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Finding Your New Favorite Contractor

kitchen renovation: drawer hardware | pendant light | vintage rug (similar) | towel

As we begin the adventure of our own first floor bathroom renovation (yes, it’s finally happening!), it got us thinking about how lucky we are to have an amazing general contractor that we trust to work on our home with the same care he would give his own. Yup, we’ve ‘got a guy,’ and we trust him wholeheartedly, but it’s that winding road we took to find him that can start to wear anyone down. Choosing the right contractor is, in our opinion, one of the most important decisions a person or family can make as a  homeowner. The right contractor can make home improvements that positively impact your home and the way you spend time in it, whereas the wrong contractor can make life, well, challenging – to say the least.

We’ve all heard horror stories about the contractor that took a deposit and never returned, stopped showing up to the job site, or did shoddy work that needed to be undone by another contractor at the homeowner’s expense. Prior to building a relationship with our long-term contractor, we’ve made a few mistakes, and have learned a few (hard) lessons along the way. Over the years, we’ve received more than a few requests to break down the process that led us to our long-term right-hand-man, and we’ve even touched on it before. Still, it’s one of our most requested nuggets of advice, and while I need to preface this by saying it will vary based on your project and location, we thought it was time for an update!

How we organize our master bath | via Yellow Brick Home

master bath renovationmirror | vanity | drawer hardware | marble shelf | art

The Interview

We’re firm believers in the fact that hiring a contractor should be treated as a job interview – because it is a job interview. Your contractor and their team will be in and out of your home for days, weeks, or even months at a time depending on the scope of the work. We’ve landed on a handful of questions that we ask every potential contractor that we interview. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but is a great starting point to begin the conversation and mitigate surprises.

• How long have you been in business?

• Can you provide at least three local references? (Please call all of these references to learn about their experience!) *Bonus points if the references are for work similar to what you’re looking to accomplish, and double bonus points if the work was done on a home of similar vintage/construction to yours. 

• Can you provide proof of license/insurance?

• Will you be on-site for the entirety of the job? If not, how often will you be checking progress in person?

• Will you be using your own team or will you be hiring subcontractors?

• How long do you estimate the project will take?

• When can you start? Keep in mind that a contractor that can start tomorrow may be a red flag! As a rule of thumb, in-demand contractors are usually busy. Makes sense, right?

• What are other things we should consider during the work we’re planning? i.e., upgrading electrical/plumbing while the walls are open, adding outlets, insulating exterior walls etc.

• When can we expect a written quote?

We feel that interviewing at least two to three contractors the first time around is a great starting point. We’ve found our favorite contractors through word-of-mouth, but sites like Yelp!, HomeAdvisor and the Better Business Bureau can also be good starting points. The interview process is intended to get a feel for how each contractor works, if they’re punctual, and how well they know homes of your vintage and/or construction. You’ll really need to trust your gut here. You should be able to build rapport with a potential contractor and feel confident in the answers they provide. It’s a good idea to take notes during this phase – and to make sure your candidates take notes as well!

Which brings us to…

The Quote

You should receive quotes in writing from each potential contractor. The quote does not necessarily need to outline every single item and bit of material, but it should absolutely note every portion of work in a way that everyone feels comfortable with! The quote is also a good indication of your contractor’s level of organization and professionalism. Chicken scratch numbers handwritten on loose-leaf paper can be a sign of disorganization and lack of effort, and yes, we’ve actually seen this in practice. Here are a few questions to consider during this phase, ensuring that all contractors are quoting on a level playing field:

How will materials be paid for and sourced? Is there a markup? Who will purchase the materials?

Who pays for and sources waste/debris removal, if necessary?

How are any necessary permits acquired and paid for?

Do you bill by the job or by the hour?*

*This should be obvious based on the quote. In most cases, we’re not huge fans of hourly rates and prefer to pay by the job. While not always the case, our experience has taught us that paying by-the-hour can demotivate the contractor to work as efficiently as possible. We do not want our contractors to rush, but we also want them to work in the most safely productive manner possible. We also want them to be compensated fairly for quality work. Like most things in life, you actually do get what you pay for.

laundry room renovation: sconce | stool | vanity | wallpaper

Once we’ve received all quotes (and eliminated contractors that don’t meet our standards or keep their word throughout the quoting process), we take the time to truly dissect and digest them. Are there any glaring price discrepancies between candidates? If so, why? Material, overhead, and labor costs don’t vary too widely between contractors, so vast price differences should be viewed with skepticism. One contractor that we’ve worked with (and loved) even offers in-house design services in which a designer will visit material suppliers with the homeowner to aid in making decisions on finishes. This obviously comes at a premium and isn’t a service that we’d utilize, but could prove helpful for those uncertain of their options! That said, your own level of need should be considered strongly here. Contractors should be given an opportunity to bid fairly based on the expectations you’ve set out.

After we’ve decided on which contractor we’d like to hire, we ask our final question in this category, which is: Do you offer a cash discount? You should ask this with the assumption that no discount will be provided, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised on several occasions! It may be small – maybe 3-5%, or whatever rate they’d be charged if you paid by credit card – but it’s in your best interest to ask this at the very end, so that your potential contractor isn’t keeping this in mind while writing your quote.

Now that a quote has been accepted, its time for…

The Contract

Yes. You should sign a contract and put everything in writing. Every time, for every job. This can be provided by the contractor and they shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that you’ve requested a written agreement. We’ve found that while some great contractors are, you know, great at what they do, they might not be the best businesspeople. So if for any reason they’re unwilling to sign a contract – move on! But if they’re willing to sign but don’t have one that they use, make your own.

The contract acts as the outline and road map for the work and ensures that all parties agree on the expectations of the work. If something should happen to go south, the signed contract is the legal document proving that one party didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. So, again, it’s pretty important! This is also the time to lay out a payment schedule, as well as any unique requests or rules in writing. For example, ‘work to begin by 8am every morning and may not continue past 4pm’ or ‘contractors only to enter and exit home through back door,’ etc.

garden kitchen renovation: drawer + finger pulls | sconce | faucet

The Work

This is the fun part! Once you’ve interviewed, chosen, and signed a contract with the contractor you feel the most comfortable with, they’ll begin on the agreed upon date! Yesss!

The first time we work with any contractor, we like to have debriefs at the beginning and end of each work day to talk about the goals for the day (am) and to review the work that was completed and talk about the plan for the next day (pm). Remember, open and honest communication is key. If things are progressing well and the pace and quality of work are meeting expectations, the contractor should hear about it! If things are not moving as expected or work is not being completed as agreed upon in the quote and/or contract, the contractor should be made aware immediately. This could save potential expense and hassle for everyone – like if a light switch isn’t in the exact place you’d like it while the walls are still open, the remedy could be as simple as loosening a couple of screws and moving the switch box. If this wasn’t brought up until the final walkthrough, this scenario could result in drywall and finish repairs that could take days (and additional expenses!) to complete. Talk early and often, but be mindful of everyone’s time. Trust us, contractors appreciate this.

Once the work is complete, the final step is a walkthrough involving all parties. At this point, a ‘punch list’ may need to be created to itemize any remaining details or finishing touches. A timeline for completion should be put in place and the contractor will be given final payment upon completion.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that contractors are people. People with varying degrees of technical ability, communication skills, pricing structures, work ethics and personalities. People that will probably grow to love your dog as much as you do by the end of the job, and people that will always give the kitty a good chin scratch. All of these factors come into play when a contract is signed to exchange hard-earned money for services on an agreed-upon timeline. The selection of a contractor is personal. We’ve had really, really bad experiences with sketchy contractors, but we’ve eliminated the bad ones and learned lessons. We now have a go-to contractor for each of our home’s mechanical systems as well as a GC that’s practically family at this point, and we generally only have to make one phone call when we need assistance. It’s been a lot of work to get to this point, but all of the effort was worth it!

master bedroom renovation: linen bedding | vintage chair | velvet pillow | sconce

As always, these are our our experiences, and circumstances differ greatly based on more variables than we can count. Do your homework, trust your gut, and make informed decisions. Finding a contractor will certainly prove to be an investment in time and resources, but so is your home – and we think it deserves nothing less!

What would you add? What other questions do you have? Leave your own experiences or questions in the comments, and let’s be a resource for one another.

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  • Karen2.21.19 - 7:45 AM

    Contracts….keep in mind, they are mostly written for the contractor’s benefit.

    We’ve done a LOT of renovating at our house, with more to come, and we L-O-V-E our contractor. I’ve referred him to many people, including my parents and my sister. I learned a few valuable lessons with our first (and biggest) reno – before our contractor started, I had already found my “floor guy”. He was referred to me by a friend. I also had my own painter. I’ve learned now to let our contractor handle all the subs. Our contractor does most of the work himself (or with his crew), but there are some things he subs out – so let him handle that – he’ll be overseeing not only their work, but their performance. One less thing on my plate.

    After demo’ing the floors at our house (before install, which was part of the signed contract with the floor guy), there was a phone convo where the floor guy YELLED at me. I was so shocked, I decided right then I would not let him back in my house or finish the job. Well, $1,000 later in attorney fees, I learned he could easily take me to small claims court and win. It was a very stressful situation (on top of an already stressful situation – the renovation itself!), and thank goodness the letter from our attorney got him to leave us be. My contractor was also really helpful when it came to parting ways with the floor guy.

    Renovating is a wild ride – emotionally, financially, logistically. I was very into my reno – for me, it’s listed near the top of my life’s greatest achievements and experiences (when it was completed, angels sang! Haha). I was so into the design and planning, and had a very clear vision. My sister, on the other hand, would prefer to “snap” and have it be done. She and her husband are relying on the contractor to lead the design – I know he can do it, but it’s not a straight line. I would strongly encourage anyone who’s not really into design and material selection/shopping (or doesn’t have the time to do those things) to hire someone for that part of the project – either a designer, or a design/build firm versus a contractor.ReplyCancel

    • Scott2.21.19 - 8:58 AM

      Great point, Karen! A contract should be put in place to protect both parties, but you’re absolutely right that it isn’t always the case. The large print giveth and the small print taketh away!ReplyCancel

  • lak2.21.19 - 7:51 AM

    Great Advice. I learned the hard way, actually had a guy demolish my bathroom with little to no knowledge on how to put back together. Then made a sketchy pass at me. This was 10 years ago, and I have never forgotten it. First I got him out of the house, and then later fired him over the phone! Now…I interview like you, and being an older single female, always have someone in the house with me. Thanks for the great advice as usual.ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.21.19 - 9:54 AM

      Oh, what a horrible experience! And that’s another great tip – we don’t interview contractors alone. Even if you need to bring a friend alone, it’s much more safe to have someone along side you.ReplyCancel

  • Kerri2.21.19 - 8:21 AM

    It’s such a tricky business finding a contractor you trust. Luckily we have found one we love who has worked with us on three major renovations so far. I knew he was the one when I came home early one day and he was mopping my floors to get rid of the dust (!!!), and another time found him sitting cross-legged on the floor installing drywall with my dog sleeping soundly beside him with her head in his lap.ReplyCancel

    • Scott2.21.19 - 9:07 AM

      It really can be tough, but absolutely worth the effort! We’ve definitely found our contractor taking a lunch break with Jack or CC snuggled up on his lap!ReplyCancel

  • Alli2.22.19 - 7:15 AM

    Do you share his info for any local Chicago readers? ?ReplyCancel

  • Sarah2.22.19 - 11:12 AM

    This post is so so helpful as I hope to undertake some bathroom renovations in my little old house this year, but how do I know what a realistic budget is for my space to compare to quotes? And what have you and Scott found is the best way to finance bigger renovations? Do you save up till you can pay for it outright or take out a personal or home equity loan? Sorry if that’s a little personal, and I won’t be offended if you’re not comfortable sharing, I just find this to be a major stumbling block to knowing when I can even get started.ReplyCancel

    • Scott2.22.19 - 11:46 AM

      Hey Sarah! Lot’s of great questions here! The budgeting process is pretty fluid and might involve making a list of ‘must-haves’ versus ‘nice-to-haves’. Material costs can vary a TON, so it might make the most sense to have your contractors base their quotes on labor and mandatory materials (drywall, electrical supplies etc.) only, then help give you a rough idea of material quantities necessary. This would give you a nice baseline to compare quotes fairly and determine your budget for materials and finishes.

      Regarding financing, we’ve generally scrimped and saved our funds so that we can pay for our renovations out of pocket and in cash. This can also be helpful in negotiating costs, since we’ve found that many contractors give a pretty hefty cash discount. If this isn’t an option for you, many larger construction firms offer financing, so that could help also!

      Hope this helps and good luck with your projects!ReplyCancel

  • Weekend Links2.23.19 - 10:49 AM

    […] Tips for selecting a contractor. […]ReplyCancel

  • Tedi2.24.19 - 6:38 PM

    I’d like to chime in from the contractors side. I’m a carpenter and work for a small renovation company (just the two of us) and we find that a challenging part of the quoting process can be that the client often doesn’t know what kind of finishes they want. They’ll say “I want to re-do my bathroom”, or another will say they want to develop their basement, etc. All fine and dandy, but quotes can vary wildly depending on what each renovation company has in mind for fixtures and finish grades. How can we be competitive with the next contractor that walks through your door and be comparing apples to apples when you as the client don’t have a good idea of what kind of end result you want? When you pick contractors solely on price, quite often you get what you pay for, unfortunately. It’s in your own best interest to do some homework first or work with a designer about the level of finish you’d like. Pick out a few examples of flooring you like, tile, plumbing fixtures, lighting etc and pass those on to the contractors you’re interviewing, so that the bids coming in for you to analyze are estimating for the same end result.

    I think Kim and Scott are totally right in saying that you should interview multiple contractors. We also encourage potential clients to meet with others, so they can see how much the spectrum of price vs quality can vary for themselves. We realize that we may not be the least expensive option, but our quality is high, we have many options for referrals, and we are very passionate about what we do. I would encourage you to not be basing your decision by who has the lowest price, but also how you get along with a potential contractor. We are in our clients homes for sometimes months at a time. We like developing relationships with our clients and knowing that they trust us to care for their home like we would our own.

    We’re not all out there to rip you off :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.25.19 - 9:51 AM

      Thank you, Tedi! Where are you located? It would be great if some of our readers had the opportunity to work with you. :)

      It’s so true that ‘you get what you pay for’ when it comes to contractors. This is not an area that is worth skimping, we think, but of course not everyone can afford the highest tier, either! This is why we like to balance contractors with our own DIY for the finishes (where we’re able), to save on funds – and also, because we love to be hands on! If you receive multiple quotes and one comes back MUCH lower than the rest, it could be a big red flag. Recently, we collected several quotes to have our sleeping loft painted, and one of the quotes came back half as much as the others. We couldn’t wrap our heads around how it could be so cheap, so we immediately nixed that contractor. We’re so happy that we paid more for higher quality work.ReplyCancel

      • Tedi Lockwood4.7.20 - 6:11 PM

        I never realized that you replied to my comment! I should have checked awhile ago obviously.
        I’m from Calgary, Alberta. Not too close to you unfortunately!
        That’s great that your contractor is happy to split up the project with you. We are always open to that as well. If the client wants to save some money by doing the demolition themselves, or the painting, etc, we’re happy to be flexible.ReplyCancel

  • […] I have a great contractor to work with. Thanks to this advice from Yellow Brick Home I was able to find someone I really trust. And the dogs like him, which is a very important test to […]ReplyCancel

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