Tips for Deailng with Busy Builders

Until recently, who would have thought that the overcast and cloudy skies in the kitchen and bath industry would ever clear? It had been rainy and stormy for so long, it was beginning to feel like that climate change really was with us to stay, and things would be chilly and miserable forever.

But the pockets of sunshine are finally starting to break through in some regions. And when the sun shines, people build things; that, in turn, means that contractors, suppliers and tradespeople are more in demand.

As if your life wasn’t challenging enough just trying to find enough to keep going, now the pendulum swings in the other direction: The housing market is now showing signs of activity, and that bodes well for us all.

So how do you deal with an environment where builders are not jumping to price anything that comes across their desk? How do you keep their loyalty and attention?


Do you have only one company that you send your work to? If so, this can be both good and bad. Quality control and loyalty may be high, but all your eggs are in one basket. Maybe it’s time to expand your sources. This is especially a good idea if your favorite builder is small in size, i.e. it’s just him and a couple of helpers, or if you use the same group of regular subcontractors on all your jobs. It’s nice to have the same woman who does all your tile work, but what if she gets too busy to handle the workload?

So start right here: Make sure you have a few other builders and trades on hand to look at your projects. You’ll need to be careful that you don’t put these folks through endless pricing exercises, as they will not stay loyal for long that way. But it’s standard practice to have a couple of companies take a preliminary look at work you have coming up.

If you’re staying with single companies because you know their work and performance well, ask yourself what their back-up and depth is. What happens if the owner’s personal life needs attention? Is there some kind of second-tier management in place? Will your project be delayed if the sheetrock guy’s mom passes suddenly and he has to leave the country?

Is your regular, go-to painter the one you want to depend on for all of your work? What if a homeowner decides in the middle of the kitchen remodel that they really should paint the whole house, inside and out, “as long as we’re doing all this other work?” Does your painter have the staff to mobilize to that project, or can he readily get more help?

If you’re nervous about whether the people you’re thinking about using to build your work can really produce it on your schedule, not theirs, start asking them questions. Sit down with them and go over their workload. What else do they have going on, in terms of size, complexity and timing? All of these factors in their project load can adversely or positively affect the job you’re trying to build, so make sure your builder or subcontractor is comfortable committing to you.

The drought of work has been going on for quite some time now, so many firms are thirsty and taking on too much to try to make up for lost time and lost money. Tread carefully!


So your builder is busy – aren’t we all? Establish some ground rules – especially with regard to communication.

First rule: Return messages. For both parties, this is critical, so figure out the preferred way of staying in touch, and commit to regular communication. Some people operate well with emails, getting to them at night or on breaks; others prefer text messages or cell phones. Then there are those who will only talk over land lines, and still others who really prefer to have one-on-one meetings. Work out what works best for both of you, and use that method as your baseline.

Most projects in our industry work better with some kind of weekly meeting with the homeowner, designer and builder all present. Occasionally you may have to include a specialty trade, an engineer or other consultant, but set up a regular meeting and stick to it. Many companies prefer early morning meetings; things seem to get done quicker first thing in the day, and there are other things everyone has to get to.

The meeting does not have to be in person, but it’s better if it is. The meeting also doesn’t have to be on the jobsite but, again, it’s better if it is.

Ideally, you want to have someone keep notes or a log of this meeting. Perhaps more important is to figure out the next steps and “action items” that participants must take. If flooring samples have to be found and selected by the next meeting, who will be responsible for that?

Insist on a written schedule! Even the most basic one will do – an outline of the work, with a timeline against which the major items are specifically measured. Milestones – such as framing inspections, completion of drywall, cabinet installation, countertop measure, punch list – should have dates attached. Look carefully at the schedule when you all meet weekly, and adjust it accordingly.

Long-lead items are often the ones that get dropped or forgotten when the builder is too busy. The window and cabinet orders are obvious examples, but don’t forget that sometimes tile or certain unique plumbing fixtures can take extra time, too. Ask that your builder sit down with you and make a list of these long-lead products – and discuss whether or not the start date of your project is realistic. There’s nothing worse from a client’s perspective than to have their job sit idle while they wait for something to be delivered.


There are a couple of ways you can get yourself more comfortable if you feel like your project may be getting put on the back burner.

Consider a completion bonus for finishing on time. Depending on the size of the project, that could be $1,000. You could put a similar penalty in place for not finishing on time, to be deducted from what you’ll pay your installer. Your client may balk at such an incentive, but it can be a great motivation for a builder to concentrate on your project rather than the one down the street.

And make sure you hold back some funds until the work is totally complete. Retaining that last 10% will ensure the straggling items do get finished up – the toilet paper holder is installed, the scuff marks on the hallway baseboard really do get touched up – and you have a happy client who won’t hesitate to pass your name along!

Steve Nicholls has been in the building business for over 30 years. In 1982 he founded Mueller Nicholls, now a 50-person company based in Oakland, CA. In addition to performing remodeling and construction work, his firm operates a large cabinet shop, building work for its own projects and for other contractors.