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What you say vs. what a contractor hears

The amazing designs you see in magazines were not planned on the fly. Lacking thorough plans, i.e. detailed drawings leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

What you say and what a contractor hears can vary substantially.

Big statements of work need to be in writing. But when it comes to designing and building spaces, your projects also need to be defined in drawings. I could write about what I mean, but like with getting project estimates, it's better that I show you.

Let's say that a walk-in closet is on your dream house list.

For a moment, visualize what that would look like for you.

You tell the contractor: finished walk-in closet

You visualize: custom cabinets and drawers, laundry baskets, lighting

Contractor hears: usable honing space

When you say, "I'd like a walk in closet," you might mean something like this:
Walk in closet with built-in dresser, jewelry stand and bag and shoe display cases with glass cabinets and in-cabinet lighting.
When you say walk-in closet, you might mean something like this.

But what you say and what your contractor assumes you mean leaves a lot for interpretation. The contractor hears "walk-in closet" which technically means the closet only needs to be big enough to walk inside.

Your contractor might visualize something more like this:

An empty closet with a dowel rod and some empty hangers
What your contractor hears.

He delivers a simple closet with a dowel rod for hanging, maybe a top shelf: technically big enough to walk in. You're mad and proceed to get more specific. A lot more specific.

"What I meant was"

  • 2 built-in side by side dressers with 5 drawers each

  • Two sets of laundry baskets

  • Upper and lower hanging space

  • In-cabinet lighting

  • Glass doors

  • Floor to ceiling shelving

  • The other stuff you visualized earlier

Why didn't you say so? Do you see the difference?

Where the real miscommunication comes in is how the project is bid. If there are not detailed designs and specifications about the closet size and what type of storage is inside, the bid they give you for the work will be for the bare minimum. Or you get someone else's idea of what "walk-in closet" means to them. When you do finally get clear about what goes inside, you might get unpleasantly surprised by an expensive change order. The contractors bid was for a lot less time and materials.

What goes wrong:

Contracting without detailed plans, specifications and illustrations sets you up for miscommunication. Vague details leave both parties making assumptions about what they will get and what it will realistically cost. It sets you up for failure.

What to do instead:

Define clear requirements and provide detailed drawings. Review drawings with your contractor and identify any areas where additional information is needed. Remove vague descriptions so it is clear to both you and the contractor what the finished project should look like. You'll be more satisfied with the final result (yay! dream closet here you come!) and happier the with process when the original project estimate is realistic.


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