I don't want to be Tom Hanks in the Money Pit
February 25, 2007 8:13 AM   Subscribe

How to hire and work with a contractor on a remodeling project

My wife and I have just bought our first home and we would like to get some remodeling done on the house before we move in. It is a medium to big job because we are redoing the kitchen, both bathrooms, changing some flooring, and building a laundry room.

We have received recommendations for 3 different contractors (although if anyone has knowledge of other contractors in Tucson we would love to get more names), and we want to start getting bids from them on the work. I have looked through other threads on remodeling or hiring a contractor and I haven’t seen this particular question.

How do you get each contractor to give you an accurate bid on a similar set of work? I have an architect friend doing some drawings that I can give them. I have watched a lot of home shows, so I feel like I have a pretty good sense for the steps that need to be taken in each room. What about writing that up and giving them a copy? Will contractors be offended with me trying to tell them what to do?

Should I have the contractor buy materials or should I? I know that he might be able to get them cheaper, but won’t he charge me a markup? Is it OK to ask him what his markup will be?

Also, once I have a bid, do I formally sign a contract with them? I have heard horror stories of contractors not finishing jobs, etc. How do I protect myself against this? How do I ensure the work is done both in a timely fashion and is high quality?
posted by bove to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The New York Times just had an article about this. I thought it was biased towards "don't question the high prices your contractor will charge, because they know best," and it had lots of quotes about the inevitability of cost overruns. So take it with a grain of salt, but it does describe the process for you.

The more you can begin with detailed drawings and specifications, the more you will be able to compare the bids as apples to apples. Otherwise, one bid will have expensive faucets, and the other one will have expensive paint, and the third will have something else. I'm no great fan of architects and designers (there is just too much bad work out there to give much kudos to the field) but you sound like a perfect candidate for hiring one. The advantage is that they will be able to specify and communicate what work is to be done, and to what standards, and to play middle-person between you and the contractor. It will add cost (they do, after all, have to get paid) but might save you cash overall by keeping the scope of work to what you actually want.
posted by Forktine at 8:35 AM on February 25, 2007

do you have angieslist.com in your area?
posted by thilmony at 8:38 AM on February 25, 2007

I'd recommend Mike Holmes' Make It Right, it's the best book (by far) I've come across on the subject of hiring contractors. It really is very good and covers contracts, insurance, references, prepayments, etc. His big thing is exceeding code and it being more than worthwhile.

Having drawings is great, make sure the bids state they're in accordance with the plans. Honestly, I would suggest you do not write out the process. Having watched some reno shows doesn't make you an expert ... and if you miss something you're giving them the chance to say "well, it wasn't on the scope of work". However, providing them with a bulleted list:
Bathroom: Demo, Insulation, Piping, Fixtures, Other required scope, blah blah that they can break their prices down by is no harm.

You can ask the bidders to give you a detailed estimate. That way you can call up ABC and say "Hey, XYZ is giving me a price of $1,500 for the ceramic tile, you look really light there ... what sort of tile are you providing?"

And budget a contingency!
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:22 AM on February 25, 2007

You ensure the job gets finished by ensuring the payment schedule includes a substantial final payment after the job is approved by you and the local authorities.

Contractors get a bad reputation for some deserved and some not deserved reasons. It is broadly true that the older the house, the more likely something unknown and damaged will interfere with the plan. Contractors don't, and won't, work at a loss so if they run into a problem and they can't work out a fallback plan - usually involving extra expense - that is when you may well find them giving up.

Problems can come from other places than what's in-built in the house. You may find yourself with an inspector who is a martinet about a certain element of the building code. In my area it is often easier and quicker to placate the inspector by doing work that isn't strictly called for than it is to insist. You should verify what code elements must be brought up to date. In my area jobs over a certain scope require the addition of fire sprinklers within the house; this gets costly.

I built a house, with a contractor who is locally very well known and respected. This job went 20% over the initial budget, to nobody's surprise.
posted by jet_silver at 9:37 AM on February 25, 2007

I circle the edge of the building contractor world, and this is what I would do in your place:
Make up a set of bid documents. In these, you should state what you want done, the final result being the most important. This will probably be a couple of pages, if you are planning on doing all of this stuff in one go. Be as specific as you like, but keeping your specifications limited to materials (and avoiding techniques) will be appreciated. You are hiring one of these contractors because they know what they are doing. You wouldn't want them leaning over your shoulder telling you how to cross every 't' and dot the 'i's, right?

Give a copy of the bid documents to each contractor, with a letter saying when you expect a return bid. (two weeks is probably about right)

Compare the bids. Look at who gives what kind of details. IME, this is the most important moment. You are about to spend a whole lot of money, and you are entitled to as much information as you want. Anyone who isn't willing to help you be comfortable with their bid isn't going to be very helpful further down the road, when things start to get difficult. Things *always* get difficult; it's the nature of the universe.

Speaking of which, a smart contractor will include a contingency fund in their bid, or at least make it clear how much you should set aside. It should be at least 10 percent of the total cost, but more (15-20 percent) would be safer. This is money that you hope you won't send, but need to be prepared to anyway...

Once you get a contract (or at least, a copy of the bid documents signed by both of you), get out of their way! If you have hired someone who is good, then all you should have to do is make sure they have access when they need it. Your first sign that you don't have a good contractor is when they don't show up when they say they will. Having an agreed on time-line in the bid isn't a bad idea either...
posted by schwap23 at 10:32 AM on February 25, 2007

Best answer: Wise words from schwap23. I am in the middle of a major remodeling project on my house (all bedrooms and bathrooms, some wall-moving, foundation work, sewer moving etc). So far, I love my contractor.

Get recommendations. Multiple recommendations for each contractor. That means, if one person recommended this contractor, call the contractor and ask for a list of references. Call them all (the list should be as long as possible, if there's only 3 names on it, call and ask for more) and ask them how the project went, what they liked and disliked about this contractor.

Meet with the contractor at your house as a precursor to the bid. Walk them through the work you would like done, and see how they are to communicate with. Do they listen to you? Are they interested in what you have to say? Do they ask questions? This helped me enormously, one contractor who had come highly recommended from friends was a terrible communicator, not listening when I asked questions. You are going to be talking to this person multiple times a week, and you are going to need to trust their judgement on how to resolve issues that come up.

For the bid itself, I would not specify the steps that need to be taken. To help make the bids more comparable, specify allowances for major purchase areas, eg $5 per sq.ft for tile, $8,000 for windows, $5,000 for faucets or whatever. Essentially give them the numbers for materials, so their bid is mainly labor costs. Of course you may have no clue what the numbers need to be, but your architect friend might be able to help you on that. My current contractor gave us allowances for materials because it makes it easier for him, that way if we fall in love with some awesome but expensive tile, then it is our decision if we want to cough up the extra $, and we don't need to fight him over the budget. He has a preferred vendor for plumbing supplies, and charges us no mark-up (he orders, we go there to pay them for it, we get the benefit of his discount with them). He sent us a bid from them, and we did a price comparison with online vendors (about the same because of his discount). He made it very clear that we might be able to find better prices online, but that he preferred to use this vendor because he found them reliable and had sway with them if things went wrong. Having ordered plumbing supplies online for a previous project on another house, I agree with him on this. The online vendor lied and said something was in stock when it wasn't, it didn't turn up in time, we had to go buy something locally at short notice and lost our price benefit. Other contractors may allow you to order everything yourself online, in which case just be sure you are leaving plenty of time for it to arrive.

In summary, you need to feel sure you can trust this contractor, because you are going to need to trust them for the project to run smoothly. Sorry this was super-long, but you got me at just the right moment for a brain dump.
posted by Joh at 11:36 AM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing. Don't pick your contractor based entirely on price. The cheapest guy is probably being unrealistic to try and get your job. The most expensive guy is probably making a huge markup. Pick the guy who you feel most confident with, assuming their bid is within a 15% range of most others.
posted by Joh at 11:38 AM on February 25, 2007

Best answer: As this is a large-ish renovation project, I think that the first best thing that you can do is to not compete solely on price. You say that you have 3 recommendations. If these are real "recommendations" from people who have worked with these contractors on a similar type of project with a similar (order of magnitude) scope and budget, and all 3 come recommended, then you should assume that any of the three have the skills to do your job. At this point, you should really pick the one that you feel the most comfortable working with and talking to (does s/he take the time to answer your questions? Is s/he punctual? return your calls promptly?) Pick the contractor that you think you will be able to work the best with, because it will only get more complicated from here on out.

Your architect friend has the potential to be an excellent resource in terms of explaining the process to you; contracts, billing, schedules, timelines, etc. If you were to use your friend as more than "a person to draw up some plans" and really engage then on the level of providing a professional service to you, then I think you would find a lot of value in having an advocate that can help you through this process (disclaimer: I am an architect).

Ask a lot of questions, listen to how they respond as well as what they say, trust your gut, don't force them to compete on price alone, use your architect friend as a resource (but don't try to get their help for free)

RE: your specific questions:
  • the contractor's estimate should show markups for materials, labor, his contingency, and for profit. If the estimate is not even that detailed, ask for it to be, but at the same time, be wary.
  • I would generally not recommend trying to buy materials to avoid the markup. You will likely have a limited staging area around your house. Part of the contractor's job is to schedule materials to arrive when they are needed but not earlier, both to protect the materials from damage, as well as to preserve work space on-site.
  • ABSOLUTELY sign a contract. Don't let any work commence without a signed contract. If you are not sure what you want your contract terms to be, talk to your contractor and your architect friend.
also, I would recommend the book The Well-Built House by Jim Locke. He is a contractor who walks you through the entire process of building a house, basically as a pre-visualization technique. Talks about selecting a contractor, contracts, what to look for in materials, construction documents, etc.
posted by misterbrandt at 11:57 AM on February 25, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your suggestions. I am starting the bidding process this week and your suggestions have been very helpful. I am employing my architect friend and he is providing detailed drawings for the contractors. I really like the suggestion to go with allowances for materials, this allows us to get bids without having picked every single fixture in advance.
posted by bove at 10:09 AM on February 28, 2007

Response by poster: It has been a few months and the renovation is complete. I got bids from 3 general contractors, and one bid from the Handyman Connection. The general contractor bids were $30K more than the bid from the Handyman Connection. I went with Handyman. How it worked is that one guy who was a licensed contractor did almost all of the work on my job. He did a great job and I was really pleased with the work. If you are interested in seeing what we did I have a blog that shows before and after pictures. Email me (in profile) and I will send you the link.
posted by bove at 10:56 AM on October 5, 2007

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