Tips for Working with Contractors

During our recent bathroom renovation we learned so much about working with contractors. We thought it important to share the brutal reality of completing projects when you have to organize multiple trades. 

One note: we operated as our general contractor (GC) for our bathroom. If we were working on a larger project, like our kitchen, we’d probably hire a GC to coordinate all the trades and timing of them coming to work on their part of the project. 

Estimating and Pricing. 

I have some opinions about this. Let me get started by sharing our experiences. 

– I find pricing can vary vastly for the same job. If the job is over $5,000 we triple bid it. If the job is straight forward and we are working with someone who we’ve worked with in the past, we’ll ask that company for an estimate. 

For example, when we had the electrical for our master bath worked on, we know wiring another bathroom is going to be about the same price. However when we installed all new electric panels, we did triple bid that and asked each contractor how they’d approach the project. When we had to get the bats out of the attic, we got three estimates. We needed two things to happen: get bats out, and remove all the bat poop (it’s toxic). We got an estimate for $25,000 (no poop removal), $8,000 and $12,000. The $8,000 estimate included everything and had a warranty. 

– Ask the contractor if the estimate is fixed for the project. If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, we let them know we will not be responsible for costs that exceed 20% of the estimate. There are a few times I feel like estimates were low balled just to get us to say yes to the project. I find that so grossly unprofessional and disrespectful to our personal finances, I won’t stand for it. 

– Always get a written estimate. 

– Ask if there is a discount for paying cash. If you can, some small businesses will give you a discount for paying by check or cash. Credit card fees can be up to 5% and really hurts a small business’ bottom line. Still get a receipt if you pay cash. 

– The whole ‘time and materials’ argument for an old house. I’ll dive more into this later, but an experienced contractor should be able to give you a best case scenario and a worst case. I totally understand their point of view on old homes and not knowing some aspects until you start the job. On the flip side of that our bank account is not an endless pile of money, so we need to know if we are within budget. 

– We never pay for an estimate. We had a plumber try to charge us to estimate once, and we said no. He came anyway and was the most expensive. End of story. Also, we work in a service industry and have to do estimates all the time for jobs. It’s part of the work. I might make an exception if the estimate had trade secrets, or required extensive research. An above and beyond situation. 

Communication.

Ask what the preferred type of communication is for approving estimates, and scheduling work. Depends on the size of the crew but you might have to talk to different people for different things. We also find some trades love a phone call, while some prefer a text. Heck, maybe some people love an email? Keeping track of communications for a trade that is working on location is challenging. We find asking and working with whatever suits them best makes the process that much easier. 

Schedule.

This is a bit of a sore spot for me, I’m not gonna lie. About 40% of the time that trades were supposed to come, they don’t. This is an epidemic – I’m not even joking. If you are taking off work, or rearranging your schedule, make that clear. We had some major electrical work scheduled for about 2 weeks. On the day the work was supposed to be done, we called when no on showed up. And asked, what’s up? They said ‘something came up’ and they’d be here tomorrow. That made us crazy mad cause we can’t earn money, or if we had a job, we could have wasted a vacation day. Be very clear, and if you have a tight schedule follow up the day before. 

On that same note, be flexible if you want the work done quickly. I find if the contractor can fit you in that week, it’s easier for everyone. But if you have to wait, it can take forever. We try to rearrange our schedule so we can say ‘yes’ if they make a time suggestion. 

Completion.

If you have a long job, always ask ‘what is the next step’ so you know what is going on. It astounds me, how little information you get when people are actively working in your home. At the end of the work day, check in and ask next steps or if the job is complete, inspect it. 

For the most part, we’ve had a good experience with this. But then we had a contractor ghost us when it came time to close out a permit. We had to really follow up and close out that step of the process.

House Rules.

If you have a preferred bathroom, let the team know. We also offer water or coffee to a team that’s going to be with us for a few days. If you want flooring covered, or any aesthetic concerns, you have to speak up and be your best advocate. I find these vary vastly depending on the company. Some companies are awesome, they cover floors and don’t lean equipment on walls. While others leave your house like a dump truck went through. If we can, we try to pull up rugs and paper the floors. For instance, we had a handyman helping us change some old storm windows which are heavy and dirty. Of course he leaned them on the newly painted walls and designer furniture. I mean… I just can’t with that stuff. 

Supplies and Mark ups.

This is a bit of a grey area. In some cases contractors can get you great deals on supplies. We’ve also had a few situations where we saw price gouging. Do your research and be an informed consumer. I understand if they order the item, the mark up is how they pay for that time. I’m not trying to short change anyone, but if it’s double the price, that’s a bit much. We asked around to understand if there is an industry standard and there is not. Again, be informed and understand how your trades make money and charge for services. Purchasing an item on your behalf is a service, or does it fall under an industry standard supply?