Nailing Down the Scope of Work

by Julie

A Good Scope of Work is a Vital Part of any Building Contract

A really good scope of work is probably one of the most overlooked elements in the construction contract.   Outlining the project costs and contractor’s obligations protects both the homeowner and the builder.

The following story shows how even a simple project can go awry without a clear scope of work.

I called up Jim—a subcontractor I’d worked with before—to help on a straightforward job.  “I’ve got a project for you at 123 Main Street.  I need to remove the old driveway, pull up the bushes, backfill and replace the concrete.   Call me back with an estimate.”  (It’s not uncommon for busy builders to work out agreements over the phone instead of meeting personally at the job site.  As you will see, this method has its shortcomings.)

Jim calls back the next day:  “The 123 Main St job will be $5,500.”  “Pretty much what I was hoping for,” I think to myself, and tell him I’ll call back when I’m ready to go.

Six weeks later, I was ready for Jim to begin.  I didn’t make time to meet with him at the job site, but came to check on things after he and his crew had put in a good day and a half’s labor.  Right away I could see there was a problem:

Me:  “Why aren’t those bushes out?”

Jim: “I thought that you were talking about just this one bush by the sidewalk, not that whole row of bushes.”

Me: “No, I meant all of them.”

Jim: “Well, that’s going to be about $120 extra.  Also, I need another check for $125 because I’m getting the fill sand today.”

Me: “I thought the sand was included in your price.”

Jim: “We never include the cost for fill sand, because we don’t know how many loads we’ll use until everything’s pulled up.  Something else we need to add—there were a bunch of tree roots under the driveway and it ate up a few saw blades.”

Me: “Ok…How much more will that it cost?”

Jim: “Let’s see: $120 plus $125 plus $240 and $20 for the blades.  $505 more.”

I look around–Jim and his crew are working hard in the August heat and everything else on the job is coming along fine.  It sure doesn’t seem like he’s trying to rip me off.  His price was good to start with, so what do I do now?  At this point my options are limited: have a screaming match, try to negotiate or just agree to pay the overage.  Overall, the most valuable choice I made that day was recognizing an important lesson– always have a scope of work.

Pulling together a good scope of work takes time and effort, but pays for itself many times over in the end.  Here are some basics about the process:

Put it on Paper:
At the bare minimum, a set of plans or blueprints can serve as a scope of work.  Sometimes the plans are supplemented with specifications and addendums which can help fill in more detail.  Smaller projects or remodeling jobs usually don’t require a set of plans, in which case a written scope of work is doubly important.

For both big and small projects, make certain that all expectations are conveyed in both writing and talks with your contractor.  Ask pointed questions–“What else do you see that we need to include?  I want to avoid change orders.”  Outline even obvious-seeming items.  Never assume that “XYZ trade surely will do this.”  Add a “cover-it-all” note on the end—something like “Bid should include all items necessary for contractor to complete this project.”

Meet and Review:
Meet your contractor at the jobsite (more than once, if necessary).  Make lots of notes.  Even if it goes against your basic nature (and what your mama taught you), don’t be deferential.  Charge right in there and say (or ask) what’s on your mind.  After these meetings, your scope of work should become even more defined.  It doesn’t matter if you or the contractor writes up the revised scope, as long as all items are accurately noted.

We all get busy, look for shortcuts and assume everyone is on the same page.  Taking the time to nail down a clear, comprehensive scope of work will keep your change orders, costs and frustrations to a minimum.  Once complete, make it part of the construction contract.


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Thanks for the compliment. Glad to provide encouragement.

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