How to Hire the Right Contractor for Your Renovation
Hiring a contractor for your remodeling project
For many, the thought of updating or remodeling can be offset quickly with the process of hiring a contractor to do the job. We've all heard the horror stories of what can happen. Years ago, it happened to me too.
I took a loan against my 401k for my first house renovation. I was excited to have my kitchen remodeled. Back then, granite was the go-to kitchen countertop material. I painstakingly visited countless granite showrooms in search of just the right style. I put a lot of effort into the type of granite I wanted and less effort into who'd be installing it. I met with a contractor that seemed to be able to answer, at the time, my questions. I am sure I came across like a real novice, and he preyed on my inexperience. I handed him a check for $3000, which was more than half the price of the granite. I picked out the material. He'd purchase, deliver, fabrication, and install the material. In the area I was living at the time, granite slabs were sold only to fabricators, not individuals. Even if I could have purchased myself, I would have had no way to get it to my house. The contractor (if you can call him that), never even picked it my countertop. He took my money and disappeared without a trace. Regrettably, it happens all the time, and there's not a lot of recourse once it has happened. By the time you realize you've been "had," they're long gone! As a single mother, that $3000 hit was painful. So much so that I couldn't swing it again and never got my kitchen countertop updated.
I've learned a lot since that time. Not only am I fully entrenched in the remodeling business on a day-to-day basis, I see the other side of jobs, from a design/contractor's point of view. I see an abundance of shotty work all the time. Work that would never have passed an inspection if one was required. A lot of contractors I have met through the years seem to have one common goal in mind: They seem to hurry to get the job done so they can move on to the next, and attention to detail is not the concern. The "hurry to get it done approach" often means corners have been cut, and the work may suffer. On the surface, what you see many look good, it's the work under the hood, all the labor, and work you don't see, daily, that can trip you up down the road.
We recently completed a master bath and guest bath project. The bathroom was a double whammy in terms of low quality work. When the house was built in the late 1970's, the "new build" requirements were different than they are today. I would have argued that we are far more lax with requirements today, but when I see such terrible craftsmanship on a project that dates back to the '70s, it makes me wonder. We had to get behind the guest bath wall to install cabinets in the bar area. Once the wall was opened up, it was clear that the original builder didn't take the time, nor did the city catch this at the time of inspection, the plumbing and drain lines for the tub didn't line up. They were about an inch off. Not something I wanted to have to deal with since it was not something that I expected to see or budgeted into my bid.
The second whammy came when a flipped bought the house before my client purchased it from him. Somewhere along the line, the house was inhabited by a less than delightful group, and ultimately the home was foreclosed. A flipper picked the house up pretty cheap. Based on the quality of work, it seemed the intent with this flipper, and the mentality of most (is my personal belief) is to spend as little as possible, make it look as sell-able as possible, maximize the profit, and get out as fast as you can. I get it; it's business unless you are a contractor that cares about the people and families moving into these homes. I can't imagine selling a house to someone knowing that what they can't see, and possibly some of what they can, is done very poorly.
In this case, the flipper did make some cosmetic updates to the bathrooms; new tile, new floors, etc. Every corner that could be cut was cut. They sold a mess of a bill of goods to my customer. This customer decided to hire Redoux to update pretty much their entire house. At the time of our demo, it was clear just how poor the work/labor quality was, really feeling for this homeowner. It's just not an isolated incident. It seems to be more the norm. Depending on where you live, the requirements for contractors to be able to do work legally vary. In a state like California, risking being caught by not having the licensing and paper trail that California requires could mean jail time for an offender. In other states, there is zero requirement for someone to sling a hammer and tear down your wall. Knowing your specific jurisdictional contractor requirements is a great place to start.
How can you safeguard yourself when you're ready to start the process of hiring a contractor? There are a few obvious things you can do, which seem simple, but so many times, homeowners don't take the necessary time to protect themselves. Here are a few things that are free (or almost free), that you may want to consider before you even make a call or send that initial email, consider doing the following:
Find out what your state requires its' contractors to do to be able to perform renovations. Once you know what your state requires of their legal contractors, next step, check with the Secretary of State. See if they are a real business. See if they are registered and in good standing. In most states, you're able to request a copy of their current SOS standing. Often this is free, or you may have to pay a small fee. That said, you should have a conversation with your contractor about their licensing if required in your state.
The easiest thing you can do is check out their online reputation. That's not something easily fabricated. Customers are honest when they write reviews. Read all of them. Find out what people loved and what they didn't. Address any concerns you have with prospective contractors, asking him to explain any bad press you may have found about them or their company.
Check contractors website
Another free thing you can do is look at their website, assuming they have one. Not all contractors are good with computers, or they work out of their homes and don't have staff to maintain their online visibility. Not having a website does not mean they are not an excellent contractor; it just means you should keep digging.
Do they have a storefront or something that grounds them to the community? If they do, that's helpful, if they don't keep digging.
Are they a member of the BBB. There's a group of people that take BBB data very seriously. While I have different feelings about how the BBB works from both the business and consumer side of things, I do think the BBB is a valuable resource for those that rely on it.
Once you have assembled a few contractors you'd like to talk with, start with a well-composed email. You should be able to get to their contact information through their website or try Googling them and see if you can get their email address. If not, call and ask for one. If they don't have email, and you're still interested in this contractor, you will want to get everything in writing on paper instead of email. Some of the good ole' boys in certain areas don't believe in ANY technology, but they are great at what they do. Sadly, they're hurting their business by not being easily accessible to people that may want to hire them.
A good rule of thumb is not to attempt to ask a contractor to quote a remodeling project over the phone or email sight unseen. If they are a good contractor, there's no way they'd feel comfortable quoting your job without first seeing it. Smaller tasks like installing 25' of backsplash, yes, full bathroom remodel, no way. We'd never do that. Too risky. Once you've got two or three contractors lined up to meet with, make sure you cover the same project details with all three. As you meet with contractors, make sure the scope of the project is the same for all bidding. You can always add more to the scope of work, but you want to compare apples to apples, and what's possible when everyone is on even footing.
Pay attention to what the contractor does. Do they take pictures, take the time to measure, did they ask you questions about your project? Did the contractor answer your questions? Did they ask you about your budget, did they bring samples, or will you be meeting with their design team? These are all essential factors to think about for your project. Attention to deal is necessary, and are they listening to your needs and taking your wish list into account.
Some homeowners don't feel comfortable giving any budget at the initial meeting, feeling like the contractor may try to sell to the number. I think nothing could be less accurate. If I know a customer has a $3000 budget for a master bath remodeling project, I am going to be able to speak to the things I can do, and stay away from what won't be possible to stay within the budget number, if it's even possible at all.
Woman reviewing remodeling proposal
Sometimes homeowners have no idea what things will cost, and they are blown away by the estimates, typically on the "higher than expected side." I know that when I meet with a client, and I get a budget range, I will show the client materials that will keep them inside their budget. Labor is always a factor, and a contractor should charge for his work consistently. We'd never sell to a budget. As an example, I met with a homeowner recently. They just moved into a new home, but they're not happy with the builder-grade finishes and want to start over in the kitchen and bathrooms. We talked for a while. I happened to get her mood board before I met with her, so I had a good idea of what she wanted. Material samples in hand when I arrived, the house was in an exclusive area, and the house itself was gorgeous. She was a quality-driven buyer, no doubt, and that was evident by the cars in front and the furnishings throughout the house. With that said, it would have been effortless for me to assume she had all the money in the world, "sky's the limit" approach, and try to charge more. Nope. Through my conversation with her, I listened and learned of her "hot buttons," what was essential to accomplish when the renovation was complete. When we got around to the budget conversation, she provided a much higher number than I expected, which rarely happens. As I worked on her design from the showroom, choosing materials that matched her mood board, I was able to come in several thousand less than she expected. Don't be afraid to talk openly with your contractor about the budget. A good contractor is going to give you what you want, a fair price for all parties. If multiple contractors are lobbying for your business, competition alone will play in your favor.
If you don't want to provide an initial budget number, ask each of the contractors to shoot you a preliminary scope of work (as they understand the project) and a preliminary budget via email. Once you have their budget number, compare that with the handful of contractors that looked at the project. Make sure all the contractors included the same work scope, going back to the paragraph above about keeping the scope the same, similar materials, and lead time to start the project and the time estimated to complete the project in terms of days/weeks.
Project scope plans
Once you have all the data, you can then start to dial down on the budget, and if you want to move forward with all aspects of the project, add things, or remove items from the list. If a homeowner is fair and realistic with their budget, there are usually materials that can work within a budget. Consider that tight budgets may not get everything on their list.
The more dialog you have with the contractor, the more transparent the project outcome will be. Do not allow work to start or provide payment until you're sure you and the contractor are on the same page. Did you allow for a contingency? Do you have contingency money available in the event a surprise shows up, and they often do show up when you least expect it? The biggest culprits of surprise are mold, water damage, and insect damages. You have to assume your project will not go off without a surprise or two if you're lucky. Some homeowners experience shock with the first sling of a hammer.
Hiring a quality contractor is something, that with the right tools and time investment, can be done relatively effortlessly. Don't hand anyone a $3000 check at the first meeting as I did.