Before you even think of working with a renovation pro, consider this insider intel from our panel of expert contractors

9 Secrets Only Contractors Know
Photo by Thomas J. Story

Q: What are the most common mistakes people make when choosing a contractor?

A: Number one: choosing the contractor based solely on price. It may make your wallet happy, but the lowest bid isn’t always the best. Number two: not checking references and inspecting the contractor’s work. The truth is that any joe can shell out a few hundred dollars and put together a website that will impress you. But you’ll never know whether he’s any good without seeing past projects—and that means visiting a previous client and running your hands over the counters and opening and closing drawers.

Q: Why do bids often vary wildly in price? How negotiable are they?

A: It can be confusing when one contractor quotes you a certain price while another quotes you a price double that. The bottom line is that a contractor’s experience, the quality of her work, and even the size of her office factor into what she’ll charge. A company with dozens of employees and a big, fancy office will charge more. Some contractors may take shortcuts, so their bids are lower, but you could end up paying more in repairs down the road. Generally, bids aren’t negotiable. If you want to work with a specific contractor but can’t afford to, discuss scaling back the project a little or using less expensive materials so the price fits your budget. Finally, never—and we mean never—pay in full until every last bit of the job, down to that final doorknob, is complete.

Q: What’s the best way to check a contractor’s reputability?

A: Good old word of mouth is a great starting point. Ask your friends for recommendations. Next, check the largest, most established referral service you can find (think Angie’s List). Once you’ve narrowed down the possibilities to a few names, visit your municipality’s website to check local records and confirm that each contractor is licensed, bonded, and insured and doesn’t have any unsettled disputes.

Q: What’s a sure sign at the start of a project that you’ve hired a good contractor?

A: Is he reachable when you need him? How long does it take him to respond to an email? How good is he at taking notes? What does the work site look like the first few days he’s in your home? Do your personalities click? If you’re happy with the answers to all these questions, you’ve made a smart hire.

Q: On the flip side, what’s a sign that the work might be shoddy?

A: It can be hard to know during demolition how good your contractor’s work is. So instead consider how she communicates with you. If she’s careful to return your emails and answer all your questions, she’s probably just as conscientious about her handiwork. One red flag: Your contractor asks you to get permits. In most areas, you have to be a licensed contractor to pull a permit, so this request may be a sign that she doesn’t have a license or that it has lapsed. And be wary of any contractor who demands a giant deposit early on. Some don’t require any money up front; others might ask for as much as 30 percent on signing the contract. Any more is highway robbery.

Q: Why does a project often take longer than expected?

A: Sometimes a contractor will open up a wall or remove old fixtures and discover a nasty surprise—maybe rot, a bug infestation, or improper framing. Cleaning up those messes can add days, if not weeks, to a job. Another cause for a delay could be a client who changes her mind. Getting in new material or changing an order takes time. That said, there are contractors who take on too many projects at once or hire subcontractors who don’t stick to a schedule or who even stop showing up at all. More reasons to research your contractor ahead of time!

Q: What’s the typical markup on materials?

A: Expect markup to be anywhere from 15 to 50 percent. If that seems steep, consider that a contractor is charging you the markup on discounted prices; contractors are tradespeople and can buy materials more cheaply than you can. Contractors are essentially acting as the manufacturer, so if something breaks or the product arrives damaged, they are responsible for fixing or replacing it. That’s not the case for items you buy on your own.

Q: How often will my contractor be on the job? If I want to see him personally and not just his workers, should I establish that up front?

A: Depending on the size of the company, the person you hired may not be the one showing up at your work site every day. Instead, you’ll work with a supervisor or project manager—and that’s a good thing, because he’ll know way more about your project than the big boss ever will. You should be able to reach your contractor easily if you have a question or problem, though. Lay down your expectations at the beginning of the job so you’re not disappointed.

Q: What projects should always be handled by a pro?

A: DIY projects involving electrical, plumbing, or an HVAC (heating and cooling) system can be dangerous. Install electrical improperly and you could start a fire. Screw up your plumbing and you could end up with a flood or sewage up to your elbows. Mess with your HVAC system and you could inadvertently fill your home with poisonous carbon monoxide. And be warned that some contractors may shy away from taking a job that involves fixing a failed DIY experiment—it’s simply not worth the hassle. For these types of projects, hire a professional from the get-go.

Our Experts

Kathy Cuppy, co-owner of All Phase Group Inc., Indianapolis Robi Kirsic, president of Timeline Renovations Inc., New York City Tom Miller, president of The National Association of the Remodeling Industry and owner of Tom Miller Remodeling Inc., Portland, Oregon
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