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Most of the hundreds of letters I get every week contain a sentence something like: "The three-month renovation that our contractor promised is now in it's second year." Or, "We thought we would be living in our brand new addition by now, but the house is still a construction zone."

Homeowners are constantly telling me about projects that start well and then, slowly and painfully, fall further and further behind. When that happens, it's hard to get a job back on track. Homeowners get frustrated, contractors lose interest, and everyone starts blaming everyone else. But the situation can be turned around -- you just have to take steps early on.

The first thing is to get a written schedule that you can review often. You need to check in daily at your job site and go over the schedule. Ask specific questions: "The schedule says the roofing will be done on Monday, but the framing is not finished. How will that happen?" Or, "You said electrical inspection will happen on Monday, but the schedule says Monday is the second day of drywall."

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Sometimes there are good reasons for delays, but trust your instincts -- if you get a feeling something's wrong, you're probably right.

The next step is to diagnose the problem. What's causing the delay? There are lots of possible reasons, but I'll give you the three that cover 90 per cent of typical renovation jobs:

There have been changes made to the original plan. Sometimes a contractor will use that to justify a string of delays. That's unacceptable. Changes sometimes need to be made, but when they are, you should receive a revised schedule along with your revised billing. In fact, your contract should make it clear that both you and your contractor have to sign off on a "change-work" order.

The finish and materials choices haven't been made. There are dozens of choices a homeowner has to make in a renovation -- paint colours, bathroom fixtures, tile, carpet, windows and door styles -- but it is the contractor's responsibility to inform you in time when such choices need to be made. If you can't make a decision at the right time, it will lead to delays.

The subtrades have caused the delays. Renovators have subtrades for things such as electrical, plumbing and heating and drywall work. Some use them for everything and so are very vulnerable to subtrade delays. The best renovators have trades people on staff, or excellent contacts with a core group of talented subtrades, which gives them some control over scheduling.

So now what do you do? If changes to the plan are the cause, there's no excuse once a change is accounted for. Hold your contractor to account for the schedule.

If being late in making choices on finishes is the culprit, it's time for the contractor to give you a complete list of the remaining decisions to be made and tell you exactly how he is going to help you make them.

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And delays related to the subtrades? It may seem like a good reason for a delay, but think of it this way: The subtrades are working somewhere -- why not on your job?

The No. 1 tool for getting your job back on track is withholding money. You have to be thoughtful and fair when you take this action, but without the willingness to do it, you won't be able to fix a scheduling problem. (Of course, you should have a contract that ties payment to project milestones in the first place.)

This means not advancing money to your contractor when he asks for it. You're not his bank; you're not equipped to evaluate his financial circumstances. If he says money in advance of the schedule you originally agreed to will get the job back on schedule, he's dead wrong. Exactly the opposite will occur. Think about it: Once you give it to him, he has the money. Why does he need to rush your job? He's better off working on other delayed jobs where the customer won't pay him a nickel until he catches up.

A second important tool is sending the contractor packing. It's hard medicine, but if you are not prepared to do it, you are virtually powerless to pull a job back on track.

And the contractor has to know that you are willing to do it right from the beginning. The best way to indicate that you mean business is to write an exit clause into your contract, listing the conditions that will give you the right to terminate it without any claim by the contractor.

No contractor who still has money in a job will want to get kicked off a site. And, though he may not like you for wielding that threat, he'll come through for you, and your job will get back on track.

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Mike Holmes is the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV.

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