Sure…a post about how to hire a contractor—by a contractor. Pretty self-serving? Pretty biased? Well, it’s not what you think. I’ve been in the home improvement industry my entire adult life, and have heard and seen some unbelievable things. I’m posting this for everyone out there considering a home remodeling project. It is a self-serving effort in the sense that it’s good for the industry that home improvement consumers know what to look for in a remodeler. This does not apply to single trade operations such as roofing, replacement windows, etc. Nor does this apply to those of you who already have a contractor with whom you are comfortable. This is about home remodeling—additions, kitchens, baths, etc.—projects utilizing multiple trades, and requiring the services of a general contractor and intensive coordination. While we’d like you all to hire us, most of you are way too far away, and the logistics alone would almost certainly disqualify us.
There’s a preponderance of material out there on this subject, and most, of course, is somewhat self-serving, and this is no exception. The better educated our potential customers are, the more confident we are that they will see the wisdom in choosing us as their contractor. Also—as you may have heard—there are some unscrupulous people out there looking to make a fast and easy buck at your expense. The presence of these contractors is an impediment for everyone involved. As your home is likely to be the largest and most crucial investment in your life, the greatest care should be exercised when hiring a home improvement company.
1. Know what you actually want
The very first act you should undertake before even looking for appropriate home improvement candidates is to think about what you actually want, what you can have—and, just as important, to know your financial limitations. The more research you can do regarding the project, the smoother it will all go. The more you know about what you actually want, the sooner you will discover what you can actually have. Of course, the contractor(s) you contact are likely qualified and willing to help you in a multitude of ways, but knowing as much as you can about your ultimate project goals is a huge step in the right direction, and to your advantage. If your project is an addition to your home, for example, it will help a great deal if you have a grasp of how much space you want or need, and if your municipality will allow it. Zoning rules vary from town to town, and you can potentially waste a lot of time engaging in other research or searching for the right contractor for your project, discovering months later you cannot build it. Your local zoning officer can probably answer most of those questions over the phone. If your project includes the adding of a bathroom there may be municipal utility rules to consider as well. The construction of an in-law suite, for example, is prohibited in some municipalities, for fear it will become a rental unit in the future.
2. Qualify your candidates
OK. You have a pretty good idea what you want and what you are able and/or are willing to spend. It’s time to look for your contractor. The wisest thing you can do before you start cracking open the Yellow Pages is to ask around—or look around. If you’ve never hired a home improvement contractor before, chances are you know someone who has. Ask how it went. Narrow the field before you start playing on it. You have a computer, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Use it. Check out the possible candidates as much as you can. Visit their websites. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List—anywhere you can find a review of your candidates.
3. Thinning the Herd
Once you have narrowed the list of potential contractors to as many as you have the time or inclination to interview, you may further thin out the herd through your first contact. A contractor who doesn’t call you back promptly, has questionable telephone etiquette, or is non-committal about scheduling a meeting with you may disqualify them right off the bat—that’s up to you, but it’s absolutely critical that you feel comfortable with your contractor. Those that can schedule an appointment immediately, or at least say when they will call you back to schedule are most desirable. Always, those that keep their promises regarding this first contact should move to the top of the list. Conversely, those who do not keep those very simple promises should be eliminated. If there’s difficulty keeping an easy promise, how many difficult ones will they keep? The promises will become increasingly difficult and complicated as the process develops. What you are looking for is someone you trust. Sure—trust is an intuitive, unverifiable feeling. And…let’s face it; we’ve all made mistakes in trusting people in the past, and trusting people in the course of a commercial enterprise is even more tenuous. Trust, however, is an indispensable prerequisite for any relationship to work, and in this case, for the success of your project. Trust your instincts. You don’t have much else to go by this early in the game. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. If you feel pushed, push back, or pull away. You’ll have plenty of time to back out if you find your trust was false. You are not signing a contract yet.
No matter how many home improvement contractors you intend to interview, there are a few pieces of information you need to ask of each one. Number 1: “Can I have a copy of your insurance certificate?” Don’t ever—ever let anyone work on your home without producing a CURRENT, valid insurance certificate. Number 2: “Are you registered and licensed in this state (counties and even municipalities in some places)?” A contractor can have all the insurance in the world, but if he is not registered or licensed where you live, he cannot legally work on your home until he is. This should not disqualify a contractor from the neighboring state or county unless they mislead you about it. This is public information you can easily confirm. Number 3: “Can I have a list of references?” If the remodeling contractor you are interviewing is hesitant about this—keep looking. Unless the contractor is brand new, they should have references on hand at your first meeting. If the contractor is brand new, don’t disqualify them solely on that basis, though it can be a risk. If they were upfront and honest about being new, they still may have a wealth of experience and expertise they gained while working for others—and they may be out to make an impression. It could be a good deal, but you’ll have to be lucky. Every home improvement contractor had to start somewhere.
5. First Meetings
In all likelihood, your first meeting with everyone you have decided to interview will be at your home. Tell the home improvement contractors at each meeting everything you can about your project, give them copies of anything you think may help, i.e. your own sketches, a list of needs, a list of wants, a list of don’t wants—if necessary (if it’s an addition, be sure to have clear, scaled copies of your property site plan for them), give them a walk through, let them measure, photograph, tap on walls, let them look at your electrical panel and utilities, crawl in your crawlspace, climb in your attic—whatever they ask to see (within reason.) Pay attention—this process will tell you much about the competence and experience of the contractor you’re talking to—especially in comparison with each other. It will be easy to tell who is being thorough and who is not.
A somewhat sticky, but absolutely crucial piece of information you must provide your candidates is your budget. No one can really help you in any practical way without knowing this. Some home remodelers may disqualify you at this point, but the good ones will tell you—right then—if your budget is realistic or not, and offer alternatives if your budget is far too low for the project, and give you the option of continuing or redesigning.
6. The Semi-Finalists
Between your research on the contractors and your first meetings with them, you probably have a good feel for who is still in the running before you even hear their pricing. Don’t forget who’s who, as they all will be estimating the project, and it may be tempting to use the guy who wrote his estimate on the back of his business card while he was at your home for the first time, because he will likely be many thousands less than everyone else. Unless your project is a simple, single operation for one trade, an accurate estimate for most home remodeling projects requires a computer, and at least a half hour; if you have made prior material selections, longer—Illustrations and drawings, longer yet—alternatives—more time. You get the idea. Most legitimate home improvement contractors will take your information back to their office to design and estimate. They will also produce a proposal or two, and generate some drawings, allowing you to see, generally, what is included in their prices. You may never know what was included on the price on the back of the business card, and there’s a reasonable chance that the contractor who submitted the business card proposal doesn’t know either.
It’s wise to keep your own checklist for each remodeler you interview with a 1 to 5 scale, starting with the more subjective impressions to the more objective, such as: How comfortable did you feel? How professional did the contractor seem? How thorough were they? Did they show up on time? Did they seem prepared? How clear were the communications between you and the remodeler? How much time did they spend gathering information? Were they receptive to your ideas and input? Do you feel they can pull this off? Add whatever else you feel is important data for you to make the right decision.
7. The Finalists
For the sake of argument, let’s say you are left with three legitimate contenders. Even though all three have the same information, there is a significant gap between the highest and lowest price, and all three, though they are within your financial wheelhouse, have proposed higher costs than you had hoped. It doesn’t leave much room for what you’ve been advised to keep on hand for cost overruns or eventualities occurring during the course of the project. At this point, the recent education you’ve acquired on home improvements and human nature will serve you well. If all three of these contractors are doing the same, exact project, why is there this cost difference? Look deeper. Ask yourself: “Are they really proposing the same exact project?” “What else could account for this difference?” “Of the three remaining contractors, with whom do you feel most comfortable?” “What are the differences between contractors 1, 2, &3?” First of all, contact the insurance company that is on the remodeler’s insurance certificates to confirm they are covered and that the certificate is valid. Secondly, contact some of the references that have had a project like yours completed by the contractors. Once you are satisfied that your candidates are legitimate and competent, you may be left with nothing but cost to consider—or so you may think. Although we all know how important it is to make a wise decision regarding how we spend our money, cost has to be a secondary consideration when considering a major home improvement. For the same reason you will pay more for a name brand appliance than one you’ve never heard of, or the same reason you don’t buy your underwear at the dollar store, you may consider paying the higher price for home improvement services. The differences between the prices you’ve been quoted will usually have to do with; 1. How well their skilled labor is paid. This will have much to do with the quality, duration of the project, and the longevity of the workmanship. Obviously, the company that pays their people more not only will attract the better people, but will be more discerning about who they hire. 2. How sophisticated the support system is. This will have a huge impact on your degree of ultimate satisfaction. When an established company has your project on its schedule, systems and processes are engaged to see the project through from beginning to end. While your project is being produced, you will likely see a few of the same faces every day, however, there are people you may never see that keeps the project running smoothly behind the scenes. Operations such as, permitting, seeing that materials are ordered and on site when they are needed, seeing that everything and everyone involved gets paid promptly, planning, scheduling, etc. 3. How committed the company is to you. This has much to do with the support system, but at the same time, a company can function like well-oiled machine for its own sake. Responsiveness early on is a prime indicator that a company is focused on you and your project. Were your ideas, wants and needs are taken seriously and incorporated in the preliminary design and plan? Were you given an approximate length of time for the duration of the job? Were you offered intelligent options? Were all appointments kept? Do you feel like your contact is engaged in your project? 4. The term of the company’s warranty. While this may seem like a trifle in the broader scheme of things, believe me, it isn’t. New equipment, fixtures, appliances, even windows, doors, stairs and floors can have bugs that are not immediately apparent. Some home improvement contractor’s warranties are for an absurdly short term. All of these and many more factors go into the structure of a home remodeling company, and they all cost money.
8. …And the Winner is…
You’ve considered all of the above, and have settled on the remodeler with whom you have chosen to embark on the remainder of this journey. After all this, you probably feel like you should be further along. Well, if you did a good and thorough enough job at the beginning, the contract is just a few details away. If, however, you are like most mortals, you will need advice on many items and operations. If this is the case, it probably has much to do with the home improvement contractor you have selected. Their decorating and design acumen leads you to believe they can take your, somewhat sketchy vision, and steer it into a plausible reality. There may be many versions of your project discussed, and even more decisions made, decisions scrapped, altered, remade, and fine-tuned before you reach the point to where you are comfortable signing a contract.
9. The Contract is Everything
Hopefully, you emerge from the process with your sanity and goals intact. It’s not an accident that the contract is such a significant document. They don’t call contractors, contractors for nothing. It’s all about the contract. It’s here you need to be most aware. While you may justifiably trust your remodeler, it is of paramount importance that you read and understand your contract.
9a. READ IT!—UNDERSTAND IT!
I have been a home improvement contractor for over 35 years, and it never ceases to amaze me, especially considering the dollars involved, how few people really read and actually understand their contracts. By the time you arrive at this stage in the process, you have likely talked and considered, sometimes literally, thousands of options regarding your remodeling project. It’s easy to assume that since you have discussed something, it is included in your contract. Communications between humans are notoriously flawed, and unless it is in black and white as part of your contract, it is not part of the project scope. Throughout the long life of my company, we have taken great pains to make our contract as readable and as understandable as possible, yet we still have clients asking toward the end of the project; “Where’s my chandelier?” If the chandelier was not part of the electrical fixture scope on your contract, you are not entitled to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have it—you can. But it will be a change order, and depending on the circumstances and the point of construction where this was brought up, it can be an expensive add-on. Conversely, when a change-work order is requested at the right time, there may be little, or no added cost. Exacerbating the reading and understanding issue is the myriad legalities that are required by law to be in every home improvement contract, and it could be that once legalese is detected amidst any text, our brains turn off. It happens to me, too. It could also be that by this time, we just want to get the deal done and to get started. It is absolutely critical that you know what you are buying. If, while you are sitting at the contract-signing table, there’s something you don’t understand, or aren’t satisfied with, STOP! Make the contractor explain, clarify, change, amend, alter, rewrite—whatever needs to be done to make you 100% confident ALL of your concerns and questions are addressed to your satisfaction. Otherwise—DO NOT SIGN THAT CONTRACT! A well-composed contract is not only a legal document for your protection, it is a detailed menu of what is going to happen—a crystal ball—seeing into your future, including everything you are going to have. Building the project and keeping the promises made on the contract is the easy part. Getting to that point is far more difficult and you have to be on your game throughout the process.
10. Change Orders
The scourge of home improvement consumers are cost overruns. These are also known as change orders. You may be surprised to learn that they are the scourge of home improvement contractors as well. You may also be surprised that the vast bulk of change orders are driven by homeowners. From a home improvement contractor’s perspective, the perfect project has no change orders. While unforeseen circumstances account for some, most are either the result of clients not following the preceding instructions well—expecting items that were not part of their contract, or from seeing the project evolving in three dimensions and realizing there is something wanting. There are hundreds of possible reasons for change orders, but these are the most common. The costs of change orders can vary wildly, depending on the stage of development, as well as the labor and materials needed. The reason consumers don’t like them, of course, is the cost involved, and the time they can add to the project’s duration as well. Home remodeling contractors don’t like them for how change orders can damage a schedule, and also for the complexities they can introduce to coordination. If you introduce a change order that adds 3 days to your project, it’s likely that someone else’s project will be delayed for 3 days. While that’s not your problem, it is a problem for your remodeling contractor who lives, eats, and breathes schedules. Additionally, the time for research and deliberation on a change-work order is truncated, so the costs incurred by the contractor can often be greater than anticipated. Change orders can, and usually do arise when the impetus for arriving at cost and the decision to move forward or not is vital and immediate.
10a. How to Avoid Them
The best way to avoid cost overruns (change orders) is to follow the instructions above—to KNOW what you want—to choose the right contractor for your home improvement project—to work with that contractor to be as sure as you can that all of the details are addressed—and above all—to read and understand your contract. Moreover, to be aware, that when you decide you want your entertainment center on the opposite wall after the drywall is installed, or you’d rather have your toilet 2 feet to the right after the ceramic tile floor is in, it’s likely to cost you some serious money. No legitimate remodeler looks to make a financial killing on change orders, as regardless of the cost to you, it’s probably costing your contractor more.
Of course there is one, sure-fire way to know you have chosen the right remodeler right off the bat. Look closely at the people that come to your home to compete for your work. Don’t stare though—it can give them the willies. If any one of them has a CIPRIANI REMODELING SOLUTIONS logo anywhere on their vehicle, apparel, or materials they bring, that’s the right one.
A lot to digest, to be sure, but what’s more important than your home? Choose your contractor carefully, read and understand your contract. You won’t be sorry.