Expert Interview Series: Jody Costello of contractorsfromhell.com About Educating Contractors and Homeowners To Help Avoid Disputes, Mistakes, and Lawsuits

Home renovation

Jody Costello is the Founder of ContractorsFromHell.com and creator of “The Home Remodeling Bootcamp For Women,” an online course that guides homeowners through the risks and realities of remodeling. We asked Jody to tell us what she learned from her own negative experience with a contractor, as well as to provide some advice to other homeowners who may be considering a home renovation project in the near future.

Briefly describe your personal contractor “horror story.” Why did you decide to start a website to address this issue?

Well, let’s just say that I became the poster child for “what can go wrong, did go wrong” with our project, according to the Enforcement Chief for the Contractors State License Board in California.

Essentially, the contractor we hired was unethical, incompetent, and unreliable. The work performed was shoddy and led to numerous construction defects and failed inspections. The project was stalled for long periods of time because of his unwillingness to take responsibility for the problems we were having and his fondness for taking long trips to Mexico at the expense of his clients. Our home leaked from just about every crevice there was, and he ultimately abandoned the project.

With numerous defects, three mold remediations, and the project barely half-completed a year later, we filed complaints with the Contractors Board and also filed a lawsuit. Given the overwhelming evidence presented, the judge ruled in our favor; so everything was torn back down to the studs and we began rebuilding. All in all, it was a three-year ordeal that was heavy with hard lessons learned.

The website was initially intended as a way for me to document the experience to support any complaints or possible litigation. I also happened to be taking a web design class during this time, and in a fit of frustration, I chose the name that said it all. When people started contacting me with their problems and asking for guidance, it became apparent that a site like this was very much needed, and I expanded it from there.

After your poor contractor experience, what is your overall opinion of the contractor industry? What should contractors do to earn the trust of their new customers?

Like many consumers, my view of contractors is buyer beware. There are both good and bad contractors; and unfortunately, the bad ones spoil the reputation of the industry as a whole. A contractor earns trust by demonstrating their skill and knowledge, responding professionally and honestly, and having a willingness to educate when the homeowner has questions or concerns.

Finish this sentence: “The most effective way that a contractor can demonstrate a commitment to transparency is…”

…sharing experiences, successes, and challenges from projects that are similar to the clients’ in an effort to educate them. Giving them an inside look at how he/she handles situations helps homeowners see how the contractor can work with them, solve their problems, and showcase his or her abilities to manage a project successfully.

What are some ethical issues for contractors that they may not actually be aware of?

When money becomes the driving force over and above serving the clients’ best interests. It’s a balancing act that can get easily thwarted if you’re not good at it, or if you have misjudged your profit margins.

If a contractor were to say to you, “We try to do our best, but we can’t control unforeseen circumstances,” how might you respond?

Unforeseen circumstances are part of renovating an existing home. No one knows for sure what’s behind those walls. It’s not unusual to find problems that need to be addressed, and homeowners should be advised of this. To avoid misunderstandings, the “extra work” must be handled as a written change order, signed by both parties and added to the overall cost of the project.

If a dispute between a homeowner and a contractor does arise, what is the most important aspect of a contractor’s reaction and response to the issue?

The most important aspect of a contractor’s reaction and response is demonstrating a sense of urgency. There is nothing worse than a contractor putting off the client and problem until when he/she is ready or willing to deal with it. No one likes conflict, but delays in handling problems only foster ill will.

To what extent do you think contractor mistakes or problems are due to a lack of contractor education?

A lack of contractor education (aside from being experienced in the trades) is a small part of mistakes and ensuing problems. Consistently having problems without regard to how they are affecting the project and the client is a character issue. It’s a person’s morals and values that drive them to do right or wrong, to know it, to not repeat it, and to learn from it.

What advice do you have for people that can help prevent future contractor “horror stories” like yours?

Consumer education is key to avoiding remodeling horror stories. Regulatory agencies can only educate contractors, but they can’t control their behavior. Homeowners need to take the brunt of the responsibility in order not to fall prey to unethical behavior and an indifference to the laws.

Understanding contractors’ laws and rights, as well as a homeowner’s rights, is something homeowners don’t consider until they get into trouble – and then it’s too late. For example, getting familiar with mechanic’s liens, extra work, change orders, downpayment requirements, and permits prevents surprises and gives homeowners greater control over their project.

Need to make sure that you’re up to date on all relevant ethics requirements? Click here to see if your state offers a course which covers this issue.

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