Sunday, January 7, 2018

Negotiating Contract Terms

by Ilse Baeck, Owner of Contract Review Services for Construction

"Everbody signs our contract..."  If you are a subcontractor, this probably sounds familiar to you. Another oldie, but goody: “We do not allow changes to our boiler plate.” I consider both to be opening statements to negotiations.

As a general contractor you face similar situations. The competition on the top is fierce. And owners don’t miss a chance to alleviate their risks. Lately, design-build contracts are used to put responsibility for the architect, chosen by the owner, on the general contractor. And subcontractors, who are the essence of every project, who bring expertise, who do most of the work, and who basically finance the whole building project, are expected to assume all the risks as well.

If you, as the subcontractor, insist on getting the terms changed, you will find that most general contractors are willing to talk. General contractors will agree to negotiate for very good reasons:
·         They used your number to prepare their own bid for the owner,
·         They selected you, because you were either the lowest bidder or had the most solid and comprehensive estimate,
·         You have a good reputation in the industry and most likely are financially strong.

The last thing any project needs is a contractor going broke in the middle of it. Not negotiating with you means that the general contractor must now hire the second-best choice. That second choice subcontractor’s bid might have expired, their price might have gone up.  Plus, the owner may not approve a substitute.  It is a lot more headache for the general contractor to be rigid than to sit down with his top choice and negotiate.

Incidentally, the same is true for the general contractor. The owner will agree to negotiate for all the same reasons:
·         You have the best number
·         You have the best reputation
·         You are financially solid
·         You have most experience with the kind of project the owner wants you to build.

I remember meeting with a general contractor’s team in which their opening was “nobody else had a problem with our contract; you are the only one.” A half hour into the meeting, the main negotiator turned to his associate and announced “on this change, let’s use the same wording we did with that other sub.”  Aha! Nobody else asked for changes, right?

Sometimes reading a contract can be frustrating; for example, when allowances for deductions are listed within the billing requirements.  Who would expect them there?  Or when you are asked to indemnify the owner or the general contractor for their “whole omission and/or fault.” Personally, I love to ferret out the little and the big pitfalls that can cost a contractor a lot of money. If you look at it that way, it might become fun for you, too. Of course, these documents are prepared by lawyers and it does not mean that the person presenting them is not a good and decent customer. However, even the best customers get off the straight and narrow when they themselves risk losing money. For that reason, protections written into the contract are immensely important.

The best advice for a good outcome of any negotiation is to listen. Listen most of the time and once you hear all the reasons that your customer insists on a certain clause, offer a solution that works for both sides, changes the wording and spreads the risk evenly. It is also important to put not only the absolute deal breakers on the table. Be very detailed and mark absolutely everything you don’t like. That way, your negotiation ends with mutual wins and losses. Customers always need to know that you have their best interest in mind, but that you also need to have some basic protections for yourself in place. And in the end, once you have negotiated your contract, you have earned the customer’s respect.

In summary, I want to encourage everybody to negotiate, negotiate, and negotiate. There is a saying in the construction industry that there will always be jobs that lose money.  It does not have to be that way! With the inclusion of agreed-upon terms that will protect you, before the project even begins, you will be more likely to walk away with profit once it’s completed.