I’m guessing you’ve watched a 30-minute episode of Property Brothers or Fixer Upper or any other home renovation show on HGTV and thought to yourself: ‘Hmm, that doesn’t look too hard.’
Well, think again. My very first renovation project had a budget of $20,000. I was going to be done in two weeks. $60,000 and 3 months later I was finished. I was an unprepared newbie who had built up too much confidence from watching HGTV and DIY clips on YouTube – and I paid for it.
Since that first ‘small scale’ renovation project, I’ve undertaken the complete renovation of four more houses, going as far as removing entire sections of them and building new additions. These have been complete gut-jobs – tearing everything down to the studs. I’ve worked with dozens of contractors and sub-contractors and handymen and engineers and architects and it’s been a never-ending journey of learning lessons. I’m going to pass those lessons onto you, so that when you need to hire a contractor you’re equipped to go into the process with confidence. Oh – there’s also one more small detail: I’m a licensed contractor, too.
I think it’s probably safe to say that I know what I’m talking about now. I don’t know everything, though and I still depend heavily on others who know more than I do when it comes to certain subjects, but the following advice should help you avoid the hard lessons I learned:
- Interview five contractors. Take the highest bid and the lowest bid and throw them out. Work the middle three bids to hammer out a very detailed scope of work and payment schedule – then go with the contractor who you think is offering you the best deal in terms of price and quality. Quality most certainly takes precedence over price. Always ask for references and check those references as well as proof of their experience.
- Take your time hammering out an iron-clad contract. I recommend playing the ‘what if’ game. What if material is stolen from the job site – who’s responsible? What if the contractor doesn’t deliver on his promised timeline – is there a time clause in the contract? What if one of their workers damages something in your house or makes a mess?
- Make sure your contractor is licensed, bonded and insured. If they have employees, make sure they have worker’s compensation insurance. If they hire sub-contractors (which they will most likely), make sure those sub-contractors are appropriately licensed, bonded and insured and have workers compensation for any of their employees.
- Require a W9 from your contractor, and anytime it’s time to pay up, require they issue you an invoice and you in turn issue a 1099 covering that payment. It’s also a smart idea to require they sign an unconditional or conditional lien and claim waiver for any work that they’re invoicing you for.
- Never, ever pay up front. In the state of California, contractors are limited to asking for and receiving a down payment of not more than 10 percent of the total home improvement contract price or $1,000, whichever is less. The laws in California are stacked in favor of consumers when it comes to contractors. Learn more here: http://www.cslb.ca.gov/Consumers/
- Do your research (Google and YouTube are great tools) about your project. I’m a huge advocate for building science. The methods and material we have now that weren’t around a few years ago are leaps and bounds more effective. I pursue contractors who invest in continuing their education and staying on top of building science. The guy who’s been laying tile for 20 years may have a rolodex of great references and experience, but he may also be glued to the methods and materials that he was trained on 20 years ago. He may not be on top of all the great new products that produce longer-lasting and better-built bathrooms.
- Don’t bypass a permit when one is needed. Building permits are a hassle. Sometimes building inspectors are a hassle. But there’s a reason the process is there. Ask your contractor if the work requires a permit. If they say no, check with your local building department. Building inspectors are, for the most part, your only line of defense when it comes to shoddy work that you may not have the experience to spot.
- Supervise, supervise, supervise. Don’t make assumptions that just because the contractor you hired has been in business for 20 years that there’s no need to check in on their work and progress and ask questions or point out things that may concern you. Contractors are human, too, and just like humans they’ll make mistakes.
If you’re about to take on a renovation project, good luck. I hope my advice proves helpful. If you need help or would like my input on any contractors you’re considering hiring, feel free to reach out. I have clients call me all the time asking if the price they got from a plumber makes sense or what product I’d recommend for the job they’re thinking about doing.