How to Find the Right Contractor
Finding a trust-worthy, skillful and responsive contractor to make your dream renovation reality can be a daunting task. You may need wine and a marriage counselor.
What follows is our seasoned advice on the proper way to go about it -- with some etiquette tips, because contractors are people too. People who need to pay bills, put food on their table (buy their own wine and marriage counseling). Just like you.
Step 0 [before you even get to Step 1]: Don't call a contractor without a good comprehensive plan and general budget for your renovation. (And for that, call US, of course!) Contractors can't tell you much if you don't know what you want to do, and it will be a waste of their time and yours to talk to them prematurely.
Step 1: Once you have a plan, ask friends, your interior designer, and your architect for names of contractors they know and trust. If you are going it on your own, read reviews on Houzz, Google, and Facebook. (Hey! Why are you going it on your own? We bet you could use an interior designer. Read here.)
Step 2: Call contractors and schedule initial on-site interviews. Ask if there are fees for the initial consult. Don't be put off if there are. A large part of what contractors, like designers, sell is their time. Good for them (and a good sign for you) if they are busy enough to charge for it.
Step 3: Interview 2-3 people. Get a feel for who you want in your house, who you communicate with best, who loves your space and your dog and your kids. This person and his/her team is going to be as close as an exchange student living under your roof: you want to feel very comfortable with them. Renovating can be an emotional experience.
Here are some important questions to ask your contractor during the initial meeting. (And remember, the contractor will be asking YOU lots of questions in turn; s/he needs to get to know you during this meeting too.)
- What is your availability?
- Are you insured? Does your insurance cover the entire project?
- What is your guarantee? Is it 1 year?
- What will be the pace of the project once it gets underway?
- How does your bidding and estimating process work? Do you provide competitive bids? (That means a bid up front before being hired, so that you may compare it with other bids.) Some very good contractors are in high enough demand that they do not bid competitively: they don't have the time for it, and often claim that they figure costs so thoroughly that their bids come back high simply because they are more accurate than their competition.
- Are your bids and contracts flat rate or a variation of cost-plus? Flat rate usually turns out in the contractor's favor, but you trade money savings for surety. Cost-plus is more variable, insofar as it is based on a mark-up of the materials you purchase; you'll have a much firmer sense of cost for a cost-plus contract if you've chosen all your materials up front.
- What is your batting average for bids - i.e., How often are you accurate? How often are you within 10%? How often are you under? (What? Is UNDER BUDGET possible? You don't know if you don't ask!)
- What are the biggest causes for a project going over (or under) budget?
- How and when will you let us know if we have gone over the bid estimate?
- Are you a problem solver? (Answer with examples please.)
- Will you take care of all permits? Are you up to speed on building codes for the area?
- How do you work with designers/architects?
- How will you communicate with us? Do you email/text/call?
- How do you communicate with your laborers and subcontractors?
- What time of day does work normally begin and end?
- Will you be working on Saturdays?
- Will your workers be here every day? If not, how and when will you let me know the days they will be here?
- Do you let your workers and subcontractors smoke on the job site?
- How do we commit/hire you? Do you have a contract?
- How does payment work?
- Are there discounts if we pay a certain way?
- What are your mark ups? (Especially ask about markup on cabinetry.)
- Can we purchase our own materials (plumbing fixtures, appliances, flooring, etc.)? Or do we have to purchase all materials through you?
- Will you be on site or a project manager? Who is the project manager? What's his/her experience? Do I get to pick him/her? Can you supply me with references of your clients who have had him/her as a project manager in the past?
- Who are your sub contractors, or are your plumber/electrician/HVAC/etc part of your firm?
- May I use my own plumber/electrician/etc.?
Step 4: Ask for a bid on the project. Etiquette tip: Pay for the time a contractor spends on the bid if you don't hire them. You can agree in advance on the amount. It's not only fair, but it will prevent hard feelings by either party if you decide to go with someone else.
Step 5: If bid(s) come back higher than expected (we all shoot for the moon, we get it), work with your contractor to value engineer the bid. Your contractor is on your team, just like your designer. He/she should want to make it work for you.
Step 6: Hold onto your hat and get the project started!
Read more on value engineering here.
For a printable copy of the above list of questions, click here.