Dear Angie: Do I have to pay a general contractor who says his costs exceed the written bid? — Victoria H., St. Louis
Dear Victoria: There are several reasons why your question doesn't lend itself to a one-word answer. And it definitely illustrates why we continually encourage consumers to do their homework before hiring and to insist that a solid, detailed contract is in place before a project starts.
In general, though, if a contractor has acted correctly, has created a thorough contract and can justify the additional costs, you'll probably need to pay. However, if he didn't alert you to higher costs until final payment was due, you might not have to.
It's not unusual for price-inflating changes to occur during a project. During the tear-out phase, a contractor might discover dry rot, frayed wiring or other problems that must be addressed for safety and code-enforcement reasons. The homeowner might also request upgraded fixtures or other changes that add time or money to a job.
Because changes can and often do occur, a good remodeling contract will provide a process for how to handle them. Usually, this means that before a change is begun, the contractor and client sign a written agreement — called a change order — that lists the reasons for it and the associated cost. Requiring a change order before a revision or addition proceeds, even if it temporarily halts work, is central to avoiding the kind of sticker shock you're experiencing.
Ideally, your agreement included a provision for change orders, but it might not have. Other important contract components include a job description; a cost and materials outline; start and completion dates; payment terms; clarity that the contractor will pull permits; proof of licensing, insurance and bonding; termination clause; and more.
A contract is important, and so is good communication between client and contractor before, during and at the end of a project. A good contractor will inform you of any surprises and answer your questions in a clear and timely way, and a good client will be available to make decisions when the need arises.
I hope you and your contractor can sit down and work out a satisfactory solution to your differences on price. If not, you might want to seek counsel from an attorney with experience in home-project contracts.
Angie Hicks compiles the best advice from the most highly rated service pros on Angieslist.com to answer your questions. Ask Angie your question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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