Do Homeowners Need An Advocate?

Last week, a client asked, “Why do you call yourself a homeowner advocate?”

It began in November, 1990, in Los Altos, California. That’s when I realized (and acknowledged) that I’m a homeowner advocate as well as a bath-kitchen design specialist. I never intended to become a homeowner advocate, but once my client used the term, it stuck. All I did was to help resolve a sticky situation between the contractor and the homeowners very early in the project that avoided getting attorneys involved. But when I thought about it, and talked about it with family members, we agreed that the description really fit.

My inspiration and motivation to establish D. P. Design in 1984 was to be an independent liaison between homeowners and contractors. For almost two years after graduating from the interior design program, I had been a bath-kitchen sales designer for a remodeler whose business practices were immoral and unethical. On many occasions, I was told to misrepresent facts, to sell a job or smooth ruffled feathers of a client. I felt that homeowners deserved honesty, and honest service for their investment – whether they were spending $25,000 or $250,000.

Since 1984, I have heard thousands of building and remodeling horror stories. This really bothered me, because most of the problems could have (and should have) been avoided. I started offering classes and seminars for homeowners, which inspired me to write “THE Survival Guide: Home Remodeling,” because my passion and motivation to help homeowners is stronger than it was 25 years ago.

What is an advocate? The dictionary definition is:
“One that argues for a cause; a supporter or defender.
“One that pleads in another's behalf; an intercessor.”

David Horowitz was one of the first consumer advocates. His show, “Fight Back!” first aired in 1976. Now, there are hundreds of consumer advocate groups and individuals. Every major radio and television station has a consumer advocacy hotline, often headed by one of the staff reporters. Suze Orman is a personal finance expert often referred to as a consumer advocate. Another consumer advocate, Tim Duffy, says:

“If there were no consumer advocates there would be more defective products, more shoddy service and rip-offs in the consumer marketplace than there are now. Advocates help maintain the checks and balances between the consumer and the marketplace.”

Contractors and homeowners assume that because I call myself a homeowner advocate, I’m naturally against all contractors and for all homeowners, which isn’t accurate. I want to protect homeowners from contractors who supply products (and/or services) at inflated prices, or provide poor workmanship (which includes not following plans without valid reasons). Like any education process, it requires homeowners to participate and learn.

As an advocate, I have very high expectations and standards. Perfection is not achievable, but “good enough” isn’t good enough. Here is what I expect from contractors:

  • To read, understand, and follow plans and specifications
  • To communicate, i.e., ask and answer questions quickly and honestly
  • To help establish and maintain a realistic budget for the homeowners
  • To establish and maintain a job schedule (computer generated, if possible)
  • To resolve all problems as a team (no finger-pointing, no tattling to clients, or rumor-mongering to other professionals)
  • To provide products specified for the lowest price possible (no price-gouging excused by “warranty service”)
  • To treat everyone with respect

Here’s what I expect from myself (and other design professionals):

  • To listen to homeowners, and understand their needs and wants
  • To communicate, i.e., ask and answer questions quickly and honestly
  • To help clients select the right contractor for their project (as needed)
  • To intercede on behalf of the homeowners
  • To treat everyone with respect
  • To help establish and maintain a realistic budget for the homeowners
  • To resolve all problems as a team (no finger-pointing, no tattling to clients)
  • To help homeowners select the right products for their budget, their home, and their lifestyle, i.e., the best products at the best price
  • To provide accurate, detailed invoices
  • To work with the homeowners, contractor, trade contractors, and suppliers through completion of the project
  • To prepare detailed plans which reflect all of the homeowners’ decisions including: As-built floor plan; Demolition-framing plan (as needed); Proposed floor plan; Proposed electrical-lighting plan and specifications; Product specifications; Finishes specifications; Finishing details;

Here’s what I expect from homeowners:

  • To understand what the plans and specifications represent
  • To communicate honestly
  • To listen and follow advice
  • To resolve all problems as a team (no finger-pointing)
  • To pay invoices on time
  • To treat everyone with respect

I work well with good contractors who have ethical business practices and high moral standards, and meet or exceed my expectations – because they have similar expectations for themselves. Our working relationship is based on honest communication and mutual respect. Without contractors, my plans are interesting wallpaper. Without my creative translation of the homeowners’ goals, their results lack unique characteristics that make each project special.

I’ve been involved in a new-home project for almost two years. It turned out beautifully, despite serious problems that occurred from the very beginning, until the homeowners fired the first contractor and hired a new contractor that I recommended. I’m not going to bore you with all of the details, but I am offering advice, so you may avoid similar problems. It has been a learning opportunity, and it has affirmed everything that I’ve been saying to homeowners for years. The problems encountered also reminded me that homeowners need to follow my expert advice as a homeowner advocate.

  • You always have choices. It’s your home, and your money. Run, don’t walk, from any contractor or design professional whose contract includes terms that make you uncomfortable, or trap you into an irrevocable relationship. It’s worth hiring an attorney, to review the contract and intercede on your behalf.
  • Do not be shy about asking questions, to gather and verify information. Do not accept a “total only” estimate for any project, or an estimate that lacks details about what’s included as well as what’s not included. If the contractor refuses (by words or actions) to provide the information you request, he or she is not the right contractor for your project.
  • f you get multiple estimates, talk with contractors honestly about any differences, but do not expect them to whittle away at the numbers to get the project.
  • Ask for references – former clients, suppliers, trade contractors, and professional organizations. Check all references (a list of questions is included in my book, and in a whitepaper report I’ve prepared).
  • Check the status of the contractor’s license, insurance, and bonding before you hire him or her, and at the midway point of your project. If there are any claims, verify everything about them.
  • Ask for contact information for every supplier and trade contractor involved in your project. If a contractor cannot or will not provide information about suppliers and trade contractors, it’s very possible that he (or she) hasn’t established a solid working relationship with them. Or, it may mean that the contractor is in financial difficulty and hasn’t paid his/her “regulars.” Demand to know what’s going on, because it will affect the quality of workmanship, and your investment.
  • Request written verification that money you pay to the contractor is paying for labor and materials for your project. Request written release of lien notices from all suppliers and trade contractors.
  • Pay attention to obvious “wake-up calls,” i.e., new people and companies performing the same task, work slowing down, communication with the contractor becoming erratic, products not being delivered, a change in attitude of people involved in the project.
  • Always get everything in writing! Do not accept any verbal representations about anything that could (and will) affect your project in any way.
  • Listen to advice from your design professional and contractor, and get valid reasons for their advice. “This is what I did….,” or “We always do it this way,” are not valid reasons.
  • If a contractor or designer is providing products, ask what their markup is, and ask them to provide copies of original invoices for each product they provide. You have the right to know if a product being recommended yields a higher profit for the contractor or designer.
  • Ask the contractor what his or her markup is for labor, and ask him or her to provide copies of labor invoices and time cards for your project.
  • In most states, it is illegal for designers to mark up labor (i.e., manufacturing custom products or installing products) unless they have a contractor’s license.
  • It is not illegal for contractors and designers to accept and receive referral fees (aka “finder’s fee” or “kickback). As a consumer, you should know about these fees, so you can make an informed decision about asking for comparative estimates before you purchase anything.

All of these tips, with explanations, and examples, are included in my new book, “THE Survival Guide: Home Building and Remodeling,” which is in the final writing/editing stage, and will be available as an e-book. If you received benefits from reading this article, or have any questions or comments about it, please write to me at: Q@dp-design.com. I welcome suggestions about topics for my newsletter (“Plesset’s Principles for Today’s Home”), which you can send to the same e-mail address. You can see a list of other articles I’ve written on my website: http://www.dp-design.com/?p=products.

Stephanie Gerrard at 8:33pm June 3

You can voice your opinion on it by refusing to sign because from what I know, they need a majority of the owners to APPROVE of raising the dues before they can actually BE raised. Might wanna check with a real estate attorney just to be safe and make sure of your own state's laws in regards to that. GOOD LUCK! I know I'd like to smack my HOA silly for the retard decisions they make that I can't do anything about. It's like the Geritol Mafia. ~Atty. Stephanie A. Gerrard, Tampa car accident lawyer

JustLaws at 2:28pm January 21

Well-funded lobbyists stood up for special interests and created an environment in Texas where the laws are stacked against consumers and greatly favor contractors. But who stands up for us?

Based on our accomplishments since we opened our doors in August 2008, Homeowners of Texas can honestly say, "We do!"

Homeowners of Texas - your voice in the legislative process
(http://homeownersoftexas.org)

Phillip at 11:48am July 21

This is an excellent article...the remodeling process can often be tenuous due to a lot of factors and the homeowner can often find themselves in some tough spots. Its all about transparancy for all sides where possible.