A Better Way to Choose Your Contractor

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Choosing a Contractor Is a Logical Process 
Why Bidding Doesn’t Work For Residential Remodeling

Daunting as it may seem, if you’re planning to remodel you’ll have to choose someone to manage a process that leaves most homeowners overwhelmed and frustrated, but ultimately delighted. Having been in the unholy threesome as a general contractor (former owner of a high-end design/build firm), a homeowner who has lived through several remodels and new home construction as a helpless customer, and a current designer, I strongly urge my clients to do something unconventional: select your contractor before or during design.

In residential remodeling, the conventional process is as follows: A client contacts a designer, names a budget and communicates a wish list. The designer offers scenarios and draws plans outlining the client’s needs. The plans, including construction details, are given to several contractors to bid. But bidding minimizes the distinctions between companies.

Of course, your budget is a major factor – everyone wants the most bang for their buck. Here’s where a problem arises. Distinctions between companies are reflected in behaviors other than money. No two contractors detail everything alike. Regardless of the minutiae imposed by designers, there are many methods to complete a project’s tasks. It’s not reasonable only to compare prices, because it is impossible to know the same job is being performed. In essence, the client isn’t really able to comparison shop as it’s never “apples to apples.”

As if that weren’t enough, when the bids arrive it turns out that the project will cost more than budgeted, and the designer must be paid to redesign the project.

Skip this if technical stuff bores you. Here’s an example of how contractors interpret a detail not spelled out by a designer: When applying interior trim to a window, the “apron” below the bottom of the window stool (a piece of trim) may be cut in several ways. The edges may have a straight vertical cut, or they may have a slightly angled cut, which looks a little less clunky. Or perhaps a 90 degree chip is cut from its ends and a tiny insertion, called a return, creates a fine profile at its ends. Each contractor may choose a different level of detail. Every trade involved encounters numerous choices. Multiply by infinity.

A Better Way
Sure, if you like a design firm, have them create a conceptual design. But before you spend on its completion, choose your contractor.

Here’s the part about saving money. Your contractor will work with the designer to stay within the budget. This is where best-intentioned designers often fall short. The contractor, based on practical experience, has a better idea of costs. Most designers are more than willing to consult with the contractor who will be doing the project because they are assured that what they design will be built.

Additionally, working with the contractor often makes designers look better because they are assured that their vision is affordable. Designing something too expensive only shows clients what they wish they could have – after paying for the design but not the construction. When the designer and contractor work together, the vision can be realized.

How to Choose
Ask around. Many of your acquaintances have recently remodeled. Angie’s List is good, but speaking with a human is best. Yes, it’s time consuming. But the time you spend up front may save thousands, and priceless time and frustration, later.

Needless to say, you must contact several references. And after you’ve connected with contractor candidate(s) – there’s nothing wrong with checking out only one company if it comes highly recommended – make appointments to visit completed projects. Unless they’ve been naughty, they should have a stable of clients eager to show off their handiwork. Match your needs concerning level of detail with the contractor’s record. Perhaps for your project you don’t need those aforementioned window skirts, or the bathroom need not be insulated for sound or include a quiet and strong exhaust fan (note: always do this!). Visiting the sites will help determine whether you’d be overspending by hiring a particularly detail-oriented company as opposed to one more utilitarian.

After interviews and site visits, you’re ready to choose. By this time you are reasonably certain that the company you’ve chosen is run by honest folks based on integrity and quality. They’ll keep the designer within your budget, and you’ll sleep better knowing you’re in good hands.

I’ve recommended this avenue to many clients. Some take the advice; others see it as foolish, believing that they may be taken advantage of once the contractor knows he’s getting the job. In my experience, 100% of clients who’ve followed this advice, as time-consuming and unintuitive as it sounds, have been delighted with the results.

Just sayin’.


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