How to Get The Most From Your Contractor

Homeowners and remodeling pros suggest how to improve their working relationship, with some useful tips on how to keep your next project on time and on (or even under!) budget

illustration of homeowner and contractor waltzing
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
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Maybe you're shopping for the ideal helpmate to kick-start a new project or you're already knee-deep in one. You may be unsure how to manage your tradesman's expectations—and your own. These are the best of times and the worst of times for remodelers. Any pro still standing in this economy is likely to be seasoned and more attentive than ever to your bottom line. At the same time, many top pros are so battle-scarred by clients cutting corners that they may want references from you instead of the other way around. "I no longer do competitive bids," says David Lupberger, a 20-year veteran of the bidding wars in Boulder, Colorado, who prefers smart marketing and networking. But he also advises fellow contractors to keep their minds and tool chests open. "Homeowners aren't putting up many $100,000 additions," he says. "Be ready to help hang a mirror." So whether you're about to get a leaky faucet fixed or entrust your dream kitchen to total strangers, keep reading to learn the new rules of the game.

1. Use a pro to find a pro
You get your root canals from an expert recommended by your dentist, right? Same goes for locating remodeling pros. This Old House general contractor Tom Silva suggests asking the local building inspector for leads. Homeowner Jim Zembruski, in Easton, Connecticut, found his plumber through his electrician; they'd worked together for years. Zembruski also opened a contractor's account at the local lumberyard, which allowed him to hang out with the insider crowd, pick up pro tips, and listen for the names of tradesmen who were in there so often that they were presumably in high demand.

2. Try a little romance
First meetings are like first dates. Here's your chance to size up a pro and vice versa—so make a good impression. And take your time! Lupberger notes that some homeowners are in such a hurry to get on with it that they forget they're about to entrust their house keys—and their sanity—to a stranger. Eric Thompson, a general contractor in Hampton Bays, New York, is among those who stress the importance of a good personality fit. "It's like any relationship. It should feel natural and comfortable, like when I met my girlfriend." Maybe that's why HomeAdvisor, an agency that puts homeowners together with service providers, uses algorithms borrowed from Match.com.

3. Get your act together
One of the worst scenarios ever is asking an in-demand general contractor for "a rough estimate" when you don't know exactly what you want. Get a good designer or draftsman to translate your vague vision into drawings and specs. "Being decisive and clear on the details will save you money, and the project will be more likely to meet your expectations," says Monica D. Higgins of Renovation Planners, a construction management firm in Los Angeles. It will also help you avoid dreaded "change orders," code for pricey, unanticipated upgrade decisions. And for heaven's sake, leave your friends and relatives out of the design process, says Thompson, remembering the time he overheard three friends going around in circles as they "helped" with a kitchen remodel, all the while saying things like "You really like exposed beams?"
Maybe you're shopping for the ideal helpmate to kick-start a new project or you're already knee-deep in one. You may be unsure how to manage your tradesman's expectations—and your own. These are the best of times and the worst of times for remodelers. Any pro still standing in this economy is likely to be seasoned and more attentive than ever to your bottom line. At the same time, many top pros are so battle-scarred by clients cutting corners that they may want references from you instead of the other way around. "I no longer do competitive bids," says David Lupberger, a 20-year veteran of the bidding wars in Boulder, Colorado, who prefers smart marketing and networking. But he also advises fellow contractors to keep their minds and tool chests open. "Homeowners aren't putting up many $100,000 additions," he says. "Be ready to help hang a mirror." So whether you're about to get a leaky faucet fixed or entrust your dream kitchen to total strangers, keep reading to learn the new rules of the game.

1. Use a pro to find a pro
You get your root canals from an expert recommended by your dentist, right? Same goes for locating remodeling pros. This Old House general contractor Tom Silva suggests asking the local building inspector for leads. Homeowner Jim Zembruski, in Easton, Connecticut, found his plumber through his electrician; they'd worked together for years. Zembruski also opened a contractor's account at the local lumberyard, which allowed him to hang out with the insider crowd, pick up pro tips, and listen for the names of tradesmen who were in there so often that they were presumably in high demand.

2. Try a little romance
First meetings are like first dates. Here's your chance to size up a pro and vice versa—so make a good impression. And take your time! Lupberger notes that some homeowners are in such a hurry to get on with it that they forget they're about to entrust their house keys—and their sanity—to a stranger. Eric Thompson, a general contractor in Hampton Bays, New York, is among those who stress the importance of a good personality fit. "It's like any relationship. It should feel natural and comfortable, like when I met my girlfriend." Maybe that's why HomeAdvisor, an agency that puts homeowners together with service providers, uses algorithms borrowed from Match.com.

3. Get your act together
One of the worst scenarios ever is asking an in-demand general contractor for "a rough estimate" when you don't know exactly what you want. Get a good designer or draftsman to translate your vague vision into drawings and specs. "Being decisive and clear on the details will save you money, and the project will be more likely to meet your expectations," says Monica D. Higgins of Renovation Planners, a construction management firm in Los Angeles. It will also help you avoid dreaded "change orders," code for pricey, unanticipated upgrade decisions. And for heaven's sake, leave your friends and relatives out of the design process, says Thompson, remembering the time he overheard three friends going around in circles as they "helped" with a kitchen remodel, all the while saying things like "You really like exposed beams?"
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4. Learn to talk the talk

 

4. Learn to talk the talk

illustration of general contractor with many arms
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
Figure out what your project involves before you call in a pro. "The more you understand about what they do, the better you can communicate with them and the better you can review their bids," says Zembruski, who uses how-to books, online videos, and magazines like This Old House to get up to speed. Part two of the education process: Ask any candidate for the job to explain how he or she plans to carry it out and which materials will be used. Giving a pro a chance to explain can foster collaboration and, who knows, maybe some creative thinking about how to do it for less. Impatience sends the wrong signal, says Lupberger. "It implies you're not interested in a working relationship."

5. Take the lowest bid? Fuhgeddabouddit
You want the best work, not the best price, says Lupberger. Contractors and subs who charge more are licensed and insured and should take the time to keep the homeowner informed every step of the way—all of which costs money. Watch out for a "low-bid guy" working out of his truck, says Thompson, adding ominously, "I've cleaned up many jobs." Angie Hicks, of the consumer-to-consumer referral service Angieslist.com, recommends at least three bids and close scrutiny of licences, insurance certificates, and other fine print. "I find people who never read the contracts they sign," she says. "And make sure you get a contractor who's an expert at what you need done. You don't want your house to be a guinea pig."

Next, be sure to compare apples with apples. Consider offering your top candidate a flat fee to spell out each step and material so that others can bid on the same thing. "Generally, materials account for 40 percent of the total cost; the rest covers overhead and the profit margin, which is typically 15 to 20 percent," says Tom Silva. And, yes, says Steve Miller, owner of HomeProHub, a home-improvement consulting firm in San Jose, California, it's okay to negotiate. He recommends doing it by e-mail, which puts everything in writing and helps conquer fear of haggling. Even top pros have dry spells and may lower a bid to keep crew members busy, he says. Keep one eye on the calendar—winter months are often slow—and be flexible. "Life happens to pros, too," he explains. "Divorces, taking kids off to college. So stay in contact, and later, if he loses a job, he can pull up your e-mail."

6. Learn how to break up and make up
Some relationships fall apart despite everyone's best intentions, so establish a graceful way to exit if need be. Lupberger points to a provision hammered out by a fellow contractor that allows clients—and their pros—to bow out with seven days' notice. Consider adding an incentive clause, too. Homeowners often grumble when they can't penalize a contractor who finishes weeks—sometime months—after the projected due date. But a better idea is to dangle an award if he beats the clock. "I love that," says Thompson, who was once gifted with a $5,000 bonus on a big project. "That is complete fire under a contractor's butt."
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7. Do some of the grunt work

 

7. Do some of the grunt work

illustration of hysteric client
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
The Hysteric
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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While You're at It…

 

While You're at It…

illustration of compulsive communicative client from hell
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
The Compulsive Communicator
Seven requests you should never make and seven you can—and should

What you can't ask for
1. I ran out of time. Can you move all this stuff before you paint?
2. I have to run some errands. Could you keep an eye on the kids?
3. Since you're going out anyway, would you mind walking the dog?
4. Darn—my computer just crashed! Can you fix it?
5. FedEx is coming by to pick up this envelope. Could you make sure to be here?
6. I just blew another fuse. Mind replacing it? (If he's a plumber.)
7. The drain's backed up again. Could you fix it? (If he's an electrician.)


What you can ask for
1. Could you replace the pressure-balance valve in the shower? Older baths often lack this safety feature, which keeps the showerhead from scalding when cold water is drawn elsewhere in the house. A plumber who's already on the job should be willing to make this fix. "Expect to pay for the valve itself, of course," says architect Darren Hegelsen, who specializes in older-house redos in the Amagansett, New York, area.
2. Could you take a look at the insulation? If your contractor is opening up walls anyway, it's okay to ask him to patch holes in the insulation, says Andrew Black, a general contractor in Columbus, Wisconsin. Expect to pay for time and materials.
3. Could you touch this up? If a painter is on the job already, it's fine to ask for free touch-ups in other rooms, says Kara O'Brien, a general contractor in Atlanta. "Just don't ask for anything larger than a handkerchief."
4. Could you upgrade the wiring in another room? An electrician who is already working in the house may offer a deal to do work in other rooms, especially if he doesn't have to open the walls himself, says Black.
5. Could you replace the smoke and CO detectors? An electrician who is already on the job may be willing to waive the fee for replacing or augmenting smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors. Read up ahead of time on where they should go.
6. Could you flag any weak framing? If crew members are already poking into the walls and floors, it's okay to ask them to watch for signs of rotting wood. You'll be charged for time and materials to replace it, but meanwhile a pro has helped prevent more expensive fixes down the road.
7. Could you advise me on another project? Tradesmen are often a font of free design advice, and that's a good thing. Prompted by a client's query, O'Brien once volunteered a tip for giving exposed brick a faux-aged look (scrub it down with muriatic acid).
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Clients from Hell: a Field Guide

 

Clients from Hell: a Field Guide

illustration of chore abuser client from hell
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
The Chore Abuser
People love to trade tales about contractors who charge too much, do too little, or even disappear before the job is done. But it turns out there are two sides to this relationship. You didn't know? Well, maybe you're already the kind of classy homeowner who can melt a heart hardened by years of working inside other people's homes. For those who may be newer to the tradesman-client relationship, meet the six most dreaded homeowner-personality types in the business. All are based on real-life stories shared by pros who have seen it all and hope never to see these types again. If you recognize yourself, don't panic; we've included suggestions on how to redeem your reputation. Now all you need is to get one of your favorite pros to return your phone calls.

The Hysteric
Identifying trait: Childlike inability to see the bigger picture

Pros hate having to break in a novice, especially one as touchy as a feral cat. "I had a homeowner call me in tears because my crew was wrecking her house," says Steve Miller, a former contractor who helps match homeowners with pros in San Jose, California. "I rushed over to check it out. Then I had to try to calmly explain to her as she continued crying that everything was going fine. Yes, the home was in shambles—it's called demolition." If rough stuff also makes you nuts, keep in mind that Rome wasn't built in a day; first they had to clear some space. Still hate to watch? Hide out at Starbucks.

The Compulsive Communicator
Identifying trait: Eyes always locked on a small electronic device

Communication is a good idea, up to a point. "I had a homeowner who called, e-mailed, and texted me all day long," says one general contractor, who requested anonymity. "If I didn't respond right away, I'd get a call, an e-mail, or a text about not responding. It became unbearable." Some CCs also have a hard time knowing what qualifies as an emergency. "Being upset with a paint color is not an emergency," pro David Lupberger says calmly. To avoid pounding your pro with hailstones, send one note at day's end—an evening squall, so to speak.
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The Chore Abuser

 

The Chore Abuser

illustration of perfectionist client from hell
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
The Perfectionist
Identifying trait: Blind to the expression on a fellow human's face

Reva Kussmaul, author of Remodel 411: Secrets to a Successful Remodeling Relationship, says that as a contractor she once arrived at a work site to find the homeowner packing 12 huge boxes. "She said, 'Oh, I want your guys to take these out to the porch for the UPS guy.' Then she asked me to have them rush her patio furniture inside if it started raining. I mean, come on!" Experiences like this compelled Kussmaul to hang out a shingle as a remodeling coach. She encourages homeowners to treat remodeling pros like other pros—surgeons, say.

The Perfectionist
Identifying trait: Projects feelings of inadequacy onto others

Of course you deserve superb workmanship, and in a timely manner. But whether it's delivery of the new tub before noon or the envisioned placement of a switch plate, nothing will ever be perfectly perfect. "We explained that custom cabinetry could never look like an airbrushed photo in a catalog," one source says of a prickly client. "It is handcrafted, after all." But she had the cabinets remade—twice. If you suspect that you, too, qualify as "tightly wound," start with a realistic calendar—your pro can help—and be glad if the tub arrives before he's off to his next job.
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The Amateur Project Manager

 

The Amateur Project Manager

illustration of The Amateur Project Manager client from hell
Illustration by Catherine Meurisse
The Amateur Project Manager
Identifying trait: Believes he or she was a pro in a previous life

Kussmaul had a client who thought that "since he organized a carpool, he could act as project manager," she recalls. "But he didn't order enough paint, and since it was a custom color, we had to stop the job for half a day. He wasn't happy when I charged him for the time." Eric Thompson, a GC in Hampton Bays, New York, tells amateur purchasing agents, "Oh, excellent—now you can sort through the warped 24s and sit on hold with customer service when the faucet breaks—and you can't find the serial number!"

The Meddler
Identifying trait: Uses his outside voice even when he's in your face

The Meddler is always on the job, which is no help at all. "My car mechanic doesn't want me under the hood with him," says Kussmaul. "Well, my guys don't want someone under the ladder when they're putting up drywall." Another GC, who request anonymity, recalls a homeowner who "yelled about where we parked our trucks," yelled about the amount of time it was taking, yelled about the dust, and"—naturally—"yelled about how loud our tools were." If you are the kind of client who gets underfoot, try using this quality time to be nice; you may be rewarded just for being polite.
 
 

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