Tell me how I can hire a contractor without getting ripped off?
February 17, 2010 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Tell me how I can hire a contractor without getting ripped off?

I own an older, post-war home. My ex and I tore up an entire floor of the home and started to re-build it. Then we split up. When we were still together, my ex pretty much took charge of this project and I wasn't as involved as I should have been, so I don't feel my level of knowledge is up to finishing it. Additionally, as I begin to learn more about homes, I'm discovering that he probably did some tasks out of order and I'm worried that the finished reno won't be correct and there will be problems down the road. I'm also realizing that my job and my volunteer commitments just don't give the time I need to do this myself.

So, I looked at my savings and my available credit, and realized I may just have enough money to pay someone to finish this for me. But I hate the whole process of hiring contractors, because I'm always worried I'll get ripped off, or that they're inflating their estimates. In the past, I've usually gotten 3 or 4 quotes, and tended to choose larger companies that are BBB members. But beyond that, what else can do to ensure that I'm getting the best value for my money? I'd need someone who can co-ordinate a number of different tasks, but I still want to do some of it myself (tiling, painting, etc.) I'm also wedded to a couple of design ideas that maximize storage, but that are a bit unorthodox: I know they aren't impossible, because I've seen them in other homes of the same vintage, but they aren't generally done today. I realize that this is a somewhat expensive job and I'm willing to pay to have it done right, but I want to be certain that I'm getting value for my money.

(Alternatively, if anyone local to Edmonton, AB is reading this, I'd also be happy to hear about any local contractors that are recommended or not recommended.)
posted by Kurichina to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Word-of-mouth is probably the best way to ensure you'll get a reliable contractor who won't try to screw you over. If you know people (or know people who know people) who have renovated recently, ask who they used. Then, mention the person who recommended the contractor when contacting the contractor, so it's known that you're banking on his reputation in the community.
posted by xingcat at 8:20 AM on February 17, 2010

Here's a previous question that I kept favorited for a rainy day.
And future remodeling work on my own home.
Lots of good questions to ask.
Hope it helps!
posted by willmize at 8:25 AM on February 17, 2010

Personally, I have had better experience using Angie's List than I have using word-of-mouth, but if I could find a contractor on Angie's List that also came with a reference from a friend, that'd solidify things. Of course, I'd still be getting multiple quotes, checking licenses and so on.
posted by davejay at 8:25 AM on February 17, 2010

My father is a successful licensed contractor and I have often heard him say that anybody can put a sign in their window and call themselves a contractor. You are right to be concerned, but keep in mind that bigger is not necessarily better. Dad doesn't have a website and doesn't advertise beyond listing his number in the phone book. Maintaining an excellent reputation and word of mouth has served him quite well for decades.

And remember, you get what you pay for. There have been quite a few times that Dad has bid on a job and lost because the job went to the lowest bidder, only to have the person or company come back to him in a couple years time asking him to fix what the other contractor screwed up.

So ask around to friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, etc. Anyone you hire for anything shouldn't be hesitant to put you in touch with former clients.

On preview, what xingcat said.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:29 AM on February 17, 2010

I agree with getting references from friends, co-workers, etc. You also want to make sure that the contractor will have a working style or set of priorities that match with yours. Someone can be honest, hard-working and skilled, but have an entirely different concept of the work to be done. It could be very difficult to work with them if they tend to be stubborn or just very passionate about their vision.

When you discuss the project with them, make sure you are very clear about your "deal-breakers". Are there existing materials or elements that you want to keep? What projects or materials are you willing to cut if budget becomes an issue? Is timing an issue?

From the references, you should try and get a sense of their working style. How does the contractor respond to special requests or "unorthodox" ideas from the home-owner? Where do they have some flexibility to make decisions without consulting you? When do they need your approval before moving forward with a task, purchase, etc?

This will ensure that you not only get what you pay for, but you're happy with the end result.
posted by annaramma at 8:33 AM on February 17, 2010

Get 3 estimates! That is the best piece of advice I ever received about home repair/improvement. When you talk to multiple contractors it becomes blindingly obvious who is a flake, who's trying to rip you off, and who is just a reasonable person who will do a reasonable job.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:36 AM on February 17, 2010

Holmes on Homes has some advice for hiring a contractor that would have never occurred to me. Like licenses and actually calling all references. He also has some Contractor Red Flags that can help you avoid trouble.
posted by Gor-ella at 9:44 AM on February 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have worked with contractors for well over twenty years, in public works and private sector jobs. There is no way to tell just from meeting a contractor if he is going to rip you off. I have found some extraordinarily competent contractors who are out and out crooks. To a much lesser extent I have met incompetent, but honest, contractors (usually honesty entails being honest about one's abilities, but I have seen guys simply underestimate the complexity of a job).

Gor-ela's links above are good advice. The very best thing is to get a direct reference from a friend who has first hand knowledge of the contractor's work.

If you can't get that:
1. Get itemized bids.
2. Get references, and check them.
3. Get a written contract. Read it.

I will add emphasis to the "you get what you pay for" idea. In public works, almost every agency goes to the lowest bidder. They then pay a team of inspectors and consultants to force the contractor into simply meeting the specifications on the job. It can be very difficult. I worked with one agency who did not do this; they would throw out the high and low bids, and then award the contract to the bidder who came closest to the average of the remaining bids. It worked very well, though they still had to have people on board to make sure they were getting what they paid for, but there were far fewer headaches.

In the private sector, contractors tend to be very good with people who can come back to bite them, e.g. ,developers, builders, repeat clients. The "one-off" demographic, i.e., residential clients, are ripe targets for rip-offs. Don't lose sleep over this, but follow the advice above. There are more honest contractors than outright crooks, but there is also a relatively large number of contractors who cut corners to get their costs down. Some are simply efficient, some are questionable in what corners they cut.

Also, don't be an asshole client. Don't constantly grind the contractor on cost, and don't demand little extras for free. He'll accommodate you, and gladly let you shoot yourself in the foot. The flip side of that is to resist opportunities for cost growth. I call it the "good idea" threshold. Stick with the original plan as much as possible. You will always find on every project that there are certain things that can be done more cheaply now "while we have the trenches/walls/floors open" than can be done later. Of course it costs extra to do this work, and of course it is cheaper to do it now rather than later. But is extra work. Consider yourself lucky if you can keep cost growth down under 10%.
posted by Xoebe at 11:27 AM on February 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

It's important to have a strong position in the business dynamic.

We had a good experience when we arranged to pay a tiny deposit and had the contractor to make a supplies list that we could order from the building store. That way, we were just paying for the labour and if we were unhappy with the work, we could hire somebody else without worrying about a big down payment hanging in the balance. We made a list of 3 milestones for future installments and agreed to hold back the final 10% until 30 days after the job was finished.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:53 AM on February 17, 2010

Suggestions above are good. Don't pay anything more than a deposit upfront (we paid 1/3 cost). Then, be prepared to insist on high quality work, and fire them if they are doing a bad job or get too far behind schedule. I read this book and found it to be helpful. We also bought most of our fixtures online. If they offered to buy something for us, we always checked the price online.
posted by Eringatang at 12:05 PM on February 17, 2010

Get ten estimates, and require a guaranteed cost on a written contract, then take the second-lowest quote.
posted by rokusan at 1:26 PM on February 17, 2010

Best answer: I am a contractor, but not your contractor, and I am certainly not licensed in Canada.

1. References, references, references. Ask friends, co-workers, etc. for their recommendations. Check your potential hires' references, and ask to visit a job site.

2. That said, look for someone whose skill set matches your project. Just because a friend's contractor built an awesome deck doesn't mean that guy can build you an awesome kitchen. The older a house is and the larger the project is, the more challenges you can expect, and you need a contractor who's up to those challenges.

3a. Do not shop on price alone. You've heard the expression "good, fast, or cheap -- pick two?" While it's not quite that cut and dried, I like to ask my clients to prioritize quality (which includes features, materials, craftsmanship), schedule, and budget. There's a certain amount of give and take in those areas to deliver the results you're expecting.

3b. What are your other concerns or considerations? Are legal workers earning a living wage important to you? What about green building? Any variable in the equation will have a cost associated with it.

4. License, bond, insurance. Absolutely required. I know plenty of good people working without one or more of those, but they don't come on my job sites. You're looking for someone who plans to stay in business for the long haul (and again, here's a cost component).

5. Do not assume an adversarial relationship with your contractor. If your potential contractor made it through the above criteria, chances are that he's not out to screw his clients. I routinely turn down work from people throwing out the "I don't trust you" vibe.

6a. Be prepared to share your budget. Again, an honest contractor is not out to take your last dime; he'd actually like to work for you again. Moreover, if he knows your budget, he can better tailor the proposal to your needs and wants -- he knows what materials and techniques fit your budget. See 3a above.

6b. If you refuse to share your budget upfront, then be prepared to hire an architect and/or designer to draft a very specific plan and scope of work. I can propose a plan for your budget, or I can bid a specific scope of work, but I need somewhere to start. The client has to constrain one of those variables for me.

7. Contract terms -- fixed price, cost-plus, time and materials. A fixed-price bid can encourage a contractor to start cutting corners if his budget starts getting tight. Working straight T&M can often cause a project to drag out and rack up bigger charges, because the contractor doesn't really suffer any consequences. I like to work on a cost-plus basis because it tends to balance the risk/reward equation for both contractor and homeowner.

I'm happy to elaborate on any of the above if I haven't been clear. The bottom line is that you need someone you can trust and enjoy working with over the course of what sounds like a fairly extensive project. Good luck.
posted by lost_cause at 1:45 PM on February 17, 2010 [7 favorites]

The contractor/client relationship should be built on trust. The first comment by xingcat is right on: word of mouth recommendation from someone you know is the best way to start.

As mentioned, checklist: license, insurance, references, etc. Gor-ella's link to Mike Holmes checklist is pretty solid (but I'm not always a fan of Holmes: his narratives sometimes seem to make all contractors seem like crooks, and his television solutions are sometimes crazy expensive designed for television stuff).

rokusan is incorrect, the second lowest of 10 bids will get you the second least-worst crap.

lost_cause has a good overview, but I might quibble a bit regarding point seven. Time and materials can work out well if you trust your contractor. A decent contractor doesn't need to drag things out, because they have enough work for another job to get to.

regarding wilmize's link to a previous ask-me thread: the first comment on that thread (which someone favorited?) might earn you a punch in the face from an honest and otherwise non-violent person. As xoebe says, don't be an asshole client.

Okay, I have a comment on this subject way down on this ask-me thread. Please glance at it. Summary: decent home renovations on creaky old buildings will always cost more than you think, for valid reasons. Always. You mention previous work done on your house which might be imperfect. Ouch!

Also, regarding unorthodox design choices, the contractors who I know really like this stuff, not because it is more expensive than standard work (which it is, custom always costs more) but because they really love the challenge of working on something different and original.

The art of home renovations is complex and emotional, as you know. As a client, you have a responsibility to yourself to be vigilant, to clearly explain exactly what you want, to watch everything closely, to always to ask for clear explanations about everything which is going on in the process, and to express yourself when you are not happy with the progress or results.
(note: you are allowed to change your mind about what you want, but please note that this costs extra. Not knowing exactly what you want also costs extra).

You also have a responsibility to use a bit of tact and patience, to treat your contractors and subcontractors with respect, and to not get hyper-vigilant and paranoid, and this is a sometimes a difficult balance to get perfect at times if you are new to the game (it gets easier with time).

As a client you are afraid of getting ripped off. From the other point of view, default on payment by problem clients for completed work is the scourge of this industry (and in the end contributes to everyone's expenses).
posted by ovvl at 5:53 PM on February 17, 2010

ovvi nails it, and the point about hiring a contractor who appreciates "the challenge of working on something different" is especially worth noting. The good remodlers I know are very hands on, actively working on the project -- think Tom Silva on This Old House*. The not so good ones I know treat remodling like a lot of new construction where they sit in the truck and phone everthing out to a low bidder.

Another thing you might consider asking is if your contractor will be working other jobs concurrent with yours. The hands-on guys tend to focus on one job at a time, so you get a lot of attention. The windshield contractors may have a few jobs running at once, and the drywall crew may disappear for a week. Some of this is a function of the size of the fim you hire--but I generally take it as a bad sign if the guy in charge never puts on a tool belt. I'm not completely objective here, because I'm a relatively small-time and hands-on contractor, but I do think my way is better. Especially in remodeling.

*Or how he's portrayed, anyway. I have no idea how he really rolls. It may all be a show for the camera, or he might really be there gettting dirty a few days a week.

**And FWIW, ovvi, I do actually tend to bill T&M when I'm working on a relatively straightforwad carpentry project, say the walnut built-in to fit that funky space next to your fireplace. On larger projects like a complete kitchen gut and blow the wall out 10-feet where I have to do a lot more project management and bring in more subs, I feel like a cost-plus agreement does a better job of balancing risk/reward for me and my client. But sure, I'm always willing to work T&M if the client's comfortable with that.
posted by lost_cause at 9:28 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's right. Good renovation-specialist contractors I know are very hands-on, personally on-site as much as possible, working with and directly supervising small crews, usually running only one job at a time (with maybe some overlap at the beginning or end), not advertising, and busy enough that you have to be prepared to wait for them to schedule you in. And not cheap. But satisfaction guaranteed.
posted by ovvl at 9:38 AM on February 18, 2010

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