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On Hiring and Working with Contractors

When we moved into this century-old house more than 4(!) years ago, we had a lot to learn – and quick. Never having lived in a home more than a few decades old, naturally, we’d never seen lathe before. We were amazed when old toys and trinkets fell out of the walls we demoed. We tested every newly exposed surface for lead. We questioned the decisions made years and years before us, and we learned that to do things right, it would take time. A whole lot of time.

But one of our biggest lessons that was all too new to us? Learning how to hire – and work with – a contractor. I’m trying to think of a single time before this house where we had to hire a contractor for a larger job, and I keep coming up blank! Small plumbing emergencies and flooded basements? Yes. Installing new headers and drywalling an entire ceiling? No. For our first wave of renovation, we were given a reasonable quote from a nice enough contractor to address a handful of big issues, along with a 6-8 weeks-ish timeline. A good 5 months later, we were irritable, losing steam and patience, and although we liked his team’s work, we were fuming at their pace and lackadaisical attitudes.

Let’s just say, we wisened up after that. All these years later, we’ve ultimately found our go-to guys that we trust wholeheartedly, and although we’ve been open about sharing the ups and downs of renovation with you, navigating the murky Tree House waters has proven to introduce whole new set of challenges in an equally new-to-us town. Along the way, we’ve received the most generous emails from you with Tree House contractor recommendations to help us with our to do list, while at the same time, we’re still receiving weekly emails from Chicago friends looking for our favorite GC, handyman or tile installer here. And mixed in amongst all of that, we’ll also hear you say, But wait, back up, how do you find and hire a contractor in the first place? What’s the secret?

The truth is that finding one of the Good Guys or Gals is hard, but there are a handful of things you can do to ease the stress of the process, if only a little. So when you find yourself in need of someone to gut your bathroom or install a new kitchen or lay all new flooring, the following is a routine we work through to help us successfully hire and work with anyone, and our hope is that this might help you in some small way, too!

We interview and meet with at least two contractors (and then do a good gut check).

When possible, we prefer to reach out to recommendations first, especially if we’ve been able to see their handiwork in person (i.e., a friend’s new kitchen). If you don’t know anyone who has recently renovated in your area, searching on review sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List can be a great starting point, and we have found gems from doing so. We like to look up their Facebook pages, read reviews and go through their website (if they have one; this can be oddly difficult to track down!). As a starting point, we like to have an in-depth phone interview covering the basics (our job description and expectations, and are they licensed, insured and able to pull permits if necessary?), and if all goes well, we’ll ask to meet them in person at our home or wherever the work needs to be completed.

We’re cautious of the lowest bid.

If we’re still waiting on a quote more than 1-2 weeks later, we typically take that as a red flag to begin with. But if you’re lucky enough to start collecting quotes right away, we always remind ourselves that the lowest offer isn’t always the best. When there are drastic differences between quotes, we may even nix the lowest one completely, as we’ve been burned by too-low offers in the past with cut corners and sloppy craftsmanship. There are two questions we always follow up with as well: Does your quote include all materials? and Do you offer a cash discount? These answers are beyond helpful in our final decision.

A walk through is always a good idea – before, during and after.

The initial walk through is typically handled during the interview process, but once we’ve found The One, we’ll often ask them to swing by the job once more before starting. Our favorite contractor in Chicago is always happy to walk through the space with us every couple of days, and when a job is complete, we’re mindful to do another walk through. All the walk throughs, we say!

We ask a (whole!) lot of questions.

The walk throughs are the best time to ask a lot – and I mean a lot – of questions! It’s great to get a read on their responses in person, and often times, a good contractor will offer more information that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. Here are some examples:

  • Will you be subcontracting parts of this job? Tell us about your team.
  • How many jobs are you currently working on?
  • Will you be on-site every day?
  • When can you start, and how long do you estimate our job to take?
  • How do you protect the job site? (We always let them know our expectations within our home, such as plastic partitions, drop cloths, keeping our front gate and door closed, etc.)

We all sign a contract, a quote, anything. Just sign.

In our experience, contractors, while great on the job, don’t exactly enjoy paperwork. Unless they’re part of a large team with an office, you may have to specifically ask for a contract. And if they don’t provide a contract, make one yourself! We have a generic contract from a past job that we use and update when necessary, and our contractors have always been fine – if not relieved – to sign the one we provide. For smaller jobs, signing off on the quote can suffice, but if they refuse to sign at all, walk away.

We agree on payment terms.

Large jobs may be broken down into three or more payments, whereas smaller jobs may ask for half at the end of day one and the second half on the last day. We’ve never paid a deposit to hold a date, and I’d be weary of anyone who asks you to do so.

We over communicate and assume nothing.

I cannot stress this enough, but don’t ever feel like you’re bothering your contractor! Chances are you’re paying them a pretty penny, and of course you want to stay in the loop of what’s going on or any changes in the game plan. We over communicate, and we never, ever assume something is a given. If something is on our mind, we shoot our contractor a text, give a call or send an email, depending on their preferred method of communication.

There will be surprises, and we do our best to budget for them.

It’s impossible to say what could be underneath your walls until demolition begins, but we’ve definitely been handed our fair share of surprises over the years. With that in mind, we don’t take on a quote that’s above our means, and because we always prefer to pay with cash, it’s important to us to able to pay for any surprises with cash, too. Know your budget, and plan accordingly!

We’re kind, but stern.

This goes along with being over communicative, but throughout the process, we remain as kind and respectful as possible. If we feel we may be being taken advantage of, I’ll usually default to Scott to be a bit more stern! When there’s the potential for a good deal of money and time at stake, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be a nice person, simply put.

When you find the right person for the job, it can be such a sanity saver, and more often than not, we’re left saying, this has been worth every penny. We used to have guilt over hiring out smaller jobs that we know we’re fully capable of, but there are situations when we choose to prioritize and value our own time, and we’re that much happier for it.

Please weigh in with your own tips and sanity savers when hiring and working with contractors, and we welcome any additional questions we might have missed!

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  • Kelly10.24.17 - 9:00 AM

    This is such a great post, and these tips are fantastic!

    My family business is general contracting, and you’re right on the money! Another good thing to do is spend a few hours at your local zoning and building departments before you start getting your quotes. The requirements for your home could be completely different than those for other homes in your area depending on your particular jurisdiction, and it’s good to be able to make sure your contractor is not confused (or negligent) about what is required from a permitting standpoint. Also, avoid contractors who ask YOU to pull permits for them; usually if a homeowner is pulling a permit, it means the homeowner is assuming responsibility for the work being done to code. A contractor who asks you to do this is probably not licensed (red flag!) and is probably trying to avoid being legally responsible for his work.

    Also, sometimes a quality general contractor WILL require a signed contract to hold a date on the schedule. The good ones are often booked months in advance and won’t commit to working with you until you commit to working with them.ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.24.17 - 9:26 AM

      Thank you for chiming in with this info! I’d like to add that even if signing a contract months in advance, I wouldn’t recommend providing any sort of ‘down payment.’ No money should be exchanged until the job starts.ReplyCancel

      • Kelly10.24.17 - 9:55 AM

        You’re right that a “down payment” shouldn’t be a requirement for a spot on the schedule. However, it’s common for a reputable general contractor to require funds up front in certain circumstances. Let’s say your project requires custom windows with a 4 week lead time. The GC will likely put these on the payment schedule in advance of the work being done so that they don’t carry the costs of your windows in the event that you breach the contract during the period between the contract signing and the start date. Of course, you could always arrange to pay for the windows personally and keep the CG out of that loop altogether! Many contractors that deal only in specific trades ask you to pay directly for materials to prevent those kids of issue.ReplyCancel

        • Kim10.24.17 - 10:59 AM

          That’s a great point! We actually paid for the windows in our bedroom and Scary Room renovations, rather than having our contractor act as the middle man. It made us feel better knowing that – worst case – no one was taking our money and using it on something else. We were burned once during our kithen renovation, and to say we’re extra cautious now would be an understatement!ReplyCancel

  • Ashley - The Gold Hive10.24.17 - 9:00 AM

    Perfect post! I would also add that personality can be important – primarily for big jobs. I’ve kicked out a contractor mid-bid because he was condescending, sexist, and rude. I wouldn’t haven been able to get along with him. It’s oddly like dating because you’ll be with this person for potentially months! And you’ll certainly have ups and downs to work through. I wanted someone I could communicate with, be honest with, and trust.ReplyCancel

  • Sarah Glenn10.24.17 - 9:35 AM

    This is a great post! I am a project manager for a GC/design+build firm in DC and from the contractor side, I agree with all of this. Any good contractor should be willing to meet you on site before they give you a quote. I love the advice about the lowest bidder. So often a contractor will only give you their price for labor and a few materials–think drywall but not cabinets, counter tops, or tile–or they will include allowances for materials that are WAY too low. Make sure that the contractor has a sense of the materials that you want to use. If you think you are going to want quartz counter tops, don’t let your contractor include an allowance for Grade 1 granite. You are so right about assuming nothing. I’m both a designer and a project manager and I routinely find myself needing to communicate decisions that my (wonderful!) carpenters wouldn’t necessarily make for themselves. It’s not wrong, we just assume different preferences. If you can hire someone with the ability to draw what you want, that’s even better! Then you leave even less up to chance. Good luck with your Tree House hiring!ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.24.17 - 11:00 AM

      Thanks, Sarah! Love that you guys are chiming in and speaking from experience!ReplyCancel

  • Ardith10.24.17 - 11:24 AM

    This is an excellent post and recommendations you guys. My husband and I had a residential property management company for seven years (not to mention experience with our own properties over more years), and finding quality vendors was/is always a challenge. We had less than a handful for the business that we could rely on throughout that period of time. As homeowners, it is still an ongoing issue.ReplyCancel

  • Haley10.24.17 - 11:49 AM

    So this is convoluted and not related to this specific post, but seeing the in progress back deck photos made me click back to some garden apartment posts to see better how the access is from the back. And I ended up wondering if you guys painted the cinder blocks, walls, and exterior door frames of the garden. for some reason I couldn’t comment on the relevant post so I just came back here to ask.ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.24.17 - 11:59 AM

      We did paint the exterior door frame to the garden apartment, but painting the cinder block foundation is still on our list! We were actually thinking we’d do so this fall (it was on our to-do list early this year), but then baby came along and other things took priority. Hopefully we’ll finally paint it next year! We also want to re-do the siding on the other 3 sides of our home and potentially pick a new paint color for the whole house, too. We have big plans for the outside, it’s just a matter of saving up and – relevant to this post – finding the right contractor for the job!ReplyCancel

  • Eric10.25.17 - 6:05 AM

    Thnks Kim, for all these great tips and suggestions. I know I have had problems with contractors, and all of my local friends have had problems with contractors. I think that’s one of the reasons so many people have gone the DIY route.ReplyCancel

  • Lesley10.25.17 - 7:13 AM

    Good tips, But I think the most important one before hiring is check out people they’ve previously done work for. A personal reference is really priceless. My husband is an electrical contractor and as far as quotes go, he hates them, because he can spend hours on them knowing full well the person wanting it is going to take it to another tradesman to under cut him. So basically a lot of his work is just people recommending him to their friends and colleagues. Anyway, some great tips there and I can’t wait to see what you do with the new Lake House. Very exciting!

  • Rosie10.25.17 - 12:34 PM

    Another tip – once you find one really solid contractor that you trust, ask them who they recommend for your other jobs. Our excavator was really great, and he recommended our plumber, who also turned out to be great. Our wonderful electrician recommended a plaster guy who was wonderful too. Since all the trades interact with each other on job sites, they all know who does good work and who doesn’t, who is likely to be flaky, or a pain to work with, etc. Once you find one good one, the rest are much easier to find!ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.25.17 - 12:53 PM

      Yes, 100%!ReplyCancel

    • Kathy11.7.17 - 12:20 PM

      I totally agree with this and it reminds me of a saying that I often use: “How you do anything is how you do everything”

      If a contractor is ethical and does good work, then chances are he/she will only recommend or associate with other contractors that are equally ethical and skilled.ReplyCancel

  • Molly10.25.17 - 3:17 PM

    Finding a contractor for anything has been challenging in our city (wanted to add a vent in our bathroom: one quote was twice the other one, the first guy was late/lost our appointment, a third never showed up). A friend’s contractor started the job, subs did the job, but contractor took the money and ran. My friend was left with a lawsuit from the subs and a project they had to pay more to finish (and I didn’t think the job was very well done). Another friend’s contractor left town to participate in a reality tv show (so, no longer working in the biz). The house next door is under construction, but there has been no progress for months. Another house in the neighborhood is using a contractor that was recommended, but when we called, they never answered and went to someone’s private voicemail (no “thanks for calling Bill at XYZ Construction”). Neighbors have said that many contractors require fees for quotes. Have you ever paid for a quote on a project?

    We are at the beginning of the planning stages for a big project on our house (basement finish and kitchen remodel). Our house is small: <1100 sf. We met a contractor recently, who came to our house and walked through the project with us. I think he was expecting a bigger project and after spending an hour with us and waiting another week, he told us that his schedule changed and he wouldn't be able to give us a bid. I'm afraid we'll never find someone! I'm wondering if a better approach is to hire an architect to design everything and go with contractors they know and trust (you didn't mention hiring a professional designer in your post) rather than relying on the contractor to draw it for you.ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.25.17 - 3:25 PM

      Molly, we are so sorry to hear you going through this! It can be one of the most frustrating parts of any home renovation, when you’d think they were there to make your lives easier. It doesn’t always seem to be the case, sadly. (Which is why when you DO find a good one, you hold on for dear life and never let go!). To answer your question, no, we have NEVER paid for a quote, and that concept sounds a bit nuts, honestly.

      You bring up a good point about hiring a designer first, and I think that can be a fantastic idea! We dive into that on this post when we first began our big bed, bath and laundry renovation:

      Through our designer/space planner, Jen, we found our contractor that we still use to this day. Jen did walk throughs with 3 different GCs with us, and although the one we chose wasn’t the lowest bid (as I mentioned above, that’s not always a good thing), we felt the most comfortable with his personality and professionalism. I remember when we first met with him, he took his shoes off at our door, which was only the first of many things he did that made me happy!ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa10.25.17 - 9:28 PM

    One thing to add is that we make it difficult for contractors as well, it’s just human nature and being on the look out for “the best deal” when that really should mean “the best work.” But you can only pick one person to work with, and that way you can’t really compare.

    Another thought is that this is a good field for persnikity people to go into. I sometimes think that everyone else has all these skills and I am skill-less, but I am fairly competent myself, I should probably be a general contractor!ReplyCancel

  • Nicola O.10.26.17 - 11:36 AM

    We had a bathroom reno done a couple years ago. We did go with a lower cost contractor and it turned out ok, but we were not blown away. What I learned — specify EVERYTHING, every fixture, every location. We approved the shower fixtures, for example, but the towel racks were too short and they mounted the toilet paper dispenser in a stupid place.

    The other thing I wanted– and I’m curious to know if others think this is reasonable– is a daily check-in at the end of day from the GC to tell me a) what was accomplished; b) when/if anyone is showing up the next day; and c) if they have any questions or need anything from us to move forward. I was working full time, and while my husband was home to let people in and out, he often didn’t see the GC, just the crews that would randomly show up any time between 7 am and noon.ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.26.17 - 2:41 PM

      I don’t think your request would be unreasonable AT ALL. We’ve asked the same from past contractors, and I would say they listen most of the time – ha! For example, we’re currently having work done on the Tree House, and although we’ve met with them for two walk throughs in person and they’ve promised to keep us informed every day, we hear from them probably every other day. We’re fine with it, but we’ve found that it’s REALLY hard to get a contractor to get in touch every day. Perhaps they feel it might be a bit micromanage-y? Would love to know others’ thoughts on this!ReplyCancel

  • Julie K10.27.17 - 9:14 PM

    I’m currently working with a contractor on a project that is taking FOREVER. Over three months to finish our garage… not starting from the ground up- just insulating, Sheetrock, and a few other things. We haven’t paid anything for the project yet, and I’m shocked that the company isn’t getting their act together to finish more quickly.

    A friend recently said that they write an outside date into their contracts, and they specify that they will pay 5% less if the project is not done by that date. I’d never have thought to do that, but wishing now I had (when I haven’t used my garage in three months). Anyone else do something like this before?ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.28.17 - 4:52 PM

      Ugh, sorry to hear! You know, we’ve heard of that before, but we’ve never done it ourselves. I always feel a little icky about it for some reason? There’s also the possibility that something else can come up, which pushes back the estimated finish date as well. I’d love to hear from anyone in the business if this is acceptable or frowned upon!ReplyCancel

  • Kristin11.11.17 - 4:15 PM

    We just went through a situation with a contractor we’d hired through our realtor who was supposed to make some repairs to the house prior to us moving in. To sum it up, it was a mess, and I paid the jerk off to avoid him placing a builder’s lien against our house, but I will never again hire a contractor where I don’t have a very specific contract which includes walk-throughs and approval of any changes to the bill of materials or schedule of work prior to executing – and being billed for it. I will definitely be using your tips when we have our next professional work done!!ReplyCancel

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