How do we contractor?
March 30, 2014 9:35 AM   Subscribe

We are buying a house -yay! But the house needs renovation work done - eek! While we have previously owned a house, it was 10 years ago, in another state, and never had any major renovations. We are scheduled to close on April 30, so we are trying to figure out what kinds of professionals we need and how to find/hire them.

The house was built in the 20s, and seems to be generally sound structurally, according to the inspector and our agent (who is a former contractor). But the interior hasn't been updated since the 70s, and the exterior hasn't been painted in....a while. Luckily, we have time to get work done before we move in, because the lease on our current apartment is not up until Aug 31, although we would prefer to move in before that.

The things we want/need to get done are the following, in order of importance:

1) Completely renovate the upstairs full bath. Everything must go, and I do mean everything: tub, tile, toilet, sink, floor, wallpaper (oy, the wallpaper!). The ugly hurts.

2) Exterior paint & minor repairs. As mentioned, it doesn't seem to have been painted in a while, and there are definitely a few places where some fascia boards will need to be repaired/replaced. Needs to get done before the next fall/winter.

3) Kitchen renovation. The kitchen isn't quite as ugly as the bathroom, but it is very outdated, and not all the appliances work. At a minimum we would replace the appliances and wait to do the rest, but ideally we would replace all the cabinets and the counter tops. In addition, if we renovate we will need to do electrical work, as there are no GFCI outlets in the kitchen and are required by the code. We also want to change some of the lighting in the kitchen.

4) Paneling removal/drywall installation in the basement (finished basement had to have some paneling removed due to termites, so we will want to just get rid of the rest of it and replace with drywall).

5) Floor refinishing. We are confident we can rip up the old shag carpeting ourselves, but want a professional to refinish the oak floors before we move in.

We are planning to do all interior painting ourselves to save money, but there are two rooms with some vinyl wallpaper (looks to be only 1 layer). If possible, I'd like to remove that myself, but if it's gong to damage the walls to do so, I will pay a professional.

So based on the things we want to do, we are trying to figure out the most cost effective and efficient way to go about hiring people for the renovations. Is it better to find one general contractor to handle everything? Is that even possible? Or a contractor for the inside work, and a house painting company for the exterior? I also saw that Home Depot has kitchen renovation services - are these worth looking at, or is a contractor better?

If we end up with a contractor, what's the best way to approach the work? We have a budget of about $50K, and I'm not sure that we'll be able to get everything done for that. Ideally I'd like to know what each bullet would cost, so we could pick and choose based on priorities. How detailed will a contractor's estimate be?

Any other useful things we should know going in to this process? Also, if you have an recommendations for professionals in the general Boston/Cambridge area, please feel free to memail me

Thanks in advance!
posted by DiscourseMarker to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A good general contractor should be able to give you a quote broken down by project. The GC will know subcontractors for painting, floor refinishing, etc., and will oversee and guarantee their work. Use some combination of Angie's List and recommendations from the people you've talked to in your new town to find a couple contractors. Get quotes from at least two. You're not looking for the cheapest; you're looking for one that has been around for a while, seems organized and responsive, and talks to you about how things need to be done for best results, rather than how he's going to save you money.
posted by maxim0512 at 9:56 AM on March 30, 2014

You want a general contractor. Interview several, and talk to at least four or five people for whom he/she's done a similar-size job in the last few years. From these "first level" references, you want to know: 1. Did he finish on time and on or under budget? 2. Was he good at communicating with you? 3. Did they have any 'surprises' (there are always surprises), and how did he handle them? and finally (but most important) 4. Do they know of any other of the contractor's clients not on your list who you might talk to? Calling these "second level" references may be your most useful, because they weren't ones your prospective contractor chose as his "best examples".

You want a contractor who is honest and ethical, and who communicates well. He'll hire any subs you may need.
posted by summerstorm at 9:58 AM on March 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can absolutely break things down into sub-projects to be priced separately, so that you can prioritize. One piece of hard-learned experience: when you are choosing things, new bathroom fixtures for example, something that is in stock is preferable to something that isn't. Even if the store says delivery in 7/14/21 days that can unexpectedly turn into eight weeks that you don't have a bathroom sink because the vanity hasn't arrived yet. (Ask me how I know.)

If at all possible have everything you want to install queued up in your garage before starting the demo, to avoid unanticipated delays.
posted by ambrosia at 10:04 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Regarding your vinyl wallpaper question — just Google vinyl wallpaper removal for tips. You can do it yourself.

Seconding the GC suggestions. In theory you could manage a bunch of different contractors on these different projects yourself, but they'd be getting in each others way. Let the GC worry about that, it won't cost you much more.

Think about doing the outside painting yourself. If you can do inside painting you can do outside. Just have the GC do the necessary fascia board repairs.

Ask around the neighborhood about contractors that have done work in other people's houses. Also, I would hire either an architect to design and spec the kitchen and bath, or go with a local (non-big-box) vendor of cabinetry and fixtures that offers design services.
posted by beagle at 11:22 AM on March 30, 2014

Second the suggestion to use licensed professionals you meet from the recommendations of people you know.
posted by R2WeTwo at 11:36 AM on March 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

A general contractor will definitely save you trouble, and may (depending on the contractor) save you money - they often get a better rate from the subcontractors, and good ones will pass on (some of) that savings to you.

In addition to getting contractor recommendations from new neighbors and friends, you can ask your realtor, and you can ask here next week. But once you have those recommendations, be sure you are really comfortable with the contractor you end up with. Interview them thoroughly - this is a job interview for them, and they should approach it accordingly. If they are uncommunicative and unhelpful when they're quoting for you, they'll be worse when they're working.

Possibly most importantly, make sure that whatever quote you end up with is 25% below what you can actually afford to spend. Renovations are notorious for ending up going over budget (usually for perfectly good reasons).

If it were me, I would start by doing just the bathroom, the flooring, and the painting. The bathroom and repairs are urgent, and the floor will be much easier if you aren't living there yet. Renovating a kitchen while you live there can be a pain, but it's also a big chaotic project that adds a lot of uncertainty to your budget. You can just get the new appliances as a fairly container thing, and then do the rest of the work when time and budget permit.

And congratulations on moving back into home ownership!
posted by contrarian at 1:26 PM on March 30, 2014

Second the buy fixtures that are in stock. Exciting is all well and good until you end up looking at a hole in the floor for several months.

General Contractors that specialize in remodels need to be verified with references. Take the time to review their work - the one question no one ever seems to ask is about cost overruns. Does the contractor perform to the job or do they find additional work?

Remodeling out to the studs can quite often lead to other suggestions for work so make sure that you have it in mind when they show you the rotten timber that's holding up your roof.

Oh, and don't live in the project while they're working. Extend your lease or couch surf if you have to. Trying to live around a 7 AM job start can be very frustrating.
posted by ptm at 1:32 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sending you a few actual names by memail, since you are geographically very close.
posted by instead of three wishes at 1:51 PM on March 30, 2014

Second the suggestion to use licensed professionals you meet from the recommendations of people you know.

3rd-it. Personal recommendations are always the best. In any case, the General Contractor should be able to provide a list of references, so be nosy! Call up the referees, and please just be bold and ask to invite yourself over to their house to look at their projects. If they're really happy with the work done, they will be proud to show it off.
posted by ovvl at 5:23 PM on March 30, 2014

Well, you're proposing to embark on a big project. Prepare for it to fill up every free moment.

Choose your GC carefully. Verify references, insurance, and licensing, seriously. Sales / relationship-building skills are very different than the technical skills involved in the job. The staff might exude competence and charm, but don't let that stop you from confirming that if the work falls apart you'll be able to recoup your loss. I loved my first shower /tile sub until I figured out he didn't understand the basics of waterproofing. You want someone established and insured.

The other key thing about the GC relationship is to treat it as a serious relationship. You need someone you can work with well. If you have qualms, do not proceed. (I have the lawsuit to serve as a cautionary tale.) You need to be able to communicate. There may well be intense moments. You may well argue (or want to argue) with them. My current GC, even when times are tough or the news is bad, I still trust his integrity and enjoy dealing with the guy, and that is important, something I didn't understand when I was comparing bids.
posted by slidell at 11:22 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can memail you the name of a Cambridge contractor we worked with. He did a great kitchen/mudroom project for us.

I'll add to the chorus of getting your ducks in a row in advance. Having your appliances, cabinets, tile, etc. in the house and ready goes a long way towards keeping your job on track. GCs need to keep their crew working, so if there's not enough to do at your house on a given day, they'll be on another job site.

Good luck! Putting your own stamp on a house is immensely satisfying, whether it's DIY or with a contractor.
posted by SobaFett at 4:41 AM on March 31, 2014

MeMailed you a name.

One thing to keep in mind about getting estimates/bids from contractors, is that they often use allowances for things like tile or cabinets. So, their bid may be for $2.00 per square foot of tile, but then you go pick out the tile you want and it costs $6.00 a square foot.

Start picking out colors, tile, fixtures, and anything else, like, NOW.

Lighting, especially hanging and surface-mount fixtures, often isn't included in a bid and that stuff adds up. Go find stuff you like on sale and grab it. Check lighting stores for discontinued stuff and/or seconds. We got some pretty good discounts that way.

Check the fine print and make sure you know what is and isn't included in the bid before you sign. Little things add up and you don't want to find out after the fact that you now have to go out and buy 14 light switch plates because you didn't specifically state that they were included in the contract.

If your floors need finishing, do that before you move in.
posted by bondcliff at 6:41 AM on March 31, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far! I have a follow-up question about timing and buying stuff. We have a clause in the purchase & sale document allowing us "reasonable access" to the property before closing to take measurements, etc., but the sellers still live there, so we have to give notice and coordinate with their agent. When a contractor comes over for an estimate, will they be taking all the necessary measurements, or would that come later?

We don't have a lot of space in our current apartment to store stuff, but I could possibly store a few boxes of tile, or light fixtures, or other small things. But how would I know if I'm getting the right amount of tile?

Possibly these are dumb questions, but I guess my fear is that I buy a bunch of stuff in advance, and then the contractor says "Oh no, that was all wrong, you can't use that."
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:20 AM on March 31, 2014

You can pick products and material you like without buying anything. Give the style to the contractor and he will either buy it as part of the contract (they can buy it for less than you can) or if it's a handyman sort of person they might tell you how much to buy and you go buy it yourself and give it to him or her.

A good contractor will start the project and then say something like "ok, in three weeks the tile guys will come so we need to have the tile by then." Now you're under pressure. This is not the time to decide what kind of tile you want. Much better if you can just say "Ok, we want white subway tiles with a green strip along the top using style XYZ from Bill's Tile Barn in Cambridge."

Just go walk around at Home Depot or other home centers. See what's out there, see what you like. You don't need to make every decision in advance, though it does help if you do it before you have an actual deadline to do it. Ask me how I know this.

When a contractor comes over for an estimate, will they be taking all the necessary measurements, or would that come later?

Probably, but it doesn't take long. For estimating they don't need to be all that accurate with the measuring. They know what 10 square feet looks like.
posted by bondcliff at 7:46 AM on March 31, 2014

how would I know if I'm getting the right amount of tile?

Our GC had a couple of tile stores that he recommended. I went to one of them, picked out the tile I liked. Amazingly, I was able to tell the tile store person that we had a 5x8 bathroom, and based just on that she knew exactly how much of each kind of tile we needed, (for the floor, the shower walls, shower floor, and edges) and the GC went and picked it up from the warehouse- since he was a contractor they gave him a better price than they would have given me. Tile setting is not rocket science, however perplexing it may seem to those of us who know nothing about it.
posted by ambrosia at 11:31 AM on March 31, 2014

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