9 TIPS FOR WORKING WITH A GENERAL CONTRACTOR
Like most things in my life (especially since we’ve had a kid) I outsource. Like, a lot. So for most projects around my house, I hire a contractor. And I have learned SO MUCH from working with contractors over the years. There have been mistakes, but mostly it’s just disappointment that the finished product is not exactly what I envisioned. To be clear, this was not my contractor’s fault. I take full responsibility for how I managed the process. As I’ve talked with others about their experiences, I realized that a lot of us have similar challenges when it comes to working with contractors so I created a list of tips to share with you guys in hopes that your renovation dreams will come true for your next project.
There are a lot of directions we could go for this topic, but the focus for this post is on managing the overall project and the relationship with your contractor – once you have selected him or her – to be sure that things go smoothly and that you get what you envisioned in the end. So my starting point here is that you have found an amazing contractor that you love, who has actually shown up to see your space, and who even followed up with a quote. Oh, and you called 5 references and everyone called you back and all of them had nothing but great things to say.
1. Create a design plan and communicate it before the contract is finalized and review it together in detail before demo begins.
Someone has to design the space even if it’s a simple project and if you’re not working with a designer, that person is you. Your contractor can make suggestions and tell you what your best options are if you need to change the layout or move a door, but unless you’re hiring a design/build firm, the contractor is really there to execute your vision.
When you’re designing and discussing with your contractor, make sure that you don’t gloss over the details. For example, do you want to add recessed lighting? What size? How many? Do you want LED lights? Do you want dimmers? Do you want them on the same switch as other lights in the room? What types of switches do you want? If you aren’t specific, your contractor will likely choose for you and it may not be what you envisioned. You might end up with blueish colored LED lights in your bedroom that don’t quite dim all the way (true story). Details like these should be ironed out well in advance especially because some features may cost more to install so it’s important to let your contractor know so he can plan and give you an accurate estimate for labor and materials.
Details like these become even more critical for more technical projects like bathrooms and kitchens so allow for plenty of time for planning and designing up front. Before you begin demo, ideally you should have all of the items that you’re responsible for on site. This means that you should have all of your pieces selected and ordered well before your contractor arrives with his demo crew.
Finally, keep in mind that many items can have long lead times so make sure that you allow sufficient time for products to arrive on site so that you can keep your project moving. Don’t tell your contractor that he can start next week when your bathroom faucet is going to take 6 weeks to arrive.
Delays and change orders cost money so make sure that you have your design nailed down and have all the pieces in place before you start.
2. Be flexible.
This one might sound like it contradicts #1, but you need to be prepared for the fact that unexpected things can come up and you have to roll with it. Sometimes, there’s no way to know what’s behind door number one until you open door number one. And it might mean that you can’t install those recessed medicine cabinets or move that doorway over a couple feet without paying a high price. So as much as you need a design plan, make you you are prepared for a design plan B.
3. Agree on a contract that has a clearly defined scope of work and even ask to include language for cleaning up the job site or other tasks that are important to you.
A strong and clear contract is in both parties best interest. Make sure that details are clear (e.g., how many recessed lights are included in the cost, who is responsible for purchasing what, etc). Don’t make assumptions; ask questions and make sure that you have a clear document describing scope and roles and responsibilities such as who is responsible for cleaning the job site daily and the expected duration of the project.
4. Ask for the project plan or project timeline with key milestones.
I never actually did this until I started working as a designer professionally. I don’t know why, because in my job as a consultant, I could not imagine functioning without a project plan or establishing an understanding of key milestones. It’s important to know what to expect and who will be in your home each day. For example, is the plumber coming today? The electrician? What potential issues might be uncovered today or questions will be answered? What questions do I have for that part of the project? You also may want to oversee installation of certain special items like handmade tile or a light fixture. Having a project plan and identifying key milestones helps set your expectations and understand when/if things are going sideways. It also helps tee up conversations as you approach each milestone because you are both on the same page about where you are in the project.
5. Discuss your communication plan.
Are you the type of person who needs daily updates or do you want to know only when you hit a milestone? Do you prefer to ask questions over the phone instead of email? Whatever your preferred style, it’s helpful to let your contractor know. These folks are busy and often on job sites all day, so let your contractor know what type of updates you would like to receive and the two of you can figure out how best to make that work for both of you.
6. Be present.
We throw this term around a lot these days but, If you can, try to actually be at the site or at least be engaged as much as you can. Ask questions. Understand the process. I don’t mean that you should micromanage (no one likes a micromanager, duh) and I know you probably have to actually go to the office (someone has to pay for all these renovations!) but the more that you’re present and curious and engaged, the better the outcome. Let the contractor and crew know that you’re interested in the details (but also let them do their job).
7. Ask follow-up questions and don’t be afraid to push back.
I think that this is one of the hardest for a lot of people (myself included). Sticking with my example from #2, let’s say that you open up a wall and your contractor tells you that it’s going to be “difficult” to install those vintage-style recessed medicine cabinets you were dreaming about (let’s say they looked something like these). Oh, and “difficult” in contractor speak means “expensive”. So you say “Okay, I guess we’re not going to install those cabinets of my dreams and let’s just go with something easier” because you’re a pleaser and don’t want to make anything difficult for anyone.
But instead, you should ask: What exactly does “difficult” mean here? What would the install entail and how much extra would it cost? Would it cause other problems in the long run that I should consider? What if we try X or Y (see #8)?
You should know what the complexities are and be the one to decide if something is worth paying for. If you REALLY REALLY want those medicine cabinets because they fit your vision for the overall design perfectly, then you might be willing to pay $1,000 extra to move some things around in order to install them. Your contractor might think spending $1,000 on that is crazy. Don’t let him or her make that decision for you.
8. Educate yourself.
Keeping #7 in mind, take some time to educate yourself on your project as best you can. I’m not suggesting you take an online plumbing class in the evenings, but you should at least do some googling so that you understand your options and set some expectations for costs and potential issues and solutions. Houzz is a great place to go to ask questions about your project. If you have more information in your back pocket, it can help you push back and ask more targeted questions like “why don’t we try X?”
9. You get what you pay for.
Good contractors are hard to find. And if you want someone who is licensed and insured, pays taxes, guarantees his or her work, and has a strong, consistent crew you have to understand that all of that costs money. I don’t think you always have to go for the Mercedes Benz of contractors (unless you want to and it’s in your budget), but keep in mind that you get what you pay for.
What other tips do you guys have? What is your biggest challenge? What mistakes have you made? Please share in the comments! I would love to hear your stories and suggestions.
Have a great weekend! xx