Installment Plan

Installment Plan

Adhering to several basic guidelines can result in an installation that minimizes problems and maximizes success.

By Daina Manning

Every kitchen designer has a horror story like this. And, every fabricator and installer has a story about the unfortunate results of a designer's error.

Phil DeCaro, owner of Eagle Fabrication Inc., in Keyport, NJ, remembers a project where he followed the kitchen dealer's drawing of a solid surface countertop to the letter. "We make the top, we install it and the homeowner says, 'where are we supposed to sit?'" DeCaro recalls. It turns out, the countertop was supposed to include an overhang on one end to provide casual counter seating except the dealer forgot to include that part in the drawing, and no one picked up on the mistake until the very end.

Every project is a beautiful dreamscape of endless possibilities in the beginning. Then, it becomes a stunning CAD presentation to the homeowner: still perfect. It's in the installation phase where reality sets in and that's what can make or break a project.
Jennifer Gilmer, CKD, of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath Ltd., in Chevy Chase, MD, cites a project where the clients insisted on hiring their own installer instead of using the one she recommended. "Now, all of the [cabinet] doors are warping," says Gilmer.

"[The customer] thinks there's something wrong with the [product]." But, in fact, "the cabinets were all racked when they were installed, and if the doors don't hang straight, eventually they're going to bend, because wood is pliable."

Meetings are currently underway between the designer, customer, cabinet manufacturer's rep and contractor to figure out a way to fix the damage as well as determine who will pay for the repair. "But, no matter what we do," says Gilmer, "we can't salvage the relationship."

So, how can kitchen and bath dealers and designers avoid such mishaps? Every designer has his or her own strategy.

Design/build or not?
How much control is optimum for a designer during the installation phase? Opinions vary.

"Most of what we design, we build," declares Jim Wallen, CKD, CBD, co-owner of Acorn Design Studio, in Oakland, CA. "So, we have control. Our people are trained to understand what we want in terms of installation."

Acorn's carpenters are also the firm's employees, while electric and plumbing work is subcontracted to a very short list of tradespeople.

"We try to have two strong people in each subcontractor category that we use," Wallen explains. "Sometimes it'll be based on price, sometimes it'll be based on schedule." Wallen doesn't take bids. "I don't have them compete against each other," he says. "I make a commitment to one. I tell him, 'these are my parameters, can you meet them?'"

This approach has been working well for him. "As long as [the subcontractors] keep on my projects at the level I expect and take care of the little problems that will come up for virtually anybody, they will stay in one of those two slots," he explains.

Other designers/dealers utilize subcontractors for all installation work, but monitor the process.

"I oversee the installation," says Julie Stoner, president of The Rutt Studio, in Wayne, PA. "For instance, the morning we unwrap the cabinets and start staging them, I will show up to the job site and work with the contractor." She pays another visit once the base cabinets are in and waiting for the countertop template, "just to make sure everything is visually what I had anticipated."

"We have a handful of contractors we work with, who specialize in kitchens, baths and cabinet installation," adds Gilmer. She only uses a contractor for each one's particular specialty. "Some of them only like to install cabinets, some of them [do a] complete pull and replace, some don't mind replacing windows," she notes. "Some can do room additions, some just like to do bathrooms."

Gilmer strongly recommends a particular contractor to all of her clients, who sign a separate contract with that installer. "They order the materials from us, and then we oversee the job," she elaborates.

Problems begin if the clients want to bring in their own installer, usually at a cut rate price. "I tell them, 'I've been through this before, and usually the person is lower [priced] because they don't have the experience or knowledge to do the work at our level,'" says Gilmer. "I warn [clients] up front, 'I can't guarantee it's going to be a good experience for you.'"

Contractors used to lower-end jobs have different standards, she adds. For example, some may estimate two days for an entire kitchen installation, while her company usually takes a week just for the cabinets. "To do it properly, you can't just slap it together," she says.

"A lot of homeowners [mistakenly] think contractors who are doing a room addition are qualified to do the finish carpentry on fine cabinetry," agrees Stoner. "I find it shocking that people will spend $40,000-$50,000 on cabinets and then, when they go to install them, they want to get a budget price."

If a client is unwilling to use the contractor Stoner recommends, she makes the client sign a release that protects her company from liability.

Wallen will not let clients pick their contractor, period. "It's all of me, or none of me [on a design/build project]," he says, adding that the old adage, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" is especially true for remodeling clients who have watched just enough "This Old House" to think they understand the installation process. "Usually it screws things up," says Wallen. "They become their own bottleneck."

Cabinets are usually the most tricky part of the entire installation process, especially in the high end.

"The cabinets are going to be one of the most viewable parts of the installation," says Wallen. "So, quality control and attention to detail are very, very critical. Anyone who is a professional will probably get them in level and plumb, installed relatively well. But, they may miss a detail and start off on the wrong foot, and everything else will follow being just kind of off."

The "slippery slope" effect on the installation process was mentioned by more than one person surveyed. Jeff McPhie, general manager of MacLaren Fabrication Inc., in West Chester, PA, recalls one job where the sink hole in a countertop was one inch off the mark. That piece needed to be refabricated but, while taking that piece out, the workers broke another part of the stone top. When they got back to the shop, they realized they didn't have enough matching material to remake those two pieces, so they ended up making an entire new top. "That one inch turned into a $10,000 mistake," McPhie recalls. "When something goes wrong, it usually goes completely wrong."
Sharon Armstrong, CKD, CBD, Armstrong's Kitchen and Bath Ideas, in St. Petersburg, FL, adds that sometimes, everything is going perfectly until the tear out of the old kitchen begins. "You may expose an area that has termites in it," she explains.
Sometimes the sins of former remodelers are exposed, as well. Armstrong recalls one project that revealed an improperly secured beam, which had to be corrected and signed off on by a city inspector before the job could continue.

What's the answer? Proper scheduling of sufficient time with buffer zones built in to take care of emergencies along with proper information in the hands of all parties, will take care of many of these problems, thinks Wallen. He emphasizes that a smooth installation is set up before the time people in overalls march into the client's kitchen.

The materials have been ordered, and are on site before they have to be. There's a realistic schedule in place which all subcontractors and trades know about in advance.

"It's really about the information superhighway," adds McPhie. "Lack of information is one of the most common problems between any job and the finished product."

The homeowner needs to know the schedule including any delays. The installer needs all the specs of the job. "Give us the information when we ask for it, complete, at the time of the order," pleads DeCaro. He notes his fabrication operation is very computerized with CNC link machinery, and "we can't stop and pull a job [out of the system] because we don't know what the sink cutout is." He adds, "Is my best customer going to get me to do that once in a while? Absolutely. That's part of customer service."

DeCaro also believes it's best to be conciliatory about mistakes. "Make everybody happy. Split the costs, knowing you're [also] going to make a mistake somewhere along the line, and you're going to want to cash that one in later. You put that in the favor bank."

McPhie adds that indecision on the part of the designer or client can create havoc with the process. "[Some] people have a difficult time making decisions, but they have deadlines with their project. That can be a painful process for us. We get to the job and are ready to install, and things aren't ready for our people. [Those in charge] haven't planned well." He further notes that small changes can mean big delays, and increased prices. "Change costs money," he says. "There's no way to [make changes] without incurring additional costs."

The information flow problem is particularly problematic when dealing with home center designers, DeCaro adds. "They're interested in making the sale, and then they seem to put [that job] in another pile somewhere until [the customer] is complaining to them," he says. "Then, they get involved [and call us. We say], 'but we've been asking you for this information for two weeks!' [and they say], 'Well, here it is, can you get out there today?'"

Part of the problem, he adds, is that unlike a high-end dealer, where he's dealing with an NKBA-certified designer, "in the home center, you might get a guy who was in tile last week. That is a real issue. We do so much training. We have open houses here where we bring them in and show them what happens when the phone rings. We take them through the process."

The Great Installer
On either side, it's hard to get good help and that cliché is particularly true when it comes to finding the wonderful installer, no matter if they're your employee or a subcontractor.

"Last night, I interviewed an installer for 2-1/2 hours," says DeCaro, whose countertop fabrication company does all of its own installations. "We work hard to get that person right. It's very difficult. That's the hardest spot for us to fill. Frankly, I don't go through that much trouble with managers.

"The installer absolutely represents [our company]," DeCaro continues. "We can do everything right up until the installer shows up. If he gets there and upsets the customer in any way, that's what they remember forever. Our reputation, and the reputation of the dealer, the designer, [are all] at stake."

The level of the job plays a big part in who's qualified and who isn't. "There are many people out there who are installing kitchens but [don't] have the precision necessary to do high-end work," believes Stoner.

"The more custom the jobs, the more important those skills are," agrees DeCaro, noting that it's easier to find workers who are good enough for tract builder projects.
Dealers, designers and fabricators say they most often find good installers through word of mouth, referrals from manufacturers and other sources.

Occasionally, a client will insist on hiring his or her own contractor who turns out to be terrific, and then the designer will use that contractor for future jobs. All say they do everything they can to hang on to good installers sometimes to no avail.

Armstrong points out that "sometimes, people who are great artists and great craftsmen are not so good in the business end of it. So, we sometimes lose good [freelance] installers who decide they can't operate their own business and will go to work for someone else instead."

Conversely, talented installers will sometimes leave to start their own business, reports DeCaro. "The guy that has the attributes of an entrepreneur he knows fabrication, and he communicates well with the homeowner, and his helpers" is the one most likely to figure he can do it on his own.

When taking on a new contractor, those surveyed warn dealers to look at a contractor's actual former projects, rather than just photos. "Just because they show you a picture or two of a nice job that they've done [doesn't mean they're good]," says Stoner. "If you go to a job site, you can tell if the miters don't meet each other those [types of] details you can see in a home."

A new contractor will certainly get extra supervision at first, especially on a high-end project. "It takes them a while to get used to the amount of detail that I have designed into the project," says Stoner. "The more projects we work on, the easier it is to coordinate jobs because they know my style. If you're working with a new contractor, definitely take the extra time to visit the job site more frequently to oversee the project."

Stoner adds that, frequently, contractors won't ask questions because they don't want to look like they don't know what they're doing. "They'll just go along and do something," she says. "And, then when you walk in, it's a surprise." Usually an unpleasant one, which could have been alleviated by a simple phone call. "Assure them that you are there for them," Stoner advises. "Give them your cell phone number, and make sure you're available for them."

Another potential problem: "You think you're working with one person, but you're [actually] working with his employees," complains Armstrong. "A contractor may be extremely talented and capable himself, but instead of his doing the work himself, he's bringing in other subcontractors. He thinks he's going to become a larger company, so he hires people to do the work and they are not competent or capable."

For all trades, Armstrong finds out beforehand if the top person is personally doing the work he is requesting. "Is it actually the electrician you hired, or his helper?" he asks.
On residential remodels, the installer's image and personality also come into play. "It's funny. We had a guy who looked like an ax murderer," recalls DeCaro. "He's probably the best guy I've ever had, but he scared [clients] on the job. He looked like Charles Manson."

Workers who don't speak English can also pose a problem during installation. "[Home-owners] may be uncomfortable with people who come into their homes, regardless of their skill level, if they can't communicate with them," says DeCaro. His solution? He got a grant from the state to run English as a second language classes once a week for his employees and their families.

Paying careful attention to the process and choosing installers that can be trusted may take extra work, but, in the end, it's time well spent for the future of everyone's businesses. KBDN