Five Tips for Working with Contractors

By: Mark Clement , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips

Many old house owners end up being de facto general contractors. They’re either doing some of the work themselves and bring in subs (can you say plumber and electrician for the bathroom remodel?) Or they’re hiring a remodeler for 100% of the hands-on. Either way, if you have a check book in your hand and are working with a trades-person, here are 5 tips for a successful remodel.

1. Be Flexible. In old house world, the ankle bone is connected to the…collar bone. In other words, you can bet even a mildly complex job probably won’t go according to plan. The better part of wisdom here is to be ready for it, both from a lifestyle and a budget standpoint. Remodelers are not magicians. We can’t see behind walls nor can we predict the future, despite wishes to the contrary. Furthermore, if we gave bids that covered every possible iteration and complication we’d never sell another job–our bids would be in the stratosphere.

2. Be Smart. Homeowners, while expecting unknowns can help guard themselves against disappointment from a schedule waylay and “when the he** will you be done” standpoint, don’t get taken for a ride. A good way to protect yourself is to–before anybody takes a wall down or removes a door–get a general idea of what I call “if-thens.” A contractor who knows what’s going on will be able to at least outline, in general terms, what he expects could go wrong, everything from a rotten sill plate to door and window framing that somehow lack functioning headers (seen both) to substandard plumbing and wiring. If this goes bad, then this will happen…if-then. This said, a contractor can’t know everything either and citing an example or potential outcome isn’t a legal contract, so…

3. Trust. Communication is key here. We’re not working in a cube in an office building, we’re working in your home–where you live.

Most of us care. And most of us (I hope it’s most of us) realize that we’re working on something of deep value to you. Our passion for our craft should come through in the quality of the work and the process we use to achieve quality work. Furthermore, from a business standpoint, it bloodies our bottom line to waste time–yours and ours. And contractors, in case you’re the nickel-and-dimer type, you waste more money arguing about a hundred dollar hiccup than just eating whatever little problem came up and delivering on time and winning a happy customer. A thousand bucks, different story.

4. Eye Contact and Dashboard. I’m a big believer in making eye contact. If a contractor doesn’t make eye contact with you, worry. Also, check the dashboard (or bed) of the remodeler’s truck. If its layered with cigarette cartons, piles of paper, and receipts from 6 quarters ago, worry. If tools and bags and shovels and stuff are randomly heaped in the back of his pick-up, worry. These are all signs of epidemic disorganization. I’m not saying it shouldn’t look like a work-truck–this isn’t Martha Stewart–but if his own vehicle is a rolling garbage can, it might be an indicator your house will become a stationary garbage can, if you know what I mean.

5. Work and Payment Schedule. Homeowners, expect to pay a deposit for larger projects, and expect to pay something as you go along. Or expect to pay in full upon completion, depending on the project. Please realize that just because we can fix houses our mortgages and payrolls don’t pay themselves.

Contractors, realize that your customers have every dollar you’re ever going to make. Be fair and only bill for work you’ve done. And invoice in a timely manner.

By the end of the project there should only be 10% left on the table for final completion, aka punch list, stuff. The job must be completed to satisfaction for that last 10% to be paid. The reason this works is that the contemporaneous exchange of money for service evens out the power imbalance between service provider (contractor) and providee (homeowner.) Toxic customers–and there are plenty–are held at bay because they’re not holding all the cash, thusly holding the contractor prisoner. And toxic contractors–plenty here too–are held in check because they can’t get the next payment until a pre-agreed upon benchmark has been met and risk being fired for not reaching it.

Like working on an old house, there are a hundred other tips, tricks and permutations that can make life easier, which I hope you’ll share.


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  1. 4 Responses  to “Five Tips for Working with Contractors”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Choosing a home improvement company should be taken seriously. It is important to find the right service for your specific requirements. With many companies to choose from, it is important to have some set criteria so that you will not end up regretting your decision.
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    Mark, this is great remodeling advice for both homeowners and contractors. I always recommend both parties take the time at the outset to write a complete contract together that includes a time line and some built-in flexibility for unexpected “surprises.” When contracts are written together there is a shared expectation and a much higher chance of agreement throughout the project.
  4. Frank
    Aug 29, 2011
    Every time I hire a contractor I initiate the work agreement with a handshake...I then get everything in writing, in a contract!
  5. Jeremy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Ask a bunch of questions before anything is done, before they even look at your house... "Normally, what happens when..." Get a feel for the person and if you sense they are BSing you find someone else!