Whether to Back Out of a Job over Site Conditions

Cabinet installers discuss the contract and management issues involved when you encounter unexpected and troublesome site conditions. May 7, 2007

We are a small 4 person shop. We do all of our installs ourselves. We pulled in to a job recently to install and found a mess. This was a remodel house. Here are a few examples of the site conditions: floor where old sink cabinet was sagged 3 inches, floor from one corner to another was 3 inches out, walls were cinderblock covered with half inch ply and concrete rivets stuck out 3/8 on top of the ply, floors had about 4 layers of laminate flooring on them. We were to put laminate on the walls in between the cabinets. Fortunately the rivets were not in the way of the laminate, but the joints of the ply were protruding 1/4 or more in places. We set the cabinets (per the instruction of the owner). They looked good at completion, but one wall was shimmed up 2 inches due to the floor. My question is: Have you ever pulled away from a job due to poor site conditions? How would you have handled this situation?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor B:
Do you have a good contract? It's probably in your best interest to lay stuff like that out ahead of time so you don't get caught up in other people's mess and mistakes. For example, if their your conditions aren't met, as in the job site isn't suitable for install, you could force them to make it suitable by saying you won't deliver the product or send installers out to the site until it is ready; and possibly include that they compensate you for delaying your schedule. A good lawyer to write you thorough contracts will save you a ton of headaches and most of what he will save you are reasonable terms, you just need them in writing and signed by who is paying you.

From contributor P:
I'm assuming that these conditions didn't somehow manifest themselves after you did a site visit and measurement. If you missed some details (like out-of-level by 3"), it becomes your problem. We see a lot of bad out of level in old Victorians, and try to go over it with the owner (not just the contractor) before we start.

If there's a situation that will affect the quality and longevity of your work, it's best to stop and get it handled before installation - once you accept the conditions by performing your installation; you're liable for your finished work. Get a waiver in writing if they want you to go ahead despite your concerns - I guarantee they won't remember a verbal once trouble arises! I'm always rushed during site visits, and, come install time, am always kicking myself over the obvious conditions I missed that eat time, energy, and profit.

From contributor M:
If you are a custom shop, didn't someone from your shop see the floor and walls before you arrived? How were the measurements done to build the cabinets from? I would lay some blame on the salesman/estimator.

From contributor S:
Site survey? What happened? Ok so you missed a couple of points, you got to eat that. Lack of a watertight contract with terms and exclusions, welcome to the big time, you have to cover yourself in writing before you start. Once you start or even commit you really should finish your job, it is just good business. Maybe you will lose money on this one, but a bad reputation for walking off of even one job could cost you untold others, even if this job was a total nightmare. The only story that will spread is that you screwed somebody. It’s not fair, but that is the way it is.

Now if this job is as bad as you say, there is still hope, go for the extras. Speak the truth and try to talk some sense into whoever controls the money. Like pick up some extra for taller base to cover the toe kick (make sure that your shim stack is good solid blocks and not something that may get knocked out and let your boxes move). Thicker backsplash scribes or fillers or whatever it takes beyond a typical install is fair game for extras. Do the best that you can, it is still your name out there and you will feel better for trying your best, walking off will leave a sour taste in your mouth.

I have never pulled out after a commit, and I have been miserable a few times. The funny part is that after all of the bitching and moaning and scribing and shimming and losing money, most of these clients will see the fact that conditions were bad and be grateful for your efforts. Maybe not grateful enough to give you more money, but grateful enough to at least pay you. Sometimes no matter what you do, you will get bad mouthed by a client. But I would rater be lied about in a negative way than have it be the truth.

I don't do the bids where I work, but it is not uncommon to see three or four lines of what is in our scope and a full page of exclusions or alternatives. Often the alternatives or exclusions will have a price by them because our estimator is smart enough to know that when we get to a point it will become obvious to the money controllers that the excluded work will need to be performed, and here we are, Johnny on the spot, with a price already worked up to do it (good business).

Sounds to me like you did the right thing by doing the job and leaving it looking good, but did you get a sign off and take photos? These are almost as important nowadays as a good contract before you start. Photos alone are a great intimidation factor to prevent call backs or denied payments. When the owner/contractor sees you take photos of the finished product, they pretty much know that they are dealing with someone that knows the ropes.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses. We do have a contract, but unfortunately site conditions are not discussed. I assure you it will be amended in. The conditions we arrived to were not visible during the estimate and measure. The floor sagging was under existing cabinets. As far as the ply on the walls, the owner never made mention of doing this. I would have rather installed on the block walls that were there. The job did turn out well, we covered up mostly all of the ugly in the room. There were problems with things like the dishwasher height, but I explained this to the owner when we began. My worry is that the floor may sag more, but again, I should have gotten a written signoff. Guess we learn from our mistakes, and I can only hope it doesn't come back to bite me. The client was very satisfied. We were not able to put up the crown due to the fact that the owner was going to replace the ceiling. I did explain to him that if I come back to install, there would be a charge. Again, this is the first time we have ran into this, so would you charge your normal labor fee for the return to install crown, or consider it part of the job and just charge a call back fee?

From contributor S:
Yep it is fair to charge something for the return trip to install the crown. One day later or a year later it is still a return trip that was not pre-scheduled.