When we moved into this century-old house more than 4(!) years ago, we had a lot to learn – and quick. Never having lived in a home more than a few decades old, naturally, we’d never seen lathe before. We were amazed when old toys and trinkets fell out of the walls we demoed. We tested every newly exposed surface for lead. We questioned the decisions made years and years before us, and we learned that to do things right, it would take time. A whole lot of time.
But one of our biggest lessons that was all too new to us? Learning how to hire – and work with – a contractor. I’m trying to think of a single time before this house where we had to hire a contractor for a larger job, and I keep coming up blank! Small plumbing emergencies and flooded basements? Yes. Installing new headers and drywalling an entire ceiling? No. For our first wave of renovation, we were given a reasonable quote from a nice enough contractor to address a handful of big issues, along with a 6-8 weeks-ish timeline. A good 5 months later, we were irritable, losing steam and patience, and although we liked his team’s work, we were fuming at their pace and lackadaisical attitudes.
Let’s just say, we wisened up after that. All these years later, we’ve ultimately found our go-to guys that we trust wholeheartedly, and although we’ve been open about sharing the ups and downs of renovation with you, navigating the murky Tree House waters has proven to introduce whole new set of challenges in an equally new-to-us town. Along the way, we’ve received the most generous emails from you with Tree House contractor recommendations to help us with our to do list, while at the same time, we’re still receiving weekly emails from Chicago friends looking for our favorite GC, handyman or tile installer here. And mixed in amongst all of that, we’ll also hear you say, But wait, back up, how do you find and hire a contractor in the first place? What’s the secret?
The truth is that finding one of the Good Guys or Gals is hard, but there are a handful of things you can do to ease the stress of the process, if only a little. So when you find yourself in need of someone to gut your bathroom or install a new kitchen or lay all new flooring, the following is a routine we work through to help us successfully hire and work with anyone, and our hope is that this might help you in some small way, too!
We interview and meet with at least two contractors (and then do a good gut check).
When possible, we prefer to reach out to recommendations first, especially if we’ve been able to see their handiwork in person (i.e., a friend’s new kitchen). If you don’t know anyone who has recently renovated in your area, searching on review sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List can be a great starting point, and we have found gems from doing so. We like to look up their Facebook pages, read reviews and go through their website (if they have one; this can be oddly difficult to track down!). As a starting point, we like to have an in-depth phone interview covering the basics (our job description and expectations, and are they licensed, insured and able to pull permits if necessary?), and if all goes well, we’ll ask to meet them in person at our home or wherever the work needs to be completed.
We’re cautious of the lowest bid.
If we’re still waiting on a quote more than 1-2 weeks later, we typically take that as a red flag to begin with. But if you’re lucky enough to start collecting quotes right away, we always remind ourselves that the lowest offer isn’t always the best. When there are drastic differences between quotes, we may even nix the lowest one completely, as we’ve been burned by too-low offers in the past with cut corners and sloppy craftsmanship. There are two questions we always follow up with as well: Does your quote include all materials? and Do you offer a cash discount? These answers are beyond helpful in our final decision.
A walk through is always a good idea – before, during and after.
The initial walk through is typically handled during the interview process, but once we’ve found The One, we’ll often ask them to swing by the job once more before starting. Our favorite contractor in Chicago is always happy to walk through the space with us every couple of days, and when a job is complete, we’re mindful to do another walk through. All the walk throughs, we say!
We ask a (whole!) lot of questions.
The walk throughs are the best time to ask a lot – and I mean a lot – of questions! It’s great to get a read on their responses in person, and often times, a good contractor will offer more information that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. Here are some examples:
- Will you be subcontracting parts of this job? Tell us about your team.
- How many jobs are you currently working on?
- Will you be on-site every day?
- When can you start, and how long do you estimate our job to take?
- How do you protect the job site? (We always let them know our expectations within our home, such as plastic partitions, drop cloths, keeping our front gate and door closed, etc.)
We all sign a contract, a quote, anything. Just sign.
In our experience, contractors, while great on the job, don’t exactly enjoy paperwork. Unless they’re part of a large team with an office, you may have to specifically ask for a contract. And if they don’t provide a contract, make one yourself! We have a generic contract from a past job that we use and update when necessary, and our contractors have always been fine – if not relieved – to sign the one we provide. For smaller jobs, signing off on the quote can suffice, but if they refuse to sign at all, walk away.
We agree on payment terms.
Large jobs may be broken down into three or more payments, whereas smaller jobs may ask for half at the end of day one and the second half on the last day. We’ve never paid a deposit to hold a date, and I’d be weary of anyone who asks you to do so.
We over communicate and assume nothing.
I cannot stress this enough, but don’t ever feel like you’re bothering your contractor! Chances are you’re paying them a pretty penny, and of course you want to stay in the loop of what’s going on or any changes in the game plan. We over communicate, and we never, ever assume something is a given. If something is on our mind, we shoot our contractor a text, give a call or send an email, depending on their preferred method of communication.
There will be surprises, and we do our best to budget for them.
It’s impossible to say what could be underneath your walls until demolition begins, but we’ve definitely been handed our fair share of surprises over the years. With that in mind, we don’t take on a quote that’s above our means, and because we always prefer to pay with cash, it’s important to us to able to pay for any surprises with cash, too. Know your budget, and plan accordingly!
We’re kind, but stern.
This goes along with being over communicative, but throughout the process, we remain as kind and respectful as possible. If we feel we may be being taken advantage of, I’ll usually default to Scott to be a bit more stern! When there’s the potential for a good deal of money and time at stake, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be a nice person, simply put.
When you find the right person for the job, it can be such a sanity saver, and more often than not, we’re left saying, this has been worth every penny. We used to have guilt over hiring out smaller jobs that we know we’re fully capable of, but there are situations when we choose to prioritize and value our own time, and we’re that much happier for it.
Please weigh in with your own tips and sanity savers when hiring and working with contractors, and we welcome any additional questions we might have missed!