Tips for Maintaining Control of the Punch List


“Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know. Oh no. Oh no”

An early song by Keith and Mick – this may remind us of the feeling we sometimes get when faced with finishing up a project. Is it the last list of to-do items we’re going to see from our customer? Or is there more to come?
The ‘punch list’ – a grouping of tasks and problems that need to be addressed before final project sign-off – this is the way the industry copes with getting the work finally completed and signed off.
The end of the job can often be a very challenging time for clients – and for design professionals and builders, too. There have often been months – sometimes years – of preparation, planning, design, permitting and building to get to the end of the process, and the strong finish is what will stick in everyone’s mind. With well-executed procedures, there are a few ways all parties can prevent the punch list from becoming a tiresome and unending problem for all parties.

Start out with the end in mind – by addressing the punch list before you start the work – in the construction contract.
Who specifically will generate the final list of to-do items? Will it be the owner, the design professional or the builder? A combination of all three parties can be good, and if that’s the way you all agree in the contract document, it’s a firm baseline for everyone. You should specify a written list, too, not just relying on a verbal one.
It’s good to agree that it will be one single list, rather than several – and you may want to agree that it be written up as part of a ‘walk-through’ on the project, room by room. When that time comes, set a meeting and have the three parties do it together, if possible.
The construction contract should probably have the final payment schedule be tied to punch list completion, that way there’s a financial incentive for the builder to actually finish the job. But don’t make it more than 2% or so – it’s very rare that the finish-up is worth anything more than that amount.

The most effective punch lists are actually not the ones that come at the end of the job, but the lists that get made as the work proceeds, the ones that are ongoing. These lists consist of items that get done before the owner notices or has to bring them up as an issue. Maybe there’s a sheetrock nail dimple visible through the drywall mud, for example: Bring it to the subcontractor’s attention early on, preferably before painting happens. That way it’ll never make it to the final punch list. Try to get the carpenter and foreman to be always taking care of outstanding problems rather than letting them pile up.
Most good builders will develop a room-by-room list of unfinished items: paint dings and scratches, sheetrock repairs, finish carpentry fixes, electrical trim-out, whatever it is. And toward the end of the work, it’s good to have that list be blue-taped up on the wall in each room so the items can be checked off as they get completed. The subs get to see them as well, so they’re part of the finishing-up process.
If you’re the project designer and you see something that doesn’t really work well, bring it up with the builder before you loop the client into the issue. Maybe the tile mosaic around the master bath shower isn’t coming out as nicely as you’d hoped; take the builder on one side and see if there’s a solution before it becomes part of a sub-standard finished product that everyone argues about.
The whole idea of collaborating is key to a project’s success – and avoiding a lengthy punch list is the best way to avoid a messy ending. The relationship between designer and builder, where you figure things out together, is where the rubber meets the road. After all, there are so many design details that don’t actually get drawn up. How will the 6″-high painted baseboard in the dining area meet the 4″ cherry wood cabinet kickface in the kitchen area? Is there enough clearance to get the custom shades into the jamb space of the new windows in the family room? The last thing you want is to see these overlooked details end up on a final punch list – especially details that don’t actually work.
Collaborating well also means not taking the other parties and ‘throwing them under the bus’ if something looks like it’s going wrong. And, perhaps, more importantly, the builder has to protect the designer’s credibility with the client, at least if that builder wants any more work from the designer! If the plumbing fixture doesn’t fit at the shallow vanity top, don’t go pointing the finger. Figure out a solution and move forward. Unexpected things are guaranteed to happen on all jobs, so you might as well just get used to it: Deal with the situation, resolve it and make sure that it’s taken care of and doesn’t become a thorny problem at the end of the project. The last thing the client wants to do is play referee between builder and designer.

Some builders have separate crews to finish out projects – a new set of eyes on the work. The workers who’ve been on the job for three months have a very different view of the work compared to someone who arrives fresh on Monday. The people who’ve been there from the start might walk right by the loose piece of door casing at the bedroom door; they don’t really see it, it’s been that way for weeks. The new arrival will just fix it quickly and move on.
Some of these crews are people who do maintenance work, at least with the larger remodeling companies. These folks are used to fixing things and, for them, the punch list is no big deal – they’re able to do touch-up painting, drywall repair, basic plumbing and electrical work. It might be time for a change of face and motivation on the job, and the work will probably get completed much faster.
Another key part of finishing well is making sure that the punch list is both generated and completed prior to move in. That punch list has a magical way of growing longer after the client takes possession with their kids, dogs and friends. This is when photographs of the job can really help – and it’s easy to do with smart phones. Did those sink cabinet doors really have all those scratches on them when the job was turned over to the client?
An ongoing maintenance agreement can be a big help after you’re done with a project: The builder comes in once a year (or more often if needed), and checks on various items – air filters on the heating system, gutters, plumbing fixtures, appliances and so on. That way, any items that may be getting beyond normal wear and tear can be addressed – and the builder can get paid for fixing subsequent damage.
However the punch list gets dealt with, it’s often the ending of the work that sticks in people’s mind – how those last few niggling items get finished up. Conducting a ‘close-out’ meeting with client, designer and builder all present a great chance to make sure everything’s done to the customer’s satisfaction. It also provides an opportunity to address any issues, to let the customer ‘vent’, and to take care of any final final final items – then move on to the next project!
Steve has been in the building business for over 30 years. In 1982 he founded Mueller Nicholls, now a 50-person company based in Oakland, CA. In addition to performing remodeling and construction work, Steve’s firm operates a large cabinet shop, building work for their own projects and for other contractors. Married with two grown daughters, Steve enjoys cycling, skiing and being outdoors. He is a frequent speaker on building industry topics.

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