Home Decor

The reno files: Six tips for working with a contractor

Your contractor is your new BFF. Treat them with love and respect. And get their cell phone number!

They start gutting the house today. I mean actually, totally, completely gutting the house. They’re taking everything out but the load bearing walls, exterior walls and windows. It’s my first time with this big of a job, and I had been anxious about it and generally mistrusting our contractor’s advice until we had a three hour meeting yesterday and he was able to talk me off that ledge. (I know, already!). So it got me thinking about working with contractors in general, and what kind of advice I can impart from my experience. This is the fifth house I’ve renovated.

Before we even bid on the house, we had the architect and contractor walk through with us while I described my not-constrained-by-a-budget fantasies of soaring ceilings and glass railings. Then we all sat in the back yard, had a smoke (okay, the contractor had a smoke – something you should know about them – a lot of them smoke, and if you don’t want cigarette butts everywhere, put a bucket with sand by the back door!), and talked about what was feasible, what was a pipe dream, and what it might cost. Then we put in a bid on the house, knowing what our approximate budget was. So my first bit of advice (okay, second if you count the ashtray thing) is this:

1. Talk to your contractor before you buy a house, or start tearing through design magazines with renovation plans in your head, to get a sense of what you can and can’t afford. You don’t want to be disappointed half way through the job.

2. Have a long, heart to heart, honest discussion with your contractor. You need to build a relationship with this person that is based on mutual trust and respect. Explain what your timeline is (maybe hold back a couple of weeks), what your budget is (again, maybe hold back 10 percent), and if you have any special expectations- like maybe you want the job site impeccably clean every night, maybe it’s important for them to touch base every day and let you know how it’s going. Communication is key.

3. Talk about details. Relationships often go sour at the end of a job, when a final bill is presented that covers all the unexpected details that everyone forgot to talk about. I’m thinking things like hinges, switch-plate covers, re-sodding after the site is cleaned up. Ask what types of little things might come up and who is going to pay for them. The best way to anticipate these it to plan, plan, plan. Work with a designer if you can to anticipate what each wall of each room will look like, where electrical will go (this depends on where furniture goes), where you can put bulkheads to run ductwork and plumbing. And once you’ve planned down to each detail, be ready for it all to change! (Tip, if you don’t have a designer, ask your contractor if there’s someone they’ve worked with that they like and respect).

4. Talk about what to do when things go wrong or unexpected. Should all work stop until a resolution is reached? Are you reachable by cell phone? Are you able to come to the site and make a decision then and there. If you don’t trust your contractor to make a decision for you, then you need to be available on their time so you don’t hold up the job. Know that. Also know that things will go wrong.

5. Talk about money. This is very, very important. Contractors usually work either by flat fee, or as a percentage of total cost. If it’s a flat fee, you’ll need to know EVERYTHING that they are covering. Back to the hinge example- who is supplying those? If it wasn’t in the contract, they can charge whatever they want. Ask that as issues come up, you get a cost before you give a go ahead, so you know where you stand. If contractors are charging a percentage, you’ll still need to know how much unexpected things are going to cost you. The risk with this method of billing is that they can choose more expensive materials to get their fee up. In either case, be specific about what you want, eg: type and grade of paint, type and grade of doors, do you want MDF baseboards or is wood important to you. That type of thing. Sometimes with a flat fee, contractors will chose more inexpensive materials to fatten their bottom line. A designer can help you. Or ask upfront to be given the choice between cheaper and more expensive materials. Also talk about a payment schedule and holding back a certain amount until the job is done. Talk about permits, who is getting them, who is paying for them. Finally, talk about work warranties. If you dig the basement, for example, and it leaks six months later, who is going to pay to re-do it.

6. Lastly, don’t be adversarial with your contractor. If you’ve done your homework and gotten one you like and trust (as is the case with ours, with whom we’ve already worked three times), remember that you are on the same team. Everyone wants to get the job done on time and on budget. So when my contractor (who I will now call George) tells me it will be cheaper in the long run to gut the house completely than to try to keep a few things here and there, I trust his 20 years of building over my 10 years working in design. I asked him to keep all the doors and trim and door hardware so that when the time came to put it back, we could use the original things. He agreed. That’s how it works.