David Leff had a problem. One of his clients purchased a sink online for him to install and the unit arrived cracked in a cardboard box. Three reorders later, Leff finally taught the Web retailer how to pack the sink to prevent damage—hardly worth the $50 that the homeowner saved buying it online.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. “With no exceptions, there have been problems, at least minor and in some cases major ones,” says Leff, who is president of Leff Construction Design/Build, in Sebastopol, Calif.
Horror stories swirl around the issue of homeowners buying products, usually at a “bargain” price, and asking their contractors to install them. Remodelers vary in their level of tolerance for the practice. But many are taking steps to protect both their clients and their companies.
Contractors recognize that some name-brand retail or builder-grade products seen in home center stores and online often are lower in quality than look-alike counterparts available to the trades. Retail plumbing fittings may not be solid brass, for instance, and ceramic tile may be inconsistent in dimensions and depth. Low cost usually represents a sacrifice in quality for off-brand products too.
Most homeowners don’t know any of this and will often purchase products that are less reliable, less durable, and in other ways problematic.
The risk is compounded when homeowners shop online. They don’t know the quality of the products shown or the specifications required for their needs. In addition, they usually aren’t informed about ordering installation parts, such as plumbing traps, and they don’t know which pieces to order anyway.
“We’ve had plenty of instances where wrong, broken, or incomplete components are provided,” says Kevin Anundson, co-owner of Renovations Group, in Elm Grove, Wis. “We scramble to compensate [for these problems], primarily to keep things on schedule.”
Usually the root of the problem is the online source. Unauthorized third-party sellers, operating independently of manufacturers and authorized distributors, provide little-to-no product knowledge, ordering guidance, or technical support. They just sell products—sometimes in a manner that enables them to charge prices below the established Minimum Advertised Price that conforms to contractors’ wholesale prices.
In addition, online sellers may display a product photo next to a SKU that is not for that product. Sometimes, there’s a model number that almost matches the one they want.
In other instances, homeowners just don’t listen, or they forget. Ann Walters, co-owner of NuStone Transformations, a kitchen and bath remodeler in Jackson, Wis., recalls a client who wanted to replace a cabinet vanity in a tight bathroom. Walters told her to be sure to order a product no deeper than 21 inches, to avoid interfering with a doorway. The client ordered a 24-inch-deep vanity and called in shock when it arrived. When Walters reminded her about the 21-inch maximum, she remembered—too late to realize any savings on the purchase. It’s a vicious world for contractors who contend with this issue, Walters says.
Shipping & Installation Setbacks
Mirrors come cracked, cabinets dented. Replacements for damaged pieces may not quite match the earlier shipment in color.
One of Anundson’s customers ordered a porcelain sink with a 12-week lead time only to have it arrive in 80 pieces and wreak havoc on the production schedule. “This translated into the loss of another contract,” he says, “because the homeowners down the street thought we took too long to do their neighbor’s project.”
Shipments may arrive late, and when they do come the products are often far from ready to use. In addition to missing or incorrect parts, crews have arrived at a home ready to install cabinets only to find unassembled pieces stacked in boxes.
All these hitches put remodelers in a bind. They want satisfied clients, but they must contend with subpar products, hours of time spent resolving problems, costly scheduling disruptions, extensions to accommodate delays, and often, despite the remodelers’ best efforts, disgruntled homeowners.
Just Say No
To prevent all these issues, many remodelers just say no to client-purchased products. “We explain that we have long-established relationships with vendors who give us discounted pricing because of our loyalty,” says Peggy Mackowski, vice president of Quality Design & Construction, in Raleigh, N.C. “We pass these prices directly along to our clients.”
Recently Leff closed the door on customer shopping as well. “I explain the issues with ordering and shipping [to clients],” he says, “and we’re not getting any arguments [against the new policy].”
Others have a slightly different approach. Remodeler Christopher Wright discourages clients from purchasing any products on their own, and will not work with an item unless he’s familiar with the source and can vouch for its quality or manufacturer warranty. Like many remodelers, Wright will not warranty products that his company didn’t purchase. “We build overall profit and warranty into the price,” says Wright, president of Indianapolis-based WrightWorks.
To accommodate some clients’ budget restrictions, however, he will suggest good, lower-price products that he can order through his own trusted suppliers.
One effective option for remodelers is a respectful, but direct, discussion with homeowners about the risks of buying their own products and the benefits of letting their contractor make the purchase. In fact, such conversations often generate more business.
Manufacturers Support the Effort
“We like people to hesitate before buying our products from unauthorized sellers,” says Jim Shelton, director of sales and marketing for Panasonic Eco Solutions North America.
In fact, Panasonic is currently working with Google to keep unauthorized third-party sellers from using its company trademarks and images. Officials are also mystery shopping to track down distributors who are selling its products to third-party sellers. In April Panasonic Eco Solutions will begin listing authorized Panasonic Internet sellers on its own website. And the company will begin “badging,” meaning that when a computer mouse pointer hovers over a Panasonic product photo on an authorized seller’s website, the user will see that the seller is authorized. Photos on the websites of unauthorized sellers will not have this feature.
Put It in Writing
The strongest protection for contractors is a written agreement signed by the clients.
NuStone clients often ask Walters to measure their kitchens—at no charge—for cabinetry, countertops, backsplashes, and flooring they plan to buy on their own. She will do the measuring and recommend accessories such as cabinet pull-outs, but only after the clients sign an agreement to pay NuStone a $250 consultation and measuring fee; the fee is credited should the homeowners decide to sign a project contract with the company. In return, Walters stands behind her field measurements and detailed specifications.
While Anundson accommodates homeowners who are determined to buy products and arrange their own labor, he drafts an agreement specifically listing all the products and labor that will be his company’s responsibility. He also clearly spells out that “whatever is not specifically included is not our responsibility.”
For his part, Gehman uses a legal document (see downloadable PDF below) designed to alert clients to the array of problems that may result when they supply products, and also to protect his company in such circumstances. The document states the responsibilities, liabilities, and potential costs clients take on when they provide products. Clients are then asked to list all products they will provide and to agree that the stated policies will apply to these products. It works like a charm, according to Gehman. PR
Wendy Jordan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.