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How To Make A Wise Choice When Hiring A Remodeler

in Advice, Design, Hiring, How To

Hiring a remodeler is simple, if you know what to ask. Many of you may only hire a remodeler once or twice in a lifetime, so it’s hard to keep up with the latest regulations and know the right questions to ask. So here is a mental checklist you should heed when you start the interview process. Take good notes, and by all means, avoid being one of the horror story statistics.

The weather’s been stormy.  The economy has been unpredictable.  Or is it the other way around?  We all know that the weather has caused a lot of damage lately.  And the economy encourages you to make a smart choice when you hire a remodeler to repair or work on your home.  You need a reliable and honest contractor.  It shouldn’t be that hard.  Unfortunately, to get the right person to work on your home, is much harder than you might think.

The media has published so many warnings and tips about hiring, you’d think that everyone would be aware of the pitfalls and follow their sage advice.  But nope, the public turns a deaf ear to all that hoopla.  Those horror stories may happen to others, but they won’t happen to you, right? I have heard so many stories of botched remodeling jobs, it’s incredible.  As I hear them, I wonder, often out loud, “What were they thinking? Couldn’t they see that coming?”.  Rhetoric.  “They” never see it coming, because they refuse to observe the obvious.  In a minute, I’ll tell you why.  But first, how about some juicy gossip?

Story 1 – A simple kitchen remodel:  The owner sought advice from a friend, who recommended a remodeler who renovated their kitchen years back.  He said the remodeler was really friendly and very reasonable.  So the owner calls the remodeler to look at their project.  He is really friendly and they like him instantly.  He says he’s done a lot of kitchens and baths and that this looks like a very straightforward job.  The owner gets a price, it looks good and they schedule a start.

Now kitchens are one of the most detailed and challenging jobs in remodeling.  They aren’t cheap and you have to know what you are doing when you take one on.  And they can take quite a while to do, depending on the scope of work.

On with the story – the contractor tells them it will take about a month or so.  Sounds too good to be true (and was).  Anyway the owner’s happy that they will be back in their kitchen in a month (they didn’t hear the “or so” part.  Demolition is incredibly fast.  These guys will definitely be done in a hurry.  But that was the end of the speedy work.  Over the next few months there were days the trades didn’t show up, days the carpenters didn’t show, the cabinets weren’t ordered on time, they couldn’t get the specified faucet, the tile was out of stock and had to be ordered, the receptacles for the backsplash were all at the wrong height, the cabinets were ordered wrong – the remodeler had to re-order some of the parts, they missed the lighting layout, and on and on.  All these mistakes and warning signs happened gradually.  By the time the owners realized they’d made a  huge mistake it’s was too late.  They had to let the remodeler finish.

Meanwhile they were out of their kitchen for a month, then two months, then two more.  And finally, after huge “unforeseen” up-charges and change orders, unbelievable stress, and six months of eating out, the kitchen is done.

Can you feel their pain?  What did they do wrong?  I’ll tell you after I finish the next story.

Story 2 –  The addition:  Additions, unlike kitchens, are pretty straight forward, as long as you know what you are doing.  Every job requires talent and experience.  A remodeler excels when he understands the job and the customer’s needs. This one understood neither.
The owner got three bids – one for $65,000, one for $57,000 and one for $42,000.  The specifications all looked about the same.  They didn’t like the low bidder as much as the other two, but the price was too good to pass up.  They took the low bid – $23,000 less than the high bid.  No clue something was wrong yet.

The first day some ratty looking trucks showed up and promptly parked on their lawn.  Over the next few weeks they got the foundation in, destroying the entire back yard and skinning up their beautiful trees.  Before the walls and roof of the addition were built, they decided to open the wall into the house.  (Normally a contractor will wait until the entire addition is dried in before breaking through to the existing house.)  Without checking on the inside of the existing home, they started demolishing the outside, hammering on the exterior wall and knocking some priceless art and pictures onto the floor inside.  The next night a huge storm with blowing rain came through.  The remodeler hadn’t figured it would rain, so the house was unprotected.  The rain poured onto the hardwood floors inside and down through the sheetrock ceiling in the basement, and onto the carpet.

The homeowners were furious, and fired the remodeler.  They hired the highest bidder this time.  The final total for the project topped out at $74,000 after all of the damage was repaired, $9,000 higher than the original highest bid.

The “Why” of it all

In story #1, they took a friend’s recommendation.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  That can be a good starting place.  But they should have followed that up by checking the contractor’s list of references.  They should have called a few of those on the list and checked  them out; some who had a job done years ago, and one who’s job was  ongoing.  If everything checked out, next they should have checked with the state licensing board.  Does the remodeler have a general contractor’s license?  What is the dollar limit on that license, that is, how big a job are they allowed to take on? It has to be at or above the contracted price, e.g., if the limit is set at $100,000, then the remodeler can take on a job up to $100,000 or less.  Next, ask for a Certificate of Insurance.  They should have General Liability and Worker’s Compensation.  Two warnings here: don’t take their word for it – get the certificate from their carrier.  Secondly, don’t hire them if they don’t have insurance.  Period.  The risk to you and your family is too great.

Just following those basic tips will rid you of most of the undesirable contractors.  But not all.  Read on.

If a person says they’ve done a lot of “X”, ask where they’ve built them and when.  A kitchen every 3 years does not make a great kitchen remodeler.  Look carefully at their portfolio, and ask more questions.  “When did you build that?” “What kind of cabinets are those?” “How many people can we expect to be on the job every day?”  And so on.  As the contractor answers these, you will get the real answers you are seeking.  Is he or she reliable, experienced and honest.

Tip:  One thing to keep in mind – some of the nicest people are dishonest.  It is up to you to collect clues and solve the puzzle.

Story #2 is the oldest and most unfortunate in the book.  The first question the owners  have to ask is why can one contractor would do the job for $23,000 less than the other.  The answer is simple – either they are lying and can’t do it for that price (they’ll make it up with change orders after the job starts), or they are going to short cut so much by using inexperienced cheap labor or buying inferior products, that the job is guaranteed to be botched.  There is a third possibility, although no better.  They just messed up and miscalculated the project’s cost.  In any case, you will be the loser.  You can not get something for nothing, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself.  Don’t fall victim to the “dangling carrot”.

Cheap labor was brought in that had little experience, and had no regard for the customer’s space.  You should hire people who have a similar lifestyle to yours, or at least understand your lifestyle, in which case they will be knowledgeable about your expectations.   And no, they won’t be the cheapest, but in the long run, you will be miles ahead.  If you don’t heed this, you won’t know how wrong you are till it’s too late.

Key points to remember when hiring a remodeler

  • Find out how long they have been in business.  Don’t be their “guinea pig”.
  • Get a list of references – and CHECK them.  Seeing is not believing. Call an ongoing job, and an old job at a minimum.  If they don’t have an ongoing job, find out why.
  • Get certificates of insurance FROM the carrier.  Don’t take their word for it, or trust them just because they show a certificate to you.  These can expire the next day or may have already expired.  They should have Worker’s Compensation and General Liability.  You don’t even want to hear these horror stories.
  • Check their contractor’s license.  They should have a license whose dollar limit is at least as high as the job they are proposing to you.  A City or County business license is not the same thing, and should not be considered sufficient.
  • Ask them about their estimating, designing and building process.  Do you get the feeling that they are professional and organized?
  • Ask lots of questions about their experience in carrying out the kind of job that you want them to do for you.  Read in between the lines.
  • See if they offer design work.  Is it in-house or do they out source it?
  • Do they have their own crew or do they sub-contract all their work.  Either way is fine, but find out about their relationships with their sub-contractors (trades).
  • Look over their portfolio and ask more questions.  When did you do this? Where? Etc.
  • Are they well educated in their field? Do they go to conferences and seminars to study and research products and methods?
  • And finally, be honest with yourself.  Do you have a good feeling about the contractor?   Do you have a gut feeling that she or he is going to be a good fit with your family and your home?  Remodeling is not a casual affair.  Do you trust this person to work in all your private spaces, and to care for the large investment you are about to undertake?

I hope that these tips guide you through the selection process when you are planning on hiring a remodeler.  There are many good contractors out there.  I don’t mean to sound so negative about remodelers.  My goal is that you make a wise choice, that’s all.  Be diligent in your search, and please do not shop on price alone.  There is a finite cost to everything.  You can’t get something for nothing.  I don’t want you to learn this the hard way.

Randall Soules has been in the remodeling business for over 30 years.  He now runs several blogs about remodeling, advises and coaches the remodeling community, and has recently put his remodeling process, The Scientific Remodeling System, into lesson form to teach remodelers how to run a better business for all concerned.

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