June 22, 2004

In This Issue of The Acid Staining Newsletter

Composing Contracts

Some time ago a reader asked me to address the subject of contracts and their contents, saying "What are you responsible for and what is the client responsible for?" I think this is a good question, but the answer is flexible. A lot might depend on what you, the staining contractor, want to be responsible for.

I know a young man with lots of energy and drive who grew up in the concrete business. He adores tools and has all the latest and most expensive gadgets. If a slab is old and brittle, with large holes from pop-outs, he will happily sandblast, cover it with a topping material, stain the topping and then grind or saw cut through the stain in all sorts of decorative patterns. He has confidence in his experience and materials and wants to be responsible for everything from fine interiors to driveways and pool borders (two places where I would fear to tread). He takes responsibility for the finished look of the concrete, no matter what awful mess the client gives him to begin with.

However, my friend knows his limits. He recently walked away from a job which was upstairs on flexible wood decking over a space where water was leaking into the boutique below. The owner wanted a quick and cheap fix to his water problems (there was none) with a beautiful concrete floor on top, which would be thin, but not crack when the decking beneath it flexed. He made it clear that since he was only leasing the space for a few years, the concrete topping only needed to last the duration of his lease!

Part of being successful in business is in knowing which jobs NOT to accept. Our current concrete technology is very good, but it is not yet able to work miracles. A client with unreasonable expectations, who wants the work done in one or two nights, (so he doesn't have to close his business) and who wants you to compensate for a string of bad decisions he made earlier, is obviously not a good prospect.

In stark contrast to this young man is a local stainer who feels that the concrete slab presented to her must be perfectly clean and free of all paint, tar and glue. If such spots mar the slab she blithely stains right over them and if the client complains about spotty results she declares, "I'm not responsible for the condition of your slab!" While it is true that she did not put those spots there, I feel that she should feel responsible for the final appearance of her work and it is not realistic to expect contractors to present you with a flawless new concrete slab on every job.

A major part of concrete staining -I would say about 80% of the work - is going to be in preparation. That includes wall protection, hole and crack filling and slab cleaning. House painters have long known and had to deal with the unpleasant fact that scraping loose, flaking paint off the house will invariably precede the pleasure of brushing on a shiny new coat of paint.

When a potential client first telephones me to ask about pricing and when staining should begin, I send them a list of "Warnings & Preparation of Concrete for Best Staining Results" in writing. This covers in one page the eight most important points which the client should know prior to pouring a new slab. I cover the two most important points first: NO liquid curing compound and NO burnishing with metal trowels. I also discuss framer's markings (red chalk lines form a permanent bond with the concrete and will show up across doorways later, but blue chalk can be scrubbed off). I tell them that acid stain turns wood black, so if wood floors are to be installed, we should stain and seal our areas first. My list of warnings can be downloaded from my website.

Do not assume that your general contractor has ever stained a floor before, even if he has. He needs to know what, ideally, you would like him to do to best prepare the slab for you.

Many contractors are rushed and will ignore half the warnings on your list. That's okay-it's a real life situation, and you don't want to walk away from a nice job, just because the subs ignored his directions and sprayed latex wall paint all along the edges of the floors. The point to make in your contract is that excessive precleaning of the slab will have to be billed out separately at $ X dollars per hour, per worker on that task. I used to charge just $25 per hour for excessive precleaning and crack and hole filling, but was losing money on labor costs, so I now charge $40 per hour per worker. You will need to find out what you have to charge in your locale in order to make a profit. Then ask your crew each day to keep track of work hours which went over and beyond the norm.

I write out my Proposal so that the contract does not sound so negative and demanding. A one-sided contract stating only your demands and wishes would not be fair. I state each step that my company promises to take to ensure good workmanship. I say that we will mask all walls and woodwork up to 24" from the slab, that we will clean paint, tar and mastic spots from the slab and perform a preliminary scrub with TSP solution of the entire slab, that we will fill small holes and cracks, that we will apply one or two coats of a certain brand of stain, perform a post-stain scrub and rinse, and apply two coats of Brand A sealer and 2 coats of Brand B wax. If we get stain on the walls, we will apply Kilz over those spots and faux paint them out, and so on.

Each point is listed in a separate paragraph on the contract, so that the client knows just what services he/she is getting for the large sum on the bottom line.
A sentence which I now add to every contract says "Client approval of color balance is required before the first coat of clear sealer can be applied."

We learned the hard way that someone in authority needs to give approval. It is too difficult to strip and remove sealer to make color changes later, when it is too late.

If your client is going on vacation and says something like "I'm sure I'll just love whatever you do," don't count on it! Have them appoint a friend or an interior designer as proxy to give your crew the go-ahead before you apply one drop of sealer to the floor. In any situation where you want to make your client responsible, it is only fair to warn them in advance that they will be.

At the end of the Proposal, I estimate how long it will take our crew to do the job, but I add "unless we are hampered by other trades." Of course you cannot seal the floor on Friday if the contractor has scheduled the tile masons to work in the bathrooms that day and they are rolling wheelbarrows of dripping grout across your floors.

If you will be using a solvent-based acrylic sealer, you need to warn that the sealer will need at least 36 hours to "gas off," before you can apply the first coat of wax. In this way, each contract is a bit different and should be tailored to the job.

One more thing - always, always have the client sign a line at the bottom saying "Acceptance." Some contractors feel that the first deposit check they receive for the job amounts to an acceptance signature, but a cancelled check can be hard to locate these days. Just in case of a dispute where you need to file a workingman's lien, there is nothing like a clearly signed contract.

Happy Staining!


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