In Living Color: Ways to work with contractors to get the job done right and on budget

Shoshanah Siegel
Columnist

In my last article, I gave some tips about remodeling, updating or renovating your home. In this article, I will give you tips about hiring a contractor and other professionals, as well as ways to make sure you get what you need to complete the project on time, within budget and with the least amount of headache and stress. (The Signal Tribune now has all of my past articles archived in one location under my column’s name, “In Living Color.” To go to my last article, visit signaltribunenewspaper.com/?p=24909 .)

Contractors and other professionals

Let me start out by stating that the hardest part of renovation might be finding the right contractor. “Often getting the best one for your home– the true pro who shows up and delivers quality work on time and on budget– depends on doing some serious screening before the job starts,” says Mike Holmes, professional contractor and host of HGTV’s Holmes on Homes. Holmes goes on to say, “One thing I’ve learned: It will take you longer to find the right contractor and check out the job, than to do the job.”

Yes, some homework is involved

I sound like a strict teacher. However, the best thing to do before you start interviewing contractors is to educate yourself on the project. The more you know, the more you will be able to ask savvy questions and make smart decisions. You can go as far as finding out what kind of permits you might need. As I stated in my last article, it is imperative that you figure out what you want and how much it will cost before you even start looking for a contractor. In the long run, the process will go more smoothly, and you will be comparing bids that are between apples to apples.
Bruce Irving from the TV show This Old House states, “Homeowners don’t ask enough questions– of themselves, the architect and their contractors.” That’s a big mistake because they get swept up in the renovation process and sometimes end up unhappy with products used or the final results. Homeowners need to remember it’s their money. They should know how and why it’s being spent.

Where to find the right contractor
“Referrals are pretty much the primary source for finding a good contractor,” says Paul DiMeo, designer and costar of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. However, you need to do your due diligence. Finding a contractor is like dating. You want to get to know the person. Not all contractors are equally qualified to work on different types of houses. For instance, if you want a renovation for a certain type of home, find a contractor who has the experience to do the best job. The contractor may have more than one specialty, but make sure that your type of home and remodel or renovation is one of the contractor’s strong suits.
Start with friends and family or ask inspectors and vendors whom they would recommend. Last year, I found a neighborhood-networking site called nextdoor.com . It is a great source of getting local referrals. Remember, actions speak louder than words. The contractor or vendor might look good on paper, but experience is everything. Just as the word gets out about contractors who are not good, it works the other way as well. When you do find someone who is great, be sure to recommend them to others. I especially find it a promising sign when at least two sources recommend the same pro.

Do phone interviews
Now that you have your list of possible contractors, make a quick call to each of your prospects, briefly describe your project and ask them the following questions:
• Do they take projects of your size?
• Do they carry the necessary insurances and license?
• Are they willing to provide financial references, from suppliers or banks?
• Can they give you a list of previous clients? To get a more accurate view of what the professional can bring to your project, ask to contact their most recent three clients. These people will have personally experienced the person at his or her current level of achievement and staffing.
• How many other projects do they normally have going at the same time?
• How long have they worked with their subcontractors?
The answers to these questions will reveal the company’s availability, reliability, how much attention they’ll be able to give your project and how smoothly the work will go.

Meet face to face

Based on the phone interviews, pick three or four contractors to meet for estimates and further discussion. You need to be able to communicate well with this person because you want the process to go smoothly. The basic fact is that they will be in your home for hours at a time and, depending on the project, for several weeks or months.

CSI the facts

Check with the state’s consumer-protection agency and your local Better Business Bureau to make sure the contractor doesn’t have a history of disputes with clients or subcontractors. Ask to visit a current job site and see for yourself how the contractor works. Is the job site neat and safe? Are workers courteous and careful with the homeowner’s property?

Make plans and get bids
A conscientious contractor will want a complete set of blueprints or detailed drawings, and, more importantly, they will need to get a sense of what homeowners want out of a project and what they plan to spend. Steve Crawford, the general contractor for the famous Santa Barbara House, gives some insights about working with clients. He says, “The ability of an owner to visualize what is actually drawn and written on the building plan is invaluable, yet not everyone can ‘get’ blueprints. I always work to make sure my clients understand by verbally walking them through the plans, as problems start when the plan differs from what a homeowner has imagined. I try to make sure our path is correct by asking questions and giving examples.” Also, be mindful of different codes for certain areas. Our cousins recently found that they would need to construct their home considerably differently than planned because their home is close to the water and there are hurricanes where they live. Here in California, older homes might need the structure to be upgraded to withstand earthquakes.
In order to compare bids, ask everyone to break down the cost of materials, labor, profit margins and other expenses. Generally, materials account for 40 percent of the total cost; the rest covers overhead and the typical profit margin, which is 15 to 20 percent.

Get a payment schedule

This Old House general contractor Tom Silva says that this is the time to discuss a payment schedule. Payment schedules can also speak to a contractor’s financial status and work ethic. If they want half the bid upfront, they may have financial problems or be worried that you won’t pay the rest after you’ve seen the work. For large projects, a schedule usually starts with 10 percent at contract signing, three payments of 25 percent evenly, spaced over the duration of the project, and a check for the final 15 percent when you feel every item on the punch list has been completed. One way to avoid perceptions of work being done by both the contractor and you is to schedule your payments around inspections. You need to make sure that you don’t pay for work that hasn’t been done yet or for materials that haven’t arrived. Tom says, “If you don’t see it, don’t pay for it.”

Put it in writing

Draw up a contract that details every step of the project: payment schedule; proof of liability insurance and workers compensation payments; a start date and projected completion date; specific materials and products to be used; and a requirement that the contractor obtain lien releases (which protect you if he doesn’t pay his bills) from all subcontractors and suppliers. Insisting on a clear contract isn’t about mistrust; it’s about insuring a successful renovation and clear communication.

Think about going green?
Do some research about options for going green or greener for the job you’re planning? There is a great article on the subject at nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/green-remodeling-eco-friendly-home-30161.html . I will be writing about this important subject in a future article.

Found a contractor?
Now you need to actively manage the process. By now, you have worked hard to find the right contractor. However, here are some smart ways to stay on top of the job and maintain strong communication with your contractor and construction team.
• Establish good communication. Ask the contractor how they prefer to work with you. Some options might include: being onsite and talking with your contractor every morning before work begins. Have the contractor’s cell-phone number and the okay to call or text anytime. Talk to the project lead every day at a pre-determined time. This is an opportunity for you to hear progress reports and find out what work is scheduled over the next few days. Also, it is a time to ask questions and voice concerns.
• Keep a journal. If your memory is not perfect, like most of us, it is a good tool. Your journal might include the following: record the progress, note questions you may have, write down ideas, and record product order numbers and upcoming delivery dates. It is great for keeping the communication open and a record of what was said. It could prove to be invaluable if there are any disputes later on.
• Get it in writing. Just in case there are any structural issues, or you decide to include additional work as things progress, you need it in writing. Your contractor should be able to handle the changes, but get it in writing first. It is a good idea to specify in your remodeling contract that you want change orders in writing. The contract should be able to spell out what the changes are and what it will cost.
• Consistently check out the work completed. Check after the crew has gone. Make notes in your journal. Compare model numbers on appliances and fixtures against your receipts and invoices. Check the locations of windows and door openings. No job goes perfectly no matter how great your contractor is. You will need to make some adjustments. However, the four most expensive words in the English language are “While you’re at it…” Also, if you had agreed upon costs for items and then change them out for more expensive ones, both your costs and time will be altered. Next, note the quality of work done. Hey, you are paying for the project; you have a right to check to make sure all is going well.
• Pay only for completed work. Your remodeling contract should establish a series of payments to be made when certain aspects of the job are completed. For example, your contract could stipulate that you’ll pay in three equal installments, with the last payment to be made after the project is complete, and after you and your contractor agree the work is satisfactory.
• Be a good customer. One way to get quality work out of your contractor and construction crew is to make it enjoyable to work with you. That means having good communication and being friendly and accommodating. Also, when warranted, compliment their work.

Shoshanah Siegel provides color consulting as well as space planning, remodeling, upgrading and staging through her firm Your Color Diva. She can be contacted at (562) 427-0440, shoshanah.siegel@gmail.com and yourcolordiva.com. Her idea books and portfolio are available at houzz.com/ pro/shoshanahsiegel/your-color-diva .

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