lead time items – but your client may not. And, if the work gets stretched out too much, that will lead to customer unhappiness: you’ll hear about that!

Warranty and Liability

In general terms, the more liability that can be pushed over to the builder, the better that will be – both for you and for your client.

It’s not uncommon for contractors to have non-responsibility clauses in their contracts: Look for a heading that reads something like “Items by Others.” If the builder doesn’t order or pay for something, he’s not going to want to warranty it. It’s one thing for a builder to not be liable for a microwave oven breaking down – but what if that great looking shower control valve your client ordered off the Internet goes wrong? The valve’s in the wall, behind the limestone in the master suite: Who pays to fix that?

How about the flooring that the client buys from Costco? It’s warping a year later – will the builder want to come back and replace it?

The builder usually will want to charge something on top of the price of materials – this can range between 10% and 25%. Many clients these days don’t want to pay anything above the raw costs, but reality says that it may not be the best way to get the job built reliably.

The builder has to make some money on every job just to stay in business, and the more professional contractors will be around for a while to service and warranty the work they do. Their motivation evaporates when clients buy everything themselves. And when the design professional buys building materials, fixtures or cabinets, there’s not a lot remaining – outside of taking responsibility for everything.

It may take a frank conversation with your client, but having clients buy a lot of materials themselves to “save money” will often lead to problems getting the job built and going forward – so don’t encourage it!