What is a Construction Punch List, and Why Do You Need To Use One?
If you’re a residential or general contractor who is struggling with customer satisfaction or keeping your referral count high, you might be underutilizing punch lists or using them incorrectly.
Punch lists are a crucial part of residential construction and the construction industry in general, so it’s crucial to devote time to understanding what they’re really used for and why they’re important to the overall success of every single construction project you start and, additionally, the success of your business.
We talked to Aaron Dumas , a construction professional with over 20 years of experience, to get his advice about what makes a good punch list as well as what execution pitfalls you might run into.
Aaron Dumas, Construction professional
What is a construction punch list?
Punch lists are an invaluable customer success tool that can lead to greater customer satisfaction which, in the end, leads to more referrals and less negative reviews or word of mouth. It is a list of tasks either you, as the project owner, or your client compiles near the end of a construction project and typically includes all of the discrepancies that are still outstanding before the contract can be completed.
Dumas uses punch lists to ensure that his clients are “signing off and saying they are 100% happy with the construction project.” They’re the last chance for your client to tell you everything looks good or bring up a few items that need to be fixed.
Either you or your customer can create the punch list, but, as the project owner, it’s important to involve your client in some regard because their expectations might be different than yours. And when expectations aren’t clearly articulated and expressed, that’s when you get negative reviews and experiences.
It might be helpful to provide a punch list template to your customer so that they have a starting point and know what types of items to include.
How software is involved in punch lists
Your punch list doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy, though many large construction project management software options do have punch list functionality and provide a built-in punch list template if you want to take your punch lists to the next level.
If you’re on the smaller side and aren’t handling a lot of projects all at once, you might not need the added project management benefits that come along with software.
Smaller construction firms without many projects going all at once might be able to keep physical punch lists, use a physical punch list template, or use spreadsheets to keep track of who is in charge of fixing what discrepancy for the construction project.
But ultimately, it comes down to volume. If you’re juggling multiple projects with several different subcontractors all at the same time and are feeling overwhelmed or seeing certain things fall through the cracks, you might want to consider spending for the added efficiency and project management benefits that come with software.
Those features typically mean having an accurate, up-to-date list of work discrepancies for your construction team to keep track of. It can also assign punch list items to the people on your construction team who would be responsible for them as well as provide them details for what needs to be fixed, important due dates, and tracking to ensure the project stays on deadline.
What information does a construction punch list include?
Punch list items can include any incorrect, missing, or subpar work completed by a general contractor or subcontractor that must be rectified before the end of the contract. It can include almost anything that a client is not completely satisfied with when it comes to the project.
Dumas says, “Whether it’s a piece of crooked tile or even that a contractor forgot a task or two or didn’t clean up well enough, the punch list is where they get to let us know what they still want completed.”
It’s also important to note that if your client is in charge of creating their own punch list, they might include punch list items that fall outside the scope of your contract, so it’s a good idea to level set and know exactly what you’re responsible for and what you aren’t.
Benefits of using a punch list
The benefits of using punch lists all boil down to ensuring that your customers are satisfied with the overall quality of the job you provided. You might be executing on a specific punch list item because you know it’s something you need to do, but without taking the time to understand exactly why they’re important, you might be missing out.
The benefits of understanding the punch list process to a project owner are threefold:
A punch list drastically improves customer service and satisfaction.
A punch list ensures that you aren’t having to repeat work as often which saves you time and money.
A punch list makes it more likely that you’ll get more referrals.
Punch lists improve customer service and satisfaction
Your clients are spending a lot of their money hiring you to complete their residential project. They have high expectations and expect a level of service professionalism, so it’s crucial that, by the time you’re finished with their construction project, they are left completely satisfied with what you have completed.
When you involve your customers in the completion of their project by providing them with some agency over it, they’re more likely to have a better experience. If a customer is unhappy with their project it’s almost always going to be because of some miscommunication or misunderstanding between you and them.
Punch lists ensure you aren’t repeating work
Dumas and his construction team communicate about the importance of punch lists early and often. His instructions to his team during the sales process and build process is to tell the customer to provide them with punch list items they encounter throughout the project.
They let their customer know what a punch list is, what it’s for, and why it’s a necessary part of the project. That way, they know that they have some control over the finished project and are more likely to begin spotting things while they are still a small, easily fixable punch list item instead of a larger problem that will waste a lot of time.
The goal of this early communication is to try to make sure that by the final stage of construction, there are only a task or two that needs to be finished instead of twelve.
Dumas says, “I think the benefits of knowing punch list items as early as possible will reduce rework and ultimately save money for the contractor.”
Punch lists make it more likely you’ll get referrals
If you’ve been a general contractor for long, you know that more than anything else, word of mouth and referrals are the lifeblood of your business. Without referrals, you run the risk of projects running dry, which is why customer satisfaction is so important to the success of any construction business—particularly residential construction.
In Dumas’ experience, referrals are the single most important way for a residential or general contractor of any size to maintain a consistent stream of projects, and the best way to get referrals is by ensuring that your client wants to talk about their project with every single person who comes over to their house.
Let’s say you do small outdoor renovations or landscaping projects. If you finish the project with a happy customer, they’re going to spread the word about you and your work to all their neighbors while they’re outside enjoying their new space.
If you do interior renovations, you better believe that your client is going to be holding some sort of party to celebrate their new renovation to show it off to their friends and family. Those conversations are all going to be centered around the work you did which will inevitably bring up whether or not they would recommend you.
A construction punch list isn’t the only way to ensure that you receive a referral, but it does ensure, when executed correctly, that, by the time the project is complete, you and your client will be on the same page about whether or not they are satisfied with the work.
Use your punch lists effectively
Dumas has some advice for making sure you and your team can execute on your punch lists more effectively:
“You have to train your team on how to properly present the punch list. Explain what a construction punch list is early, and encourage your customers to tell you about punch list items early and often. If they tell you early enough, your punch list will be extremely small. In my experience, that allows a construction project to be completed faster and leaves the customer on a positive note.”
Pitfalls to avoid when using punch lists
Conversely, if you’re just using punch lists because it’s something you know you need to do, you might be running into some of these common pitfalls. If you either fail to execute on a construction punch list or flat out don’t use one at all, you run the risk of negatively affecting your business.
Here are the two largest pitfalls that can come from using a punch list incorrectly:
You might have clients who abuse the punch list.
You run the potential risk of leaving a client unsatisfied with the job if expectations aren’t communicated properly.
Watch out for signs that a client is abusing the punch list
While developing and executing on a punch list process is a crucial step in the process of your project, it’s important to remember that it’s not a wishlist for your client.
Dumas will occasionally run into clients who view the punch list as a way to get him and his team to do some extra work that’s outside the scope of the project. That’s why, as the project owner, it’s important to set clear expectations about the scope of the project early on. Communicate with your client about what is expected of you as well as what they expect from the finished product.
The best way to ensure that your punch list isn’t being abused is to document as much as you can early on. It might seem like pretty standard advice, but before you ever begin on your project, record and document any areas where you and your team are going to be working. Find places where damage might already exist so that you can provide proof if they expect you to fix a random crack in a wall or a chipped piece of concrete that falls outside the scope of your contract.
Dumas also had some sage advice for a general contractor: “Some people are never going to be happy. The work could be perfectly level and straight right out of the box, and they're still going to have a problem with it.”
Whenever you run into a problem client, it’s important to remember that communication and documentation are key. The more information you have in writing and the more you document things as you find them, the less chance they will have to abuse the system.
Poor communication surrounding the punch list can leave a bad taste in a clients’ mouth
This can go hand-in-hand with a client abusing their punch list, but more often than not, a symptom that a client is dissatisfied with their project is a complete and total lack of communication at all.
One of the worst signs that a client is not happy is when they don’t submit any punch list items at all. Dumas has experienced this before and realized after the fact that his client didn’t submit a punch list item because the client was so unhappy with the work that, even though they had a task that still needed to be addressed, they would rather do it themselves than have his team continue the work.
“They're going to kill you online and in reviews without even giving you a chance to fix the problem, and it’s often because you didn’t do a good enough job of taking your customer’s temperature during the contract. It’s a horrible feeling. You can think that you've done a great job, and they think it's the worst ever.”
Setting expectations is important, but so is managing expectations. You have to set realistic goals for the project. Your timelines have to be accurate. You have to execute on your promises and shouldn’t present timelines that you know are going to be hard to keep. It’s always better to overestimate how much time it will take to complete a project than to underestimate because for every day you drag the project out, it will feel like three for your client.
That’s why Dumas stresses to his team that how they present themselves and the punch list to the customer is nearly as important as the punch list itself. When you properly explain and articulate what the punch list is for and why it’s important even before the project begins, you’re setting proper expectations for the project.
Properly executing your punch lists is crucial
As the project owner, producing and executing punch lists is crucial to your success because, when done correctly, they will ensure your customer is left feeling satisfied with the quality of the work. But if you fail to execute or meet expectations, you’d almost have been better off without completing one to begin with.
Once you have a handle on your punch lists, you might want to consider these other resources for improving your construction business:
Aaron Dumas, LinkedIn