Home Renovation


Picking a Contractor

Picking the right contractor for you is the single most important element of having a successful renovation experience. How do you find the one that meets your needs, budget, and lifestyle?

First, the two major options:

Resource Advantages Disadvantages
General Contractor + Specific Subs - Skills, experience, knowledge
- Permitting and ordinance expertise
- Network of ancillary contacts / services likely available (e.g. landscaping, deck building, etc.)
- Higher cost
- Completely dependent upon quality of contractor and subs
Full service design/build - One stop shopping
- Contingencies and other bumps in the road are accommodated
- Higher likelihood of professional, experienced subcontractors
- Permitting and ordinance expertise
- Fixed price possible
- Change requests are more stable
- Higher likelihood of being on time, on spec, and on budget
- Highest price
- Overhead means less ability to negotiate price

Narrow the Field Initially

Regardless of what major option above that you choose, you should plan on talking to a half dozen contractors from both.

Which contractors should you contact?

  • Ask friends, co-workers, realtors, who they recommend
  • Look in local remodeling or lifestyle magazines for firms and photographs
  • Use the Internet to find resources in your area
  • Look for contractors and remodelers who do the kind of work you are planning

Major Steps for Hiring a Contractor

Now that you have a short-list of contractors to contact, you can get into the execution of the project. These are the high-level steps:

  1. Create a list of questions to ask each contractor you are considering
  2. When you talk to the contractor, ask your questions and also get a list of references
  3. Then create a list of questions for each reference and call them
  4. Get bids
  5. Make a decision

Below are details and advice on executing each of the above steps.


Twenty Questions For Contractors

Questions marked with an *asterisk are critical questions. If answers aren't clearly satisfactory, walk away. Later pages in this guide will clarify definitions of these non-laymen terms.

1. Are you licensed? (not required by all states, but still a good question)*
2. Are you insured? (workers compensation and liability insurance)*
3. Are you bonded?*
4. How long have you been in business in this area?
5. What kind of projects do you do most often?
6. What comparable projects to the one I’m planning could I go see?
7. How long did it take, and what was the budget?
8. Do you offer any “green” building techniques, materials, or products?
9. What kind of ongoing certification or training do you or your subs attend?
10. Do you have a single Project Manager?
11. How much contact will I have with him or her?
12. How many projects are handled simultaneously by the Project Manager?
13. Are there assistants, and if so, how many?
14. What are your usual communication methods with a client? Email? Phone? Daily visits to the site? A logbook with comments?
15. How do you handle change requests?
16. How will you accommodate my family’s needs, assuming we live on-site during the project? (kids, pets, home office)
17. What are your typical site safety and clean up arrangements? (Dumpster, daily tidy up, portable toilets, no smoking, OSHA signs posted, first aid kit on-site, etc.)
18. How do you typically price? What are the payment terms for a project like mine? (thirds, at milestone points, change orders at time of specification, etc.)
19. Do you have a warranty? How long is it in effect?
20. What percentage of your clients are repeat customers?

15 Questions for References

1. Can you describe the project?
2. Were you happy with the result?
3. Was it on time, and on budget? If not, due to what?
4. How long did the project take?
5. How were problems handled?
6. How was the communication?
7. What was the quality of the subcontractors?
8. Was the work site clean and safe?
9. Did you live in or move out during the project?
10. If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?
11. Have you used this contractor before?
12. How long has it been since you used them?
13. Have there been any management or process changes that you are aware of? (applies to larger organizations)
14. How have they handled warranty and follow-up?
15. Would you use them again?


How to Get Bids

It’s not rocket science. Narrow the field to 3 or 4 possibilities. Call them. Set up a meeting to scope the work and solicit a proposal and bid.

Typically, the contractor will come to your home, walk the existing space, look at your problem areas, listen, and discuss your ideas in some detail. Have the list of priorities ready!

Larger organizations may send two people, have a “brag book” of project photographs to show to you, and may offer the services of others they partner with – architects or specialized designers, for example.

For all contractors, be sure to:

  • Explain your priorities
  • Explain your timeframe
  • Provide a budget range rather than explicit dollar amount.
  • If you don’t have financing arranged as yet, ask if they provide the paperwork to go along with construction loan applications
  • If you have special needs or tastes, for instance you want energy efficient, stainless appliances in the new kitchen, a central vacuuming system, and ecologically advantageous sealants, say so now
  • The more detail you provide, the more accurate a bid you’ll get
  • Listen carefully to responses, particularly those that are trying to reset your expectations on budget or timeframe

Expect the prospective renovator(s) to send you a proposal with estimates in writing. This may take a few days or a week.

Use their responsiveness, professionalism, and quality of the proposal as further inputs for your decision.

The Do's and Don'ts of Selecting a Contractor

Talk to friends, neighbors about who they used, what they liked, what they wish they had known Take contractors at face value – even well intentioned, they may be “overselling”
Get referrals Take shortcuts – the penalties are far worse
Check out the licensing and certification requirements in your area Take the lowest bid automatically
Verify license, insurance, bonding Hire a contractor who wants to be paid in cash
Consider a background check if you have any question at all – for financial stability, insurance, legal actions; Better business bureau is another option Hire a contractor who wants to be paid for the job upfront
GO LOOK at their work Go with someone who has no references
Go to their offices Forget to LOOK at their work – in person, if possible
Listen to your gut Hire someone who solicits door to door
Ask questions – all’s fair in love and renovation Settle for less than satisfactory answers to your questions
Ask about their subcontractors; Check for complaints through the Better Business Bureau Neglect to talk about their subcontractors
Ask to SEE licenses, insurance certificates, etc. – and CHECK THEM Assume! Bigger may be better, but not always – give the little guys their due as well, just do your due diligence in checking them out thoroughly


Making the Decision

Just do it. The bids are in. You have your gut feel based on references, work sites visited, and your own sense of who you can work with easily. Don’t be afraid to negotiate on price. Then choose the best fit for the job ahead.

Pick up the phone. Begin arranging financing. Set up a meeting to go to the next level of detail (selections, for example), and set up the contract.

Email Icon Print Icon Print This| Newsletter Icon Free Newsletter| Add to Del.icio.us