How to get contractors to do a good job
May 10, 2010 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Over the past few years I've hired a few people here and there to do various projects around the house. In general, it always comes down to me not being satisfied and having to fight to get things done correctly/compromising when it's just too much effort. I find it emotionally draining. Help me do a better job hiring people and managing their work.

I'm pretty good at setting realistic expectations and writing a written contract that everyone signs. Still, it seems that I always have to compromise something.

Couple of examples:

1) Last year, I hired a contractor to remove a concrete patio. He underbid the project. He tried to leave lots of crushed concrete (he didn't want to pay for the haul away). He got really angry + several confrontations = he removed most of it. He ended up paying out probably double what I was paying him in labor and equipment. I felt bad and ended up paying him.

2) I hired a landscaper to lay a flagstone pathway in my backyard. He did a really good job laying the path (I paid him). I also hired him (separate contract) to seal the pathway. He didn't prepare the flagstone properly and sealed dirt and other debris into the stone (it's not horrible, but I can tell). I confronted him on this and he asked me what I wanted him to do. I told him he could either fix it or not get paid. He opted for the latter. So now I'm out the material cost ($200 worth of commercial sealer) and I get to live with perma-dirt. PLUS I feel really guilty not paying this guy who I felt was generally an honorable contractor (even though he STOLE what was left of my sealant because he's pissed that I'm not paying him for the labor).

How can I break this cycle of dissatisfaction and guilt? Is it possible to find contractors that don't try to cut corners? Is compromise part of this business? Ultimately, I want to pay people but I want a job well done. Do I have to do everything myself?
posted by shew to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If this is the sort of thing that happens regularly, it seems like your expectations actually aren't all that realistic. You have to pay for what you get, so if you want top-notch quality, you have to pay for it. Perhaps you could outsource someone to manage your construction for you - I've heard of people who "flip" houses managing construction projects at places they don't own, so that might be somewhere to look. Of course, you're going to have to pay them (not just agree to pay them, actually pay them).
posted by fermezporte at 10:23 AM on May 10, 2010

How are you finding folks? There are plenty of folks who will tell you they can do something when it's not their area of expertise. And lots of people do cut corners. You said the contractor underbid the project--are you choosing the lowest bidding person? Are you getting a couple of estimates?

A word-of-mouth referral can be a good way to find someone if it's the exact same kind of work, and if you've seen the work done at your friend's house and know it's up to your standards.

But otherwise, I'd suggesting using Angie's List, so you can choose contractors who have gotten good reviews for doing specifically the kind of work you want them to do. We are just beginning a big house renovation project, and we're in a new town so we don't know many folks, and Angie's List has been a huge help. We've chosen well-reviewed people and been happy with all of our choices.

A couple of other thoughts:
1. Is it possible that your expectations are high? I'm not saying they are. I just wonder, with the flagstone, if what the guy did was what most people are satisfied with. If you do indeed have higher expectations, then expect to pay more, I think. Also, with the patio, was the haul-away in the contract?

2. Sometimes it can be better to pay people by the hour than by the project. Or at least this is my husband's take after years in various construction-related businesses. He always tell people he's glad to bid a project, but then he'll have to add in extra time to his bid, just in case. He'd rather give them an estimate and work by the hour, which may cost a little less or a little more, but, he feels, always ends up being the most fair, because you are paying for exactly what you get. But this only works if you find people you really trust.

And once you do find someone you trust, cultivate a relationship with them and ask for their referrals. My husband is always very honest in referrals because he knows it can reflect on him.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:28 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel like I'm stating the obvious but you don't specifically mention how you're finding the people you are hiring......

When you're looking for people to do a particular project ask co-workers and neighbors for their recommendations. You'll tend to get a LOT of feedback (both good and bad) this way.

Ask any potential employees for references. Sure, sure they are going to give you a list of people that they think they "did good" for but I have found that even the most satisfied customers can/will potentially give you some insight.
posted by labwench at 10:32 AM on May 10, 2010

I think you really have to check references and reviews, look at past work, and don't go for the lowest bid automatically. I got screwed by a floor refinisher that I picked in a half-ass way, and then had to find someone at the last minute to fix his mega-mistakes. I found the best reviewed guy in my area on ApartmentTherapy, then called or e-mailed some folks he had done work for to get their input. He ended up being incredible in every way... and didn't charge much more than the original guy. I've never used Angie's List although have heard it is helpful. I've also have found reviews on Yelp for people I was considering.

But if you are looking for someone who doesn't have a cyber-trail, I think you just have to check references the old fashioned way.

I think you also have to supervise closely to some degree, ask questions, and not worry about feeling like a pest. If you catch a problem early on, it can be remedied sooner than later to the satisfaction of both parties.
posted by kimdog at 10:33 AM on May 10, 2010

I second Angies List - so far everyone I've used from there that had positive reports has been good. I look fir reports that are similar in scope and budget to what I want to do and go from there. It's also a great way to get a ballpark on what your project might cost. I always tell these people I found them on Angies List - they want to keep up their good reputation!
posted by amanda at 10:33 AM on May 10, 2010

Scope of work. Write it out and be detailed.
Quality level of materials, if appropriate.
Expected timeline.
What you expect the area effected to look like when the contractor goes away.
Requiring the contractor to have insurance and bonding.

Any reputable contractor will be familiar with this stuff. Some of the less experienced or more hand-to-mouth people will have problems.

You need to expect to pay more, but doing to, you will hire people who know the work and know what finishing a job really means.
posted by Danf at 10:35 AM on May 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you have HGTV, watch Holmes on Homes for some tips on how to deal with tradesmen. They go over the basics -- clear contract, references, setting expectations, viewing past projects, etc. -- on just about every show.
posted by SpecialK at 10:36 AM on May 10, 2010

Also, very clearly, what YOU will do, and what the CONTRACTOR will do. You expect her/him to sweep up, to leave your flower beds totally free of paint chips, to leave that new window clean, to get the damn dirt off the flagstones before sealing, etc.? Write it out.
posted by Danf at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2010

I'm going to nth the recommendations for Angie's List. And always, always check for the appropriate contracting/licensing activity. Ask for references, and check them. And even for small projects, get the entire scope of work in writing. And stay involved - if you can catch the contractor at the end of the day every day and take a look at the work and ask questions about what's been done and what's left to do. Don't be confrontational, be interested, and you'll be amazed what you can find out and how much more thoroughly the work is completed.

Agree to the payment schedule in advance, and do not pay everything up-front. When we had our roof replaced last year, it was 50% at the start of the job and 50% on completion - and we didn't have to pay the final installment until we were satisfied with the job.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 10:44 AM on May 10, 2010

you have good advice, but if a homeowner doesn't have experience what can they do about the detail in the scope of work?

From the OP's example, I'm sure they didn't specify in the contract that sealant was not to be laid upon dirt/rocks - they probably didn't know that was an option. At my house, we had the bathrooms done and went into detail about the paint and the tile, but the contractors didn't paint the back of the door. I never specified it because I never dreamed that would be a question.

How does a person KNOW what to expect (and therefore what to specify in the contract) when they've never had work done before?
posted by CathyG at 10:48 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cathy, I think that's why you hire people who are fantastic, who can help you anticipate this sort of stuff.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:56 AM on May 10, 2010

Tell people, up front, that you are very, very particular about the job being done exactly right. Tell them you will choose the bid with the best details and quality assurance. I've reached the point where I'd just as soon hire a contractor because I don't know the questions to ask. I have a lovely bathroom, with a very un-level bathtub. A good contractor w/should have known to check it before a tile guy tiled around it.
posted by theora55 at 11:27 AM on May 10, 2010

I've been using Angie's List for about 2 years for various projects. The people I've found on there are usually pretty good. No matter how you find them though the point is to get referrals, talk to people who they've done work for in the past, ask neighbors, etc.

One thing I've learned the hard way about contractors is to get EVERYTHING in writing and go over every little detail you can imagine. I've had contractors agree to small things only to not have them done because they weren't in writing. Sometimes they forgot, sometimes they weren't the ones performing the work and they didn't tell their employees. They have a lot of different jobs going on at once and will not remember everything you've told them. If you have it in writing you can go back to them at the end and tell them they didn't do x, y and z. If they're a reputable contractor they'll complete those things.
posted by bingwah at 11:42 AM on May 10, 2010

you have good advice, but if a homeowner doesn't have experience what can they do about the detail in the scope of work?

With every new project, you get a bit more savvy.

Also, if you have a job done and love it, the great carpenter (or bricklayer or painter) will have people he/she LOVES to work with and will be very willing to recommend one of these folks.

No one wants to have a turkey on a proj.
posted by Danf at 12:51 PM on May 10, 2010

He underbid the project.

Be very suspicious of lowball estimates if you care about quality. There are contractors who do excellent work for demanding clients and they are unlikely to be low bidders on projects (good results usually require skill, experience, and time, all of which cost money). Unfortunately, not all expensive contractors are great either, so you can't just take the highest bid either, but that's where references come in.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:56 PM on May 10, 2010

Use contractors who've been in business a long time under the same contractor license. The person who did my landscape overhaul had been a landscape architect and contractor for 25 years with the same business name and license. He hadn't closed up shop to avoid a law suit, etc. That type of longevity helps.

Ask specifically about the use of day laborers. I only select contractors who use the same crews consistently. I try to only hire contractors who use employees and not day guys they picked up at the Home Depot parking lot. An experienced crew is going to do a better job. I know I pay more to hire these contractors.

Call references. Scan Yelp or other reviews and email everyone to ask: if they are still satisfied with the work and if the original bid was met. If someone says the the total cost exceeded the original bid without a good cause, then move to your next contractor. Scope changes happen; that's not a reason to penalize a contractor. If the guy just low-balled, then that's a problem.

Be on-site to approve intermediate steps. Identify the milestones and no-turning-back points. You could have done a quick check before he applied the primer. (Not that you should have to do that, but you can.) Let the contractor know you can be a bit nitpicky and ask him when you should check the work so there isn't a "do over" required.
posted by 26.2 at 1:24 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You haven't given enough detail for anyone to be sure about what's gone wrong for you, but the various guesses that you've been hiring the low bidders regardless of their qualifications do sound plausible to me. References and work history are critical. An excellent contractor will treat you and your project well even if you contract is a handshake, whereas the most carefully written agreement cannot cannot make an incompetent tradesman into a good one.

It could easily be that you have unrealistic expectations about how much such work should cost. If this is the case then, when you ask tradesmen to bid work, those that you feel are trying to gouge you may actually be bidding a fair price for a good quality service, while those that you feel are bidding fair prices are kidding themselves and/or you, with your unconscious consent.
posted by jon1270 at 2:27 PM on May 10, 2010

Do it how big time developers and government agencies do it-write out a step by step plan for what you want. Draw it up or at least write it up along with your expectations. if you have an example of what you want the finished project to be like show this to the contractor. Write out how the contractor will be paid. For instance for building a road the contractor gets paid for preparing the road bed (moving the dirt around and compacting it), than for the gravel bed that is underneath the pavement than for the pavement itself and then for the paint, curb and gutter, sidewalk, etc, each as its own seperate item, each with a performance requirement and inspection to be done before the next step. This ensures that the contractor will build the road correctly at every step and will also have a steady income stream during construction. Prepare your bid request the same way. Think of it as outlining a paper (like you did for the research paper in school). Write down each step that you can think of, ask the contractors to give you price for each step and estimated time line. Always get more than one bid. negotiate with the contractor, ask them if there is anything you forgot-and make sure they get the proper building permits if required. If someone is unwilling to go through these steps with you they proper will not methodical about the job and give you a poor result. Note-you get what you pay for. the Low bidder is not going to be the best craftsmen. A Skillled labor is not cheap and is not usually immediatly available. And occasionally, even with the above method you are going to get crappy work, it even happens to the big boys and we have lawyers on staff.
posted by bartonlong at 4:06 PM on May 10, 2010

I agree with danf. Before you hire, be specific about what you expect, and while the work is being done, inspect it periodically to avoid a surprise at the end and (especially) to let them know you're watching.
posted by davcoo at 4:54 PM on May 10, 2010

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