I have overseen many successful renovations, but I also know what it’s like to have a project turn into a total disaster.
When my husband and I bought our apartment 20-plus years ago, it needed a gut renovation. I was pregnant, working full time and totally naive, and I hired a contractor without fully vetting him. (To be honest, at the time, I didn’t know what “vetting” meant, much less how to do it.) Almost a year into the job, our contractor went bankrupt and left before fully installing the kitchen cabinets or finishing our bathroom.
Although that experience was painful, disheartening and unnecessarily expensive, I learned my lesson. I don’t want anyone to have a similar experience, so I called on two professionals for advice on determining whether you even need a contractor, how to find the right person for the job and more tips. Here is what they had to say.
How do I know if I can oversee a project myself?
Michael Grey, a senior project manager for Structure Works Construction in Millbrook, New York, says that, before you can assess whether you need a professional contractor to oversee your project — including hiring all tradespeople and coordinating the timeline — you should develop a project plan.
Include as much information as possible about the design, he says. “Depending on the size and complexity of the project, this may include professionally developed construction drawings, or a list of paint colors and sheens for a small painting job, or something in between,” Grey says. “But no matter the scope, the plan must adequately describe the project and each of its various components.”
The next step if you decide to do the work yourself, Grey says, is to break the plan into the specific tasks required and assess the amount of expertise needed. Assign each task to the various trades, paying close attention to possible overlap. “You also don’t want to accidentally omit a task that results in unhappy surprises later on,” Grey says. Then find tradespeople who have the right expertise, licensing and insurance.
Ultimately, your choice to take on a project verus hiring a general contractor comes down to your comfort level. It also depends on your knowledge and experience, as well as the size, nature and complexity of the project. To do it well, you need to feel comfortable consulting with all of the tradespeople, subcontractors and consultants — not to mention, you need to know and have access to them.
If you decide to manage the project yourself, Grey says, “be wary of carpenters that paint and painters that do trim carpentry, and never allow an unlicensed electrician or plumber to work in your home. Though there are certainly multiskilled tradespeople available, use extra caution and verify their qualifications.”
“You need to approach your project with a healthy respect for every trade involved and appreciate the amount of expertise and knowledge that is required to perform even the apparently simple construction task truly skillfully, efficiently and professionally to add value to your home,” he adds.
How do I find the right contractor?
Renée deVignier Biery, a construction manager and interior designer based in Wilmington, Delaware, says references from friends are a great place to start. Don’t stop there, though. You need to do serious research about the recommended professionals. “Too often, people go by referral only,” Biery says. “They don’t go farther. They just think, ‘My best friend used him, so he must be great.’ “
Grey says you should never hire anyone without a face-to-face meeting. It’s also important to have good communication right out of the gate, he says. If that is missing, consider hiring someone else.
Both Biery and Grey also insist that you go in person to see the contractor’s work and ensure it’s similar in scope to your own. Also make sure you are comfortable with their contract and the billing process, and verify that they are properly insured and licensed, and that they can meet your schedule.
Biery also says to pay attention to style and substance; of course, you want a contractor to do the work properly, but you also want to work with someone who has a demeanor you are comfortable with. Do you want someone who is more laid-back or more uptight?
How should I evaluate a contract and bid?
Biery says you should read every page of a contract and always ask about words or phrases you don’t understand. She also says to ask what is not in your contract. “No one ever asks that. People get overwhelmed when they see a 40-page contract, and they assume everything is in it,” she says. An example, she says, is “scope creep,” which is when a homeowner adds little jobs here and there during the construction process and doesn’t expect to pay for them.
“I often see clients ask a painter to touch up a different room from where they are working just because the client thinks it’s not a big deal, the painter is there and the paint can is already open,” she says. “They don’t understand that means extra labor and time, so it changes the scope of the project.”
And remember that when you sign off on a contract and bid, you become an active team member — not just a client hiring a service provider. “You will have to make decisions all along the way, so you are not just signing off and accepting anything the contractor says or does,” Biery says.
What is an allowance in a contractor bid?
Allowances are the dollar amounts that a contractor assigns to a given line item in a bid. Of course, it behooves a contractor to include the least-expensive option in a bid, because it makes the bottom line more palatable.
For example, if you say you want white subway tile for your bathroom, the contractor can assign a fee of $2 per square foot. But if, when you go to select the tile, you choose something that is $7 per square foot, that is a material difference in cost. Over the course of an entire project, those sliding numbers can add up, and suddenly, you can find yourself paying much more than you expected.
Research is key to avoiding this, Biery says. Before you begin a project, find out which fixtures, tiles, lighting and other materials you like. “It’s so easy to research,” she says. “Just go to build.com and put everything you think you want in a cart, and look at the bottom line. You will have a very accurate idea of the cost, and when you go to bid out the job, contractors will be able to give you a more accurate estimate.”
What is a fair payment schedule?
The contractor will usually provide a payment schedule that’s based on the length of the job. Generally, there is an initial payment to secure the job, then monthly or quarterly payments, and a final payment due once the job is complete. For a smaller job, there might only be two payments: one at the beginning and one at the end. Never pay the full amount up front, because you want to have some leverage to protect yourself in case something goes wrong. Regardless, knowing the schedule ahead of time will help you budget your money.
Biery says not to try to negotiate overall costs. “If you do your research and due diligence and you have checked on all of the references, you should know that you are working with a reputable firm. Negotiating means there is fat to trim, and there should be no fat,” she says.
Any other advice?
Biery says to beware of unrealistic expectations based on what you see on television. “Everyone watches HGTV and thinks they can do it themselves, but unfortunately, viewers aren’t fully educated on what happens behind the scenes,” she says. “Problems are not solved between commercial breaks.”
And when it comes to the cost that is quoted on those shows, Biery is even more critical, “You can’t go by what you hear quoted on those shows, because labor costs vary from place to place. What it costs to do a project in Waco, Texas, is not what it costs to do a project in Washington, D.C.”
Her advice: Go to your local mom-and-pop building supply company and ask what the average price of a job is, because the people there will know.