illustration of general contractor with many arms
Illustration: Catherine Meurisse
7. Do some of the grunt work
As Zembruski learned during the redo of his house, remodeling pros are just like office workers: There are aspects of the job that they don't love. Demolition can be dirty, boring work; do it yourself and you'll notice a more energetic spring in your GC's step. Then there's the unpleasant business of getting down on one's hands and knees in a small place. "Our crawl space is about 3 feet high," Zembruski says of the area under his kitchen. "It's dark in there, and there are spiders and bugs." So before he called in his electrician, he roughed out the wiring down below. As for his much-in-demand plumber, "he doesn't want to be in the sink cabinet knocking over the soap—he's a big guy!" says Zembruski, who clears the way before he picks up the phone. One time he took apart a leaky faucet before the plumber got there. In return, the guy did him the ultimate favor: making his house the first stop on a very busy day.

8. Write down house rules, a payment schedule, and everything else
Don't expect the rest of the world to know how you feel about work boots tromping around in your pristine bath. Draw up an agreement about who will be in the house and when, and which areas crew members should feel free to use. Spell out the timing of payments, keeping in mind that many pros have cash-flow issues. As always, communication is key. Mary Fallon, who recently remodeled the kitchen in her San Jose home, says she used her skills as a former reporter to stay on top of the project and keep all her subs well informed. "They'd all get the schedule, and that way there was more camaraderie."

Ideally, says Miller, of HomeProHub, on a big job your pro should spell out every step, expense, and setback on a dedicated website that's accessible to all, using snapshots and software, such as Co-Construct, designed to manage projects. But even if your pro prefers pencil and paper over keyboard, documentation is essential. Mysterious expenses often lead to distrust, says Miller, "and sharing information with homeowners really eliminates this problem." Lynn McBride, who has survived—and blogged about—home renovations in spots as far-flung as Charleston, South Carolina, and Balleure, France, advises using the specs in the bid as a checklist. "I used to track every detail in a three-ring notebook," she says. "Today, I'd stick it on my iPad."

9. Make this love affair last
No matter how important you think you are, do yourself a favor and treat your pro like an equal, says Thompson. "I've worked for all kinds of people," he adds, "and the ones I go back to know how to look across the table at you and not down at you." Lupberger still recalls a client who came by the work site a couple of times a week to share coffee and chitchat. Says this hardened pro, "I'm sure she got extra things done off the books."
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