(Written in July, 1994)
by Jim Heaphy
The commodities of 20th century life are mostly mass-produced in enormous quantities of nearly identical items. Automobiles, furniture, off-the-rack clothing, fast food, prepared grocery items, books, videotapes, CDs, appliances, even most kitchen cabinets - all of these items are designed ahead of time and manufactured for the multitudes. When a homeowner decides to order custom-fabricated solid surface countertops, it may very well be the first time that person has ever had a major one-of-a-kind item made to order. There are choices to be made among many potentially confusing options when ordering custom countertops.
Many fabricators try to avoid excessive paperwork, and rely on handshake agreements based on personal trust. All too frequently, though, the details of such informal arrangements are forgotten or misinterpreted by one party or both. It is best to back up the handshake with a written record of the agreement. In order to avoid disputes and misunderstandings, organized solid surface fabricators will rely on a well-planned set of samples, check lists and contract documents.
Be careful about relying on a verbal description of an edge detail. Words such as "bullnose", "waterfall", and "drip edge" may mean different things to different people. Edge details should be selected after viewing a physical sample, and a full scale drawing of the detail should be incorporated into the final agreement with the customer. The same is true of backsplash details. Unless various options have been clearly explained to your customers, some may assume that a coved splash is included at no extra charge, as is often the case with plastic laminate countertops. Have customers look at actual samples of backsplash options, quote the various prices, and incorporate their selections into your written agreements with them.
Avoid using the word "invisible" to describe seams in solid surface countertops. It is much better to show a sample of an actual seam of average quality, so that the customer will understand that it is hard to see at a casual glance, but that traces of the seam may be visible upon close examination. Use the word "inconspicuous" to describe your seams.
Disputes about the surface finish of solid surface countertops are more common than they should be. It is a good idea to have a company policy of making sure that every customer clearly indicates a choice of surface finish - matte, semi gloss, or high gloss - after viewing samples and understanding the extra costs and maintenance implications of the shinier finishes. You should have a standard procedure for the sanding and buffing steps required for each finish level, so that you can duplicate the finishes consistently. It is best to have samples of the standard finishes available for viewing by customers in a variety of colors and patterns - a high gloss finish is much more dramatic in a dark granite pattern than in a light solid color, for example.
Be sure that the customer makes a final selection of color or pattern only after seeing actual samples. Do not rely on printed color swatches in brochures, which may look significantly different from the actual item. Be sure that the color or pattern is mentioned in writing in your proposal.
Your check list should require you to verify the type of range or cooktop that will be installed, how sinks are to be installed, and whether or not you will be furnishing solid surface sinks. Once you have this information, your customer should be informed in writing that they must arrange for delivery of the appliances and any sinks they are providing before you begin your countertop installation, so that the cutouts can be done properly.
Offer more than just a lump sum price quote. It's better to itemize your charges for the various options and upgrades that the customer has selected. If the bottom line figure exceeds the budget, it will be easier for the customer to make judicious cuts, rather than deleting the solid surface countertops entirely.
In most cases, you will be quoting jobs based on a floor plan furnished by the customer. Be sure that your proposal makes clear that the price quotation is based on a specific drawing, and attach a copy. Also, mention that the price is subject to revision based on field-verification of measurements. If a countertop is an inch longer than what's shown on the drawing, don't worry about it. But if it is a foot longer, you are certainly entitled to charge more. A change from a free-standing range to a drop-in cooktop can mean adding 2-1/2 feet of countertop to the job, so be sure that your customer understands the cost impact before authorizing such a change.
Be clear about your payment schedule. Be specific about your policies regarding deposits, progress payments and final payments. Also include realistic estimates of lead times and installation dates, making it clear that minor delays may be encountered. Mention in writing how you handle change orders, and any charges for last minute rescheduling of installation dates, or extra trips to the jobsite. Include any legal language regarding mechanics liens, bonding, insurance and contractor's licensing as required by the state government where you do business.
Your proposal should mention that attached floor plans, detail drawings and check lists are incorporated into the agreement. The final section of your proposal should state that it becomes a contract when signed and dated by you and your customer.
If what I've itemized seems excessive, remember that each issue I've described is a potential area of dispute. If you systematically go over all of these items with your customers, and record their choices in writing, you are bound to have more happy customers and fewer problems obtaining your final payments.