Ask the Architect

You don’t want a contractor who cuts corners


Q. Is it possible to find a contractor who’s reasonable? We don’t have a lot of money. We thought we had a contractor, but it fell through. We’ve so far interviewed about 20 contractors (that’s a lot of cups of coffee), but their prices were just too high. Our son developed an illness that has caused him to be in a wheelchair, and we’ve decided to take in his family and him, to help out in this crisis. One contractor never even showed up or called. They all seem too busy. How do we find someone, and what can you recommend?

A. You’re in a difficult situation, and one I’ve seen many times. Often, the main reason for construction is life changes. Our lives rarely stay the same. Couples get married or join households and need a place of their own; a child is on the way; households combine (such as yours); a ramp is needed; wind, fire or water damage lead to reconstruction; or in some cases, a major success, like winning the lottery, an inheritance or job change, causes people to need or want more space.

Unfortunately, there are many components to a building, many laws to follow requiring that it be built soundly, in an energy-efficient and safe manner. It costs more money every year due to price increases brought on by everything from cost-of-living increases for the workforce that makes the windows, doors, insulation, shingles … you get the idea. Overhead and labor are similar for each contractor, and a problem they face each working day. Their taxes, just like yours, reduce actual income by nearly half, when you consider federal, state and local taxes. They pay insurance rates that can be frightening to think about, but required to operate their business. So the only thing left to vary by a lot is profit and margin, something you’re asking them to try to reduce so you can meet your very important need.

But also consider that the contracting company that takes on your project for a much lower rate may not actually be able to finish the job. I’ve seen many projects where, without explanation, the company just stops showing up. Or they begin reducing the job. By “cutting corners” they meet the financial agreement but leave you with a low-quality, underbuilt home. One common example is for masons to form the foundation only 18 inches to 2 feet deep in the ground instead of the required 3 feet minimum, down to the frost line. They save money and concrete, but you have a house that heaves and cracks. You also can unknowingly be contributing to a Ponzi scheme in which the contractor is actually using someone else’s payments to finish your house, on and on until they go under. You need to consider the risk in trying to pay less, no matter what the circumstances, and the long-range effect of a cheaper job.

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.