Construction Law

I've changed my mind about what I want. Can I make a change to my construction project?

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
Procedures for altering construction plans from what homeowner and contractor originally agreed upon.

Imagine that you hired a contractor to perform some major renovations on your kitchen. You had extensive discussions about what you wanted: a huge new island in the center of the kitchen, blue triangular tiles on the floor, the installation of new appliances, and granite countertops. The contractor presented you with a contract outlining all of those aspects of the project (often called the “scope”), and you agreed upon a price for that scope. Most likely, you agreed to a lump-sum price paid in installments. The project would take about three weeks to complete.

After a few weeks, the floors have been torn up and a plumbing subcontractor has moved the necessary piping towards the island. The huge island has also been constructed, and the granite countertops have been installed. To your surprise, the kitchen looks terrible! Even though this is precisely what you thought you wanted, the room feels dark and cluttered. Now you wish the island were much smaller, and further towards the back wall. Can you request a change?

The answer, in short, is yes--but it will no doubt cost you. Contractors regularly deal with so-called “change orders.” Change orders are essentially requests by the owner (you) for amendments to the original contract document and specifications.

Needless to say, you would be charged for the additional labor and materials necessary to execute your new vision. This will include not only the additional labor costs of hiring the various laborers, but also the additional unexpected material costs (for instance, if you want the tiles to be red instead of blue, or the contractor needs special tools to complete performance).

More than the price, however, your requested change may also result in extensive delays to the project timeline. For example, if you submit a change order for the contractor to move the island away from the center of the kitchen, he will likely need to rework the pipes under the kitchen floor. If the plumbing subcontractor is no longer available this month because she thought work was finished on your home and she accepted another project across town, you’ll need to wait. You may be living in a construction zone for quite some time.

Materials can be another cause for concern when you decide to request a change order. The price and timeline for the original scope of work reflected in the contract documents was based on the contractor knowing that certain materials were available to procure. For example, consider the granite countertops. If you now go back to the contractor and say that you want white marble countertops instead, he will need to communicate with suppliers and determine the timeline and price. There is no guarantee that the materials you now want will be immediately available. You may need to wait for them to be shipped, and they may cost much more than you initially hoped to spend.

In short, as the project owner, you have the ability to request change orders. However, you should be aware that doing so could add significant time and cost to your project. As a general matter, homeowners doing renovations should follow the old adage to “measure twice, cut once.”

And if you do decide a change is in order, don't just leave it to oral agreement. Amend your original written contract to specify the new scope of work, costs, timeline, and so forth.

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