Assessing the responsibility for hardwood floors affected by moisture is sometimes difficult because of the complexity of contributing causes, and because the source of the moisture is seldom obvious. It is often convenient for all parties to point the finger of responsibility at the flooring contractor, the distributor or the manufacturer of the flooring.
In some cases, of course, the flooring itself is responsible, but most of the shrinkage and swelling problems with wood floors involve jobsite moisture conditions. These conditions cannot be controlled by flooring manufacturers, nor in many instances by sub-contractors responsible for installing the wood floor, unless interior humidity is maintained at proper levels.
Testing and documenting of the flooring, subfloor, ambient temperature, and relative humidity is crucial for flooring contractors. What many contractors don’t realize is that complaints may come two or three years after installation. Having the jobsite information at the time of installation documented and readily accessible will go a long way in clearing the contractor of any wrongdoing. Simply stating that the jobsite was in good shape at the time of installation does not provide enough specifics if an inspection is needed. An installer is only responsible for the jobsite conditions for the time that they are at the jobsite installing.
By using responsible practices for the installation, and by testing and documenting the various moisture contents at the site, the flooring contractor is taking the necessary steps toward a successful installation. Unfortunately, when builders’ schedules place the flooring installer in a situation where they are being forced to install in unfavorable conditions, everyone pays the price and the homeowner is often left with what is perceived to be faulty flooring.
It is the business of each of the parties to know and control those areas of responsibility in his or her domain, within reason. But some good insurance against getting a callback a few months after the installation is customer education. Customer education about proper maintenance procedures and normal expectations for their wood flooring is part of the installation. The owner should be aware of the installer’s limits of liability. The owner should also know how wood reacts to changing temperature and humidity conditions and what constitutes acceptable cracks between boards that will disappear over time.
The NWFA Water and Wood technical publication provides a two-page brief that the contractor can leave with the customer as part of his or her education. But if complaints occur down the road, there are some common-sense guidelines on how to handle them like a professional.
How to handle an upset customer:
- Listen. Except for the few “professional complainers” who use complaints to avoid contractual obligations, most homeowners just need to vent their frustration — and you need to know the problem. So listen all the way through the homeowner’s remarks, even if they become offensive. Typically once he or she has had a chance to state their case, they will probably be much easier to deal with.
- Be sympathetic. Never take a complaint personally. You can express your concern without taking sides, even if you must later dispute much of the owner’s view of the problem. You can’t really blame the owner for wanting the problem fixed.
- Be objective. Do not allow emotions or prior knowledge to get in the way of handling facts as facts. There is no benefit to arguing. Simply collect all the facts. By the same token, keep in mind that a few boards do not always constitute a legitimate complaint.
- Log all information, from the first contact through a full inspection. Initially, get all pertinent data such as owner’s name, address and phone, plus the same information on the builder, retailer or contractor. Note what the product is, the brand, when it was purchased, the quantity, when it was installed and when it was finished. Get a full description of the problem at the outset.
- Report the complaint to your supplier if you feel the responsibility may lie there, or if you need some special assistance. Report progress to the homeowner or builder — in writing with a copy for yourself — particularly if progress toward resolution is delayed.
- Inspect the floor as soon as possible. Delays can create a second complaint, and do little for your credibility. Do not make a snap judgment of the problem, and above all, do not report your findings on the spot to the homeowner or builder, or any other interested party. Complete the full inspection procedure, and then assemble your facts for full analysis before deciding the reason for the complaint. Then report your findings in writing. What you say in conversation can be misinterpreted. What is written doesn’t change, and doesn’t invite argument before you are finished having your say.
The NWFA has a complaint/checklist form available to members that can be used for jobsite inspections and complaint resolution. Call 1.800.422.4556 or visit NWFA.org for more information.
Kjell Nymark is president at Precision Hardwood Floor Services, Inc.; an NWFACP-certified Installer, Sand & Finisher and Inspector; and NWFA Regional Instructor. He can be reached at email@example.com.