Finding a contractor who best fits your needs is critical to a successful project and, just as importantly, having a good experience along the way. Renovation doesn't have to be torture. With good communication and the right team, it should be both manageable and fulfilling.
Your design professional should be able to recommend several contractors, and guide you through the interview and bidding process. Friends and family are another good referral source. However, even if the contractor was referred to you, ask him/her for other references and follow up with them as you would with any prospective hire. Ask a lot of questions and get as much feedback as possible. It can be easy enough to get references, but as I discussed in my last post, keep in mind who is doing the referring. There is a good fit for everyone as long you fully research your options and are realistic about who you are and what you expect.
Some of the most important things to find out about the contractors you are considering are:
What type of renovations/work do they typically do?
You want to know that your contractor has done similar work before and one of the best ways to determine this is to ask to see some recent projects. If they can show you ones with a similar scope, so much the better. If you are renovating your bathrooms and kitchens, you should be able to see some bathrooms and kitchens. Keep in mind, everyone has different taste, but look for things like quality of materials and workmanship. Also, seeing their projects is a great way to get ideas. If you see something you like, point it out and use it as a reference when explaining what you are looking for.
Emery Design Associates, LLC 2012 (Photo Credit Scott Morris, SGM Photography)
How detail oriented is the contractor and does this match your style?
Are you someone who notices things being off to a fraction of an inch? Are you generally satisfied with things, or is it hard to find people or things that meet your standards? These are some of the things I like to determine when beginning to work with a new client so I can suggest contractors who best fit their style. If you are a perfectionist, you will want to pay close attention when you are touring some other projects the contractor has done. One area where a less than meticulous job is visible is in the grout joints in tile/stone work. These should line up and not be bigger than necessary, which indicates lesser skill and care. Also, look at outlets, wall switches, towel bars, etc for alignment. Inspect the paint job to make sure you can't see any tape joints and the finishes are smooth. Look carefully at areas where one surface or material meets another like corners, edges of moldings, walls to floors, etc. This is typically where the telltale signs will be if the work is less than perfect. Try to look beyond the general finished job and ask yourself if this were your home, would you find what you see acceptable.
Ask your referrals for specific examples of how the contractor handled things that went wrong or when problems came up.
Sooner or later things always go wrong. It may be poor communication or simple mistakes, but it happens all the time. The important thing is how it is handled. A great contractor will work with you to find a solution. I had a situation with a client where we had selected a stone for her kitchen floor but when we got a sample of the current lot, it didn't have as white a background as the sample we had been working with and my client didn't like it as much, even though she understood that stone has natural variations from lot to lot. The showroom we were working with didn't have any other lots, but our contractor saw it and said he might be able to find a different lot through another source he knew of, which is exactly what he did. It also turned out to be a little less expensive than the original selection. Same stone, different suppliers. The client got what she wanted, saved money in the process and the contractor helped us keep the project moving forward, which was a win win for everyone.
On the other hand, when another job I was working on was finally done, and the clients had just moved in, they had a punch list of a few dings and painting touchups that needed to be taken care of. This is very typical, especially since it is not until clients are actually living there that they have an opportunity to really look at things repeatedly and carefully. As long as it isn't too long after moving back in, dealing with punch list items is a standard part of the job and shouldn't be at question. However, this contractor insisted that the dings had been caused by other workers doing things in the apartment after he had been there and wanted to charge extra to take care of it. It would have been so easy for him to do it, because it was such a small amount of touching up. In the end, my clients decided to do it themselves, and when it came time for them to do another construction job, they hired someone else.
Is the contractor more interested in getting the job done or getting it done right?
A critical quality in a contractor is someone who checks in with you and asks questions when something isn't clear or doesn't seem right, rather than making unilateral decisions just to move things forward. This issue is very common and I have heard many horror stories on this topic. Your referrals should be able to clue you in on this. It is not always the contractors fault as when a client doesn't communicate well, but when it happens repeatedly, it usually means the contractor is more interested in getting the job done, than getting it done right. We have friends who were working with a contractor to get their house painted and while they specifically told the contractor not to touch the beautiful, natural cherry wood doors, he went ahead and sanded them down and painted them over. Either he didn't think to double check why they would want to paint over the already beautiful doors, which indicates a lack of common sense or he didn't care. The clients were horrified when they saw what had happened, it was a big job to undo it and they had a major disagreement over who was responsible. P.s. Put everything in writing, especially if you find your contractor is rushing to finish and moving forward with things without consulting you or having a clear direction.
How does the contractor bill?
Some contractors provide a bid with more detail than others and I find this is a clue to their working style in general. If you are very precise and detail oriented, you may prefer a line item proposal. Keep in mind that along with this precision comes a good chance that you will be paying for every change of mind, small or large, since I have found that a contractor who is paying attention to what every last thing costs, will be less likely to give things away. One of my favorite contractors charges a more general flat fee broken down into a few broad categories, but he seldom charges for add ons or change orders unless they are significant and affect a lot of other things. Not everyone is comfortable with this more generalist approach. That's why it is important to know yourself and what will give you the most comfort.
Be sure to get a lot of detail from references on how the contractor charges and what they did and didn't like about it. Remember that the lowest bidder may not always be the best choice, but it can also be a question of priorities. We just completed a renovation for clients who are extremely particular. They are both retired and were concerned about stretching their money, so they went with the lowest bidder even though I made clear to them, he was not a perfectionist and so from that perspective was not a good fit for them. They decided to go with him anyway, in the interest of their budget. In the end, they did ask him to make a few adjustments to try and satisfy their standards, which he was willing to do at no extra charge because their project was small and contained, but ultimately they were very happy as they had gone into it with their eyes wide open.
How to avoid surprises?
No matter which way your contractor charges, the more details your plans and scope include, the more accurate the pricing will be which makes for a well-informed, well-prepared and ultimately happy client. Lack of detail and clarity in plans and scope may cause the bidding contractors to add a lot of padding to their estimate to cover themselves. Beware of the very low bidder in this scenario, as a less experienced contractor may underbid the job. Here is an example of the difference detail makes. If your scope simply states "install stone floor in bathroom" this tells the contractor a lot less than if it says "install a 4' x 6' field of 4" bianco antico tiles on the diagonal centered in the room within a border of two rows of 1" glass mosaic all set within a 6" x 12" border of bianco antico" and show a sketch of the layout. In the second scenario, the contractor knows, among other things, the exact materials he is dealing with, he knows it will be labor intensive because he needs to do a lot of cutting and piecing, particularly for the diagonal placement, and he needs to use an installer who is very precise because installing all those different materials and sizes together cleanly, takes care and skill. In the first scenario you run the risk of the contractor coming back to you once work has begun and asking for more money because they didn't know exactly what you intended so they based their estimate on a simple 12x12" straight installation, for example, which is very different labor wise. Without the documentation/details, you are at their mercy.
Of course, enlisting the services of a design professional who can guide you through all of the above and help you prepare a detailed, tight scope and plans is always smart because it will ultimately save you time, money, frustration and stress. Spending time on the front end, doing your due diligence in finding the right contractor, will help avoid mismatches, misunderstandings and ensure renovation success.
If you have more questions on this topic or have a story to share about your experiences finding or working with a contractor, please post your comments below.