Is getting work done on a house always an challenging experience?
May 3, 2016 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Can you share any best practices for working with vendors? We bought a older house that needed some work about five months ago and it's been a frustrating process. Countless contractors and other home repair folks have come through the house. I'd say about 3/4 never follow-up with an estimate (unless prompted repeatedly).

When we do get estimates, the prices vary wildly. For example, one person quoted nearly $5K to paint the inside of our house and another quoted around $1K. When we do come to an agreement with someone, they will often disappear for weeks.

And, for work that we have gotten done, at least half the time the company doing the work will take shortcuts and we'll end up asking them to fix obvious issues. I don't think we're that picky. It's more that work will have been clearly agreed to and then it won't happen because someone tries to take a shortcut.

We have taken on some of the projects outselves and that's gone fine. One option is for us to do the more minor work moving forward. I should also add that most of the work on the house that's done is fine, it just was a huge time sink getting to that point.

Outside of doing the work ourselves, does anyone have advice for dealing with home repair contractors and other handymen/handywomen? I feel like we must be missing something obvious here. We live in an area where there's no shortage of home renovation work so I think that part of the problem.

We're thinking about doing a bathroom remodel one day and after just working through most of the punch list of issues raised by the home inspector are dreading a bigger project.
posted by JuliaKM to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, flaky contractors are a cliché for a reason. Super common. There have been several previous Asks about how to help avoid contractor drama. This one and this one are good, and there are more.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:49 AM on May 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

Thanks Wretch729! I should have done this search 6 months ago.
posted by JuliaKM at 8:51 AM on May 3, 2016

The best advice I got about working with a contractor is to always owe them money. They tend to work on whatever project is going to bring in some money, so if you owe them money, they have incentive to come back. Once you have paid off a contractor in full, it's unlikely you'll see them again.

Negotiate the smallest deposit you can, though keeping in mind your contractor does have to buy some materials, and then pay off in phases (negotiated ahead of time) as work gets done. Reserve the final payment for after the punch list (the final to-do list) is complete and you're satisfied.

And yes, they are flaky. I arranged for a guy to come to my house after work to see about repairing a garage floor. We swapped a few emails and then he never showed. Loss of business.

In their defense, contractors are people who know how to cut wood and swing hammers. They are often not skilled business people or communicators. Occasionally you can find one who is skilled in those areas as well. In that case, hang on to them.
posted by bondcliff at 8:57 AM on May 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

It also is really location-dependent. I just moved to the southeast and everyone seems terribly flaky, multiple followup calls required to get absolutely anything done. I didn't have much of a problem in Oregon though. Got quotes, scheduled the work, it was done on time and for the quoted amount, zero fuss and seldom was a nudgy phone call necessary.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:57 AM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

We live in an area where there's no shortage of home renovation work so I think that part of the problem.

It absolutely is part of the problem, but that does give you a chance to maybe find the best people out there. They're going to cost you more but it will be so worth it when things are done on time (with some wiggle room for understandable and explained delays because no matter what something will happen) and to your standards.

Sadly, flaky and unprofessional contractors are a very real thing. That is why references are so important in that industry. If you want to do your bathroom, see who in your social circle has had work done and what that experience was like. I tend to put very little trust in online reviews because its so easy to fake those. And once you find someone who does great work, ask them for references too because they'll often recommend people who work to similar standards.
posted by GilvearSt at 9:00 AM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Spring is also a very busy time of year for contractors. Lots of people fixing their homes to put it on the market, people buying new homes & fixing them, and people just doing home repairs as part of spring cleaning. If I were doing a bathroom remodel, I would plan it during the winter for this reason. But yes, a good contractor is a really popular person and likely hard to book. We found our best contractor through a recommendation from a real estate agent who specializes in selling older homes.
posted by areaperson at 9:06 AM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is why managers are so well paid. Essentially, you become a manger in this situation.
posted by amtho at 9:20 AM on May 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know what equivalent you have in the US, but over here there's a directory of tradespeople with many, many user reviews. We just filter by rating, and get the top 2 or 3 (usually rated like 9.8/10 with 50-100 user reviews) to quote. Generally the best people will be booked up for the next 2-3 months, but that's to be expected, and I've been told that if someone can start work immediately they can't be any good if they don't have current work.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:26 AM on May 3, 2016

Contracting work in bigger chunks may also help, but if you're dealing with renovations there's usually only so much you can do. But if contractor is working on two jobs, your $5k bathroom and a $500k mcmansion, you can probably figure out which job he's going to prioritize.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:36 AM on May 3, 2016

After getting burned by a contractor I found on craigslist or somewhere, I've ponied up for subscription Angie's List. The site (an I'm sure any competing sites do too) have reviews and probably a complaint system, though I haven't had to use it.
posted by Leontine at 10:41 AM on May 3, 2016

In my experience you really have to fight with tradespeople for the privilege of giving them large sums of money. Be proactive to a fault. In other words, don't wait for them to call back, just figure on calling them at least once a day until you get the answer you want. If they say, "I'll get back to you," assume it's a falsehood and plan on calling them. When checking references, be sure to ask past clients about reliability and timeliness. Good luck!
posted by scratch at 11:27 AM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming your neighbours also have old houses, ask heavily around the neighbourhood; they will have had similar repairs and will be able to tell you stories.

Once you deal with somebody who is absolutely top-notch, work this person desperately for other names. I had a really good electrician who provided me with solid recommendations for other solid tradespeople; that was invaluable.

Re. "Negotiate the smallest deposit you can, though keeping in mind your contractor does have to buy some materials" -- with one materials-intensive job I opened an account at a building supply centre and everything was picked up by the carpenter through my account, so no $ changed hands between us for the materials (and I always had a precise accounting of what was being bought).
posted by kmennie at 12:07 PM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

There can be a multitude of reasons working with tradespeople can be difficult...many have been mentioned above.

Your Market- if there is lots of work in your area tradespeople can pick and choose which jobs they wish to take on. In your case with sub contractors the level of difficulty, distance to your place and even personality match can affect whether that person provides a quote. I am assuming you are calling for free quotes.

Budget- in some cases we pre-qualify a potential customer by asking what you had in mind for price for, as an example, painting your home. If you had one thousand dollars in mind to spend and I am in the five thousand dollar range it wouldn't be practical to meet or provide an estimate. We couldn't do the type of work we are best at and your budget would be shot. Unless you are paying for the estimate there isn't any obligation on the sub contractor to provide one. You should get a call, e-mail or a text that says they aren't able to provide one but in a busy market if you aren't getting paid to formulate a quote it is money lost. Most especially if you are shooting for price and not the best quality/experience.

Quality, Reliability, Attention to Detail, Fast Response to E-mail or Calls - those all fall under professionalism part of the person you are hiring. Yes you can get someone cheap who may do all these things but it is most likely the higher priced of the people you met that may have these qualities. If that smooth start to finish experience with someone that can show up, work independently and conscientiously is what you are looking for there is a value in that.

Money- this is the part of the transaction that has the power to make things go smoothly. Completing a project has two great rewards: 1) you are happy it is finished and your vision is realized 2)the contractor is happy because they get paid and you are pleased. For small projects paying at the end is customary for larger ones you may be paying upfront and should have milestones along the way that require payment. Money is the motivator to return each day but shouldn't be held as ransom. Work with a common goal in mind and if for some reason the people you hired can't complete work because of a delay caused by you perhaps provide an advance to keep them interested in coming back. It shows sensitivity to their on going costs and good will.

Lastly YOU- do you have a clear understanding of what your expectations are for the project. With a specific plan in mind or is it more grey and you need the freedom to change things along the way? Jobs with multiple changes or delays in decisions can suck the lifeblood out of any sub. Being clear, detailed and fast to make decisions can make the experience much better. For those with a creative mind: time and materials may be the best option. You have the freedom to decide what happens next as you go and cost is not a worry.

There certainly is some animosity towards contractors. Deservedly so in some cases. Misunderstandings over responsibilities, money or scope of work is hard to manage. Successful people are successful because they manage their work and relationships with customers.

GilvearSt and kmennie are right that once you find that person who does great work they will have a network of people who are similarly minded and who in most cases have worked together.

Don't enter into any relationship as adversaries. Good people want to make great things happen and are proud of their accomplishments. Be positive but remember it may take some digging to find the right match for you. Word of mouth is valuable but experiences vary greatly from project to project.

It also should be said that having qualifications, being licensed or insured doesn't guarantee the right choice. Work can be sloppy, personalities can be rotten and professionalism can be the pits.

Good luck with your future projects. As a sub contractor for 26 years now I can tell you we love the work we do and there are lots of others that feel the same way.
posted by ashtray elvis at 12:58 PM on May 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

1) Ask your realtor for referrals. They tend to know people who are reliable, though often very cheap and do a passable job.

2) Check out Angie's List. I've been mostly happy with people I've found there.

3) Just keep calling! I needed a ton of electrical work done and wasted two months waiting on people who said they were going to call me back or show up on a specific date. I ended up doing the work myself and having the only electrician to follow up just get everything code-compliant for about 1/5th what the other folks had quoted.

4) Some trades seem to get better callbacks and follow-ups. Every single floor refinisher I called showed up, measured, and gave an estimate. But someone who, say, remodels bathrooms may have little interest in a tiny job when there are plenty of larger jobs out there.
posted by MonsieurBon at 2:01 PM on May 3, 2016

Are you working with individual tradespeople or with general contractors? If GCs, what size business are we talking? Medium and large-sized general contractors with dedicated administrative and production management staff are much more likely to be organized and consistent than some dude with a truck, because that dude with the truck is unlikely to be as good at the management and customer-facing side of his business as he is at the actual building things side.

People don't generally become independent tradespeople because they like working with people and managing a business, they do it because they're good at making stuff and don't want to have a boss. (And also because if you're good, you can make more money as an independent than as an employee of a GC company.) The problem is that most people aren't as good at every side of the business as they are at the actual construction itself, and often they don't see those other aspects of the business as being as important as raw craftsmanship.

Another thing to look at is longevity. If someone is new to their business, they're less likely to be consistent and reliable than someone who has a multi-decade track record. Anybody can start up as a contractor; depending on the types of jobs you do and how shady you are willing to be, you don't even need a license. Lots of firefighters and police officers are painters and carpenters on the side, for instance. You won't last long as a full-time tradesperson though if you can't handle the business side, which includes being consistent and reliable. Construction is a boom-and-bust business, and during the boom times you get a lot of inexperienced and frankly unqualified people starting up, looking for that (relatively) easy money. They don't survive the busts, when business becomes harder to come by and you really have to put in a lot of work just to keep busy. We're in a boom right now.

My own company, just for example, has been around for several decades and has grown into an operation with several people whose core job duties involve things like managing schedules, organizing logistics, and liaising with clients (in addition to our carpenters and subcontractors who actually do the construction). We have a general manager, a head of sales & estimating, a few production managers, etc. If you call us, the person on the other end of the phone isn't going to be up on a ladder trying to install a window, he/she is going to be sitting at a desk fielding calls. We have estimating tools that go beyond "write down notes about what it would take to do the job and come up with a price". We have people who can be making stock lists, meeting with clients, designing floor plans, arranging schedules, and herding subcontractors while our carpenters are out building decks and remodeling kitchens. In a small operation, one person has to do everything and it can get seriously overwhelming and unpredictable.

A more substantial company is going to give higher estimates than a one- or two-person operation, because they will have more overhead. However, they are likely to be able to meet those estimates more closely, plan your job better so as to minimize surprises, and be more consistent about scheduling and communication. They have specialized people who can concentrate on each aspect of your job, rather than one person who does everything plus maybe an on-site helper who is learning the trade.

So that's kind of my advice: look for a general contractor, someone with a significant history in their industry, with a dedicated office staff who is there to support and facilitate the production crew. It's no guarantee—dysfuntional contractors exist at every level of the business, and there are plenty of solid solo operations out there too—but I think it will improve your chances of success. I know I may not be coming at this from a totally objective position, but I've seen this kind of work done both ways and I think it really makes sense to work with a contractor who has a more substantial operation than just a couple of guys and some tools, and who has the institutional experience to have survived in their industry through multiple boom and bust cycles.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:07 PM on May 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm in the middle of quite a bit of work right now. The painters are painting, the patio door is opening the wrong direction, the kitchen sink is too deep for the existing plumbing, and the new washer drains too fast for the drain which must now be snaked out.
A. Don't have a hard deadline. Do not schedule a party to celebrate the work until the work is done.
1. Always get more than one estimate. Ask the higher bidders why they are so high. Ask the low bidders why that are so low.
2. Follow-up aggressively for estimates and scheduling.
3. Postpone if you need to. Don't start til you are ready.
4. Never ever under any circumstances pay the final bill until the work is completely finished.
Schedule breaks in the work. I'm having a hard time this week because the painting has the entire house turned inside out for M-F and M-W again. And we scheduled a massive patio project on the weekend in between. We should have scheduled two days of quiet and Netflix binging instead. Now I am tired and cranky.
Surprisingly, all the workers that I got by word of mouth have been pretty "meh". The people I got by doing homework and calling around have been excellent.

There. That's my two cents worth of brain. It's all I have to spare at this point.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:04 PM on May 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've gotten good recs/ feedback on contractors I'm considering from my local area Facebook group. Seems like there's a lot of this on Nextdoor too. If there's a hardware/tile/plumbing store see which contractors they recommend.
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:01 PM on May 3, 2016

The short answer to your title question is "yes," in any case. Yes, getting work done on a house is always a challenging experience. Even if things go 100% smoothly, having people work on your home is always disruptive—and so far I've never seen a job go 100% smoothly.

During the time that work is going on, your relationship with your contractor will be quite close. You will speak often. You will discuss details of your personal schedule with them. You will talk about your lifestyle, your plans for your new home, possibly your accessibility needs and your plans for your family. They will be in your house, often while you are out. You will trust them to take apart pieces of your home—probably your most valuable and important possession—and put them back together again properly. It's weird.

Finding a contractor who you feel good about working with right from the start is doubly important because it sets the tone for the whole working relationship. And anyway, if they start out flaky why would you trust them to be more consistent later?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:23 PM on May 3, 2016

« Older Dental implants failed - keep trying?   |   Money Management when I'm not there to manage it Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.