Players argue the time is ripe for the renovation industry to raise its standards.
SOME people say finding a good renovation contractor can be as difficult as striking the lottery. Or in some cases, there is a better chance of winning the lottery than being able to find an honest and competent contractor.
A survey of consumer tribunals reveal that disputes with contractors is rather common.
For example, New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs handles thousands of such inquiries and complaints each year – and this refers only to licensed home improvement contractors.
According to the National Consumer Complaints Centre, which is affiliated with the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations, it received 192 complaints on construction or renovation in 2015, which underscores the gravity of the problem.
Not surprisingly, even those in the renovation industry here find it hard to defend their counterparts.
“When it comes to the list of professions that the public considers most untrustworthy, I am sure that renovation contractors will come up at the top of the list,” said Desmond Chew, 42, construction manager for My Living Construction & Renovation Sdn Bhd.
Set up five years ago, My Living is a small outfit based in Kajang, Selangor that handles more than three dozen renovation jobs all over Klang Valley at any given time.
Billing itself as a one-stop renovation (including interior decoration) services setup, My Living wants to change the way the renovation business is conducted in the country.
For Chew, a systematic way to teach the nitty gritty of the industry in a way that resembles Technical Vocational Education and Training will lead to a generation professional contractors.
“We want to move away from the common scenario where the contractor strolls in to give a lump sum quotation, all the while wearing shorts, and probably with cigarette in hand,” said Chew, who feels strongly that it is time the industry raised its standards so that the renovation contracting business could be seen as a respectable one.
In the case of Malaysia, it is starting at a very low base. Firstly, there is no requirement that a houseowner must hire a contractor affiliated with the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) or any professional body to renovate his house.
“Sometimes, it can be based on introductions or referrals from friends, acquaintances or relatives. But there is no guarantee of competency,” said Chew, who has been called by dissatisfied customers to take care of the mess left behind when the original contractor absconds, or just gives up on the job due to various reasons, such as cash flow problems.
There are easily more than 10,000 renovation contractors in Klang Valley alone. The majority enter the business through the “school of hard knocks” that involves a lot of trial-and-error, or by just watching how others do it (correctly or otherwise).
According to the Master Builders Association Malaysia (MBAM), most renovation contractors are not MBAM members. “These so-called renovation contractors may not even be registered with CIDB. Quite often, most of these contractors may offer a lower price than the registered ones.
“However, the work they carry out are mostly based on their own understanding and experience, which sometimes may not be in accordance with industry standards, possibly leading to quality, safety and timeline issues,” it said in a statement.
Chew also cut his teeth in the industry the same way. His foray into the construction industry began when he worked as a salesperson for a renovation company.
“My boss just made me wait at newly completed housing projects and pass out my name cards.
“I was not given any training. Every time the client asked me something, I had to call my boss to help me out.
“There is really no way to systematically learn the contracting or renovation business, partly also because bosses are reluctant to teach them as they are afraid it may give birth to yet another competitor.
“But it is exactly this kind of thinking that restricts the industry from growing, and for contractors to elevate themselves in knowledge and professionalism,” said Chew.
After much thought, he and his business partner decided that My Living will offer a course that teaches people how to be a competent and credible renovation contractor.
Touted as the only kind in existence here, with the curriculum designed by him and his partner, Chew said the first class that starts next month will not have more than a dozen students.
“I will make my own sales personnel attend it first so that they can be educated on what the business is all about.
“There is also no point in having 30 students as they cannot get the kind of individual attention,” he said of his programme that will see attendees obtain a certificate from a private institution as an incentive.
The three-month long course is priced at RM3,800, with lessons twice a week.
Seven modules will be covered, beginning with basic renovation skill knowledge.
The first would be a primer on structural integrity of the building.
“Students will learn the difference between structural and non-structural walls – the former cannot be hacked or removed without compromising the integrity of the building, surface preparation for painting or wall coverings, and so on,” said Chew.
The second module deals with the location and site analysis, the third has to do with the art and science of taking measurements of the site, existing buildings, and everything else inside them, such as kitchen cabinets and other built-ins.
The fourth module deals with construction materials, the fifth with budgeting and costing, while the sixth is about project management knowledge.
The final module will entail visits to construction sites ranging from residential to commercial projects.
The bottom line for customers is that a properly trained renovator will be able to give a detailed quotation (which is Chew’s standard practice) listing down the price of materials and labour.
The programme will be taught in Mandarin, with a mix of Chinese dialects, and maybe some English terms thrown in when technical terms are mentioned.
“What we teach is business and marketing insight on how to navigate this industry. You still need to build your own experience and track record. It is not so simple,” said Chew as a word of caution on those who expect to become renovation bosses overnight after following the programme.
He also insists that all his salespersons continue to visit construction sites, even after sealing the deal with clients. “We want them to learn the entire process, such as how wiring is done and so on.”
Surprisingly, graduating with a diploma in architecture or interior design also does not necessarily mean someone is good enough to be a site supervisor right way.
“I had previously hired many designers who cannot do the job of closing sales or being site supervisors. “They are just unable to cope in the real world. Some could only draw plans or illustrations, but most don’t even know anything about the actual construction process. Therefore, our emphasis in the class is pushing for action learning,” said Chew.
Thankfully, he is not the only one teaching construction out there.
For example, the CIDB has a Building Construction and Renovation Skill Certification course that is taught mainly in Malay, and is open only to contractors registered with it.
There are also some specific skills course such as plumbing or wiring offered by CIDB through Akademi Binaan Negara (National Construction Academy) in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian tile manufacturer Feruni Ceramiche Sdn Bhd is also another player who wants to raise standards, with its attention focused on the art of tiling through the setting up the Feruni Tiling Academy in Petaling Jaya last year.
The programme is a collaboration between Feruni and CIDB Holdings Sdn Bhd through Akademi Binaan Malaysia, and students who successfully complete the course will receive certifications endorsed by both CIDB and Feruni.
According to Feruni, the move was prompted by the need to bring change to the industry by producing professional tilers with “international-standard” workmanship.
Elsewhere, renovation contractors have recognised the value of self-regulation by setting up professional associations. For example, Singapore has the Renovation and Decoration Advisory Centre, essentially a registry of accredited renovation contractors that hopes to raise overall standards in the industry.
In the United States, there is the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), which acts as the medium for business development and advocacy. NARI connects homeowners with its members and provides pointers so that consumers have a positive remodeling experience.
In a refreshing twist, Chew is not at all worried about increased competition from teaching what some people here consider to be trade secrets.
“Competition is a fact of life. Who am I to say that others can’t do it better than me? Perhaps I am not as good as I think I am? So, I am ready for more competition should my students eventually set up their own companies. No one knows everything, nor is anyone able to do everything, so there is definitely room for collaboration,” said Chew, who describes the current renovation market as a “Red Ocean”.
“There is a lot of price cutting, with the one quoting the lowest price standing a high chance of winning.
“We would like to transform the industry so that we can be respected like professionals.
“Certification and continuous education are the way to go. We can see that trend in the insurance, wealth management, and real estate industries. It should be the same for renovation, and with this, we hope to attract the right talent.”
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