- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Building contractors hired to supervise a home or apartment construction or remodeling job come in three varieties: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good ones, of course, do the job expected of them and, barring unforeseen events, finish on time. Bad contractors hire unreliable help who do shoddy work or even fail to finish. Then there are the truly ugly ones fortunately encountered rarely. A Virginia contractor was charged with second-degree murder late last year in connection with the slaying of America Online executive Douglas Small. In published reports, friends of Mr. Small's told police that he had argued with a building contractor over the quality of work being done on his home in Northwest Washington.
Unfortunately, relationships between contractor and client, even under the best of circumstances, often are fraught with tension if not outright dissension. Part of the trouble stems from the difficulty of finding and then keeping a good contractor in the first place.
Homeowners often start out hiring blindly through the Yellow Pages, and after several disappointing encounters, end up handling the supervisory role themselves. That can create an entirely different set of problems especially if the owner is not always around.
The business becomes so complicated that a middleman may have to be called upon to act as a facilitator a liaison between the client and the contractor even when an architect is involved in preparing the plans. A facilitator defuses problems by anticipating them before they arise. Acting primarily as a representative of a client, he checks all bills and signs off on the quality of work.
Such a person is Gary Dempsey of Dominion Consulting and Management Inc. in Centreville, whose clients have included AOL, sports executive Ted Leonsis of McLean and U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island Republican, also of McLean.
Contractors see matters from one point of view, clients from another.
In the past, the easiest way to find a reliable contractor was to ask a friend or someone in the neighborhood. That is less feasible in transient Washington.
"The trick is to find someone who lives nearby, ideally in the same neighborhood, because that way, it is easiest to check on their work in person," says Sheldon Roseman of Lifelong Construction Inc. on Capitol Hill, a contractor who also is a lawyer, "and because the contractor can then also check on the customer. There are cases when the contractor is stiffed, too."
Contractor Ross Wells of Stroba Inc. Architectural Services in Hyattsville does a great deal of custom carpentry. He recalls with anguish a restaurateur client whose name he doesn't wish to reveal.
"His first check bounced. So then he brought cash," Mr. Wells says. "We delivered cabinets to make the opening date, and he didn't pay us then. We took him to court, but we know other contractors working for him are still eating free" in lieu of getting paid.
Having a good client base means Mr. Wells' firm no longer ad-vertises. "We got too many cold calls from people wanting free advice and not willing to pay," he says.
Subcontractor Sprigg Lynn of the District's Universal Floors Inc. agrees that people should choose a local contractor if at all possible. "The same when they are out in rural Virginia or Maryland. It's a problem in the District because so many good contractors have left. They don't seem to want small businesses in the District; they want big firms. So at least in D.C., if you have a company here, that is a good start."
His family firm has been in business for 50 years, specializing in hardwood floors in such high-end buildings as the White House and the vice presidential mansion.
"What is good about the District is it requires a bond so that if we don't perform, someone can go and use our bond money to hire another firm," Mr. Lynn says, "and in order for us to have a salesperson or write contracts, we have to have a criminal-background check. So then you know you have a legitimate person walking in your house."
To find a contractor for a $300,000 renovation project in their white frame Chevy Chase, Md., home, Scott and Caroline Muller relied on their architects, Treacy & Eagle-burger in the District. The architects chose Mr. Wells, and he, in turn, chose Mr. Lynn for the reflooring. Theirs was a team Mrs. Muller calls "absolutely superb to work with."
One of the advantages of the Muller project was having Mr. Wells work alongside his employees on-site. It also helped that Mrs. Muller could be present much of the time, although the family has had to radically restructure its living quarters for the job, which began in October and won't end until April. The delay was caused by problems with protecting a neighbor's tree that borders the Mullers' back yard, where they planned to install a hot tub and patio. Four rooms plus a new laundry room, including the kitchen, were involved on the interior, where new computer lines had to be installed, among other tasks.
"As a client you want them to be faster, but as a layperson, you don't always realize the complications," Mrs. Muller advises. "It's best to ask questions that are know-ledgeable and not to try to second-guess how something is to be constructed."
Deborah Ziska, information director at the National Gallery of Art, took a flying chance when she picked a contractor through the Yellow Pages to redo the interior of the four-story 19th-century brick Victorian row house she had bought in the District's downtown community of Shaw. The kitchen was key, she says, "a total demolition job, going down to the dirt." She solicited bids from three contractors who answered her calls.
"All three came and did a proposed design and estimate without charge. The one I chose spent the most time with me," Ms. Ziska says. He was John Webster, whom she describes as "a second-generation contractor. He lives on Capitol Hill and knew the Shaw area." She also made sure to call Mr. Webster's previous clients before signing and, later, to invite him to her housewarming party at Christmastime.
The job began in February and ended in May. "It's very important to have rapport with the contractor and anyone who comes to work in your house," Ms. Ziska says. "You might not like their habits, but you never show you are upset with things that don't count. I regularly would make the workmen tea and sandwiches." She took off nearly a month from work during the first phase and visited suppliers in person to pick out cabinetry and appliances.
"It's a matter of keeping faith," she says. "Once I blew my temper. It was when they set off the alarm while I was still in bed one morning."

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