The Real Way to Hire A Home Improvement Contractor


There’s a lot of articles about “How to hire a Contractor” on the Internet told by individuals who are the end consumers of the contractor’s services, or are writers for various publications.

Most of the advice they give is simply rehashed stuff they have read or formed an opinion of — whether good or bad.  This article I decided to write will show you how to hire a contractor and come out with a great outcome — and I’ll give you advice from the perspective of a real contractor — me! Photo:

Don’t be cheap — keep an open mind.

“Man, are they cheap!”  This is the number one gripe I hear from fellow contractors.   “They want a $30k bathroom on a $10K budget”.  Most folks don’t have a clue when it comes the cost of having remodeling done in their homes.  They have been conditioned by unrealistic information or beliefs they think or have read.

Others want the contractor to itemize everything in their contract so they can decide if they are paying too much.  The problem with this is there’s no reference point for the customer to draw information from and compare to, relative to comparing apples to apples.

Establishing a budget early eliminates much of the frustrations and misunderstandings between parties.  General itemization is pretty standard in home improvement.  Most contracts the contractor provides should clearly go over the phases of a project, including project timelines, materials to be installed, rules in which the company conducts their business, and draw payment schedules.

The company should request a thoroughly detailed description of the job you want built.  This is really the most important aspect of creating an estimate of your project.  You want the job built the way you envisioned it right?  I’ve seen many contractors build a client’s job the way the contractor wanted it — not the other way around.  Make sure to have a clear direction when describing your job.  Perhaps write down an outline of your wants, needs, and expectations.

For the sake of this article, I’m covering a “Total-Cost Contract”, in which all labor and material costs associated with a project are inclusive and will not exceed the original bid.  You get one price for all services rendered, no matter how long the project takes or any unforeseen problems exist.  You sit back and relax and let the contractor arrange material procurement, scheduling, and anything else described in the contract.

Don’t waste the contractor’s time, or your own.

If you want to create problems early in your search to find a contractor to do your project, start by luring unsuspecting contractors to your house to get  “bids” with no commitment.  You want a free estimate right?

FYI on free estimates: Most savvy contractors will advertise free estimates, then PRE-QUALIFY the customer in the first phone call by asking pointed questions.  That way they won’t waste their time rushing over to your house — to only find out that you were price shopping.   Some of the questions the customer can expect are:

1.  What do you want to do?  This usually is the first question you get asked.  The contractor will want to know what kind of project you are considering and if he or she is qualified to deliver an acceptable end product.  If not, most have a list of specialty contractors they will work with, or they may refer you to their sub directly — and take a percentage of the total project.

Don’t be vague; they’ll want to know who will make the buying decisions and most will likely want to to deal with only one of the parties concerning change orders and payment.

2.  Have a firm start date or completion date.  You should know when you want the project started or completed.  You need a pretty solid answer because the contractor will need to adjust his schedule according to your needs and his needs beforehand.  The sooner the lead time you give a contractor to prepare, the better.

3.  Tell the contractor your budget.  Most people cringe at telling a contractor their budget because of a TRUST Factor, as well as not fully understanding his angle.  The tradesman hasn’t yet won the confidence of the homeowner.  Most homeowners feel that if they give away the amount of money they have set aside for their project, the contractor will attempt to use every penny of this amount.  That’s flawed, because usually, the amount a homeowner saved for a project is only 60% of it’s actual cost.

The contractor isn’t asking you how much you think the project will cost; he wants to establish a budget because he doesn’t want to waste his time and yours.

The contractor will them begin to build your job on paper according to the information you provide.  And that’s the key:  You build your own job with the selections and finishes you decide on.  He simply put that neat package together for you — and charges you a fair price for his time and efforts.

4.  Unrealistic expectations.  You may have grand ideas of how sweet the new powder room should look.  You want a wall taken out, a soaking tub, new glass tile, and so on.  The reality is, the cost you may think and the cost the contractor quotes you can be on two different planets.  Some contractors give out a medium and higher price.  This eliminates much of the dreamland state people experience when their wants exceed their needs.  That’s why it is so important to establish a budget early.

5.  Answer the contractor’s questions about your project thoroughly.  When the contractor decides that you are a good fit for his company, he’ll make the drive out to further nail down your project — with questions, questions, and more questions.  He wants to build your project EXACTLY how you want it; not of how he might want it to look.  This is a trait of a great Contractor; he listens more than he talks.

6.  Have the decision maker/buyer at the meeting too.  If you aren’t buying the product, you need to tell the contractor.  If the husband or wife writes the checks, they need to be at the meeting.  The reason is to make sure there are no misunderstandings when the contractor builds your job.  I’d hate to show up at a meeting with one party present, build the project on paper, only to find out that the other party wanted the addition to start in the family room.  Then, the project isn’t built the way you both want and that becomes a problem when payment is due.

7. Don’t be a pain in the ass.  Work with your contractor.  No one wants to deal with a P.I.T.A. (guess what the initials stand for?), which is why it’s imperative to have a solid contract with all aspects of a job discussed, signed off, and agreed upon between all parties.

8.  Don’t expect extras without paying for them.  This is a biggie.  Some folks will say, “can you fix the door in the hallway since you’re here?” and “Could you look at the light in the den that doesn’t work?”  Most of the time, I’ll just fix it —  if it doesn’t take more than 20 minutes.  Other than that, I whip out a estimate form and we’ll complete a change order for the added work.  Contractors should stay on schedule to perform the project they are contracted for.  And no, we won’t babysit your pets or children who enter the work area either.

9.  Make payments on time, according to the draw schedule in the contract.  Work stops until a draw payment is made, period.  Most respectful contractors uphold their parts of the deal; we expect our clients to do the same.

10.  Never weasel out of the final payment.  I’ve had one client not pay a final payment in 16 years, which left a bad taste in my mouth.  If all parameters of the contract are met, there should never be a reason for non-payment.

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