How to Talk to Contractor

Before you meet with your contractor, take an honest look at your finances. Be honest about what you can afford, and what you would be content to pay for your renovation. Bear in mind the possibility that your renovation may take longer, and be more expensive than your original estimates.

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Everyone has heard a horror story about a remodel gone wrong or wildly over-budget. Many of these stories are even told in court. In so many of these battles, the true culprit is poor communication between the homeowner and the contractor. The homeowners wail that the result isn’t what they wanted, took too long or cost too much money. The contractors grumble that they are neither Santa Claus nor mind readers. Many of these conflicts can be avoided by keeping the lines of communication open. Here are some basics to help keep you and your contractor allies instead of opponents.

First Know Thyself

Before you meet with your contractor, take an honest look at your finances. Be honest about what you can afford, and what you would be content to pay for your renovation. Bear in mind the possibility that your renovation may take longer, and be more expensive than your original estimates.

Line up your financing if you need it. Get your loan rate locked in and guaranteed in writing. Know where the money is coming from. You may need to hand up to a third of the estimated renovation costs to your contractor before he even opens his toolbox.

Go shopping. This is the fun part. Hit every home improvement store, from the big box retailers to the posh boutiques. Refine in your own mind what you really want. If you see an arrangement you like, take a picture of it. Write down any makes, models, and parts numbers. Keep track of what things cost to keep your feet on the ground. It will also help to keep you from being over-charged if your contractor knows you have an idea of what things cost.

The best thing you can do at this stage is to have a very clear idea of what you want. Sure, your contractor can offer tons of input, but he is there to realize your dream. Be as sure as you can be about what you want, and be able to articulate it clearly.

Meeting Your Contractor for the First Time

By now, you’ve probably been obsessively planning your renovation. Bring all of your ideas to the table the first time you meet with your contractor. Don’t hold anything back. Any of the following can help immensely:

  • Pictures of other renovations
  • Tear-outs from catalogs
  • Make, model, and part numbers from manufacturers
  • Any sample materials that you have settled on

These bits of specific information will help him know precisely what you have in mind. And you’re risking nothing by asking questions. What you might consider to be a silly flight of fancy, your contractor might view as all in a day’s work. Conversely, your casual assumptions of what’s easy to do may have him reaching for the aspirin bottle. Find out which is which before you spend a dime.

Contractors will translate your dream into estimates and hard numbers. Listen closely. Don’t pooh-pooh their figures just because you don’t like them. Calculate an average of the quotes you’re getting from bidders; the true cost will be somewhere in the middle. Be warned that some contractors will tell you only what you want to hear to get your business and then “regretfully” submit their real numbers once you’ve committed and the work is underway. Do not choose your contractor based on the lowest bid alone.

Consult with several bidders. A good contractor should have photographs showcasing his best work. Look them over carefully and compare them to what you have in mind for your own home. Ask for references and follow up on them.

A Whathootsis?

It’s true that many fields have their own specialized and impenetrable vocabularies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is any antagonism present. Contractors live and work in a different world than you do, and use language that you have never needed.

A good contractor will couch everything you need to know in laymen’s terms, but he may occasionally talk over your head without meaning to do so. Don’t be threatened or intimidated by jargon. Speak right up and ask questions.

Formalize Your Agreement With a Contract

Having a good contract not only offers you a level of legal protection, but it also conveys that you know what he’s expecting, and he knows what you’re expecting. And he knows that you know what he’s expecting. And you know that he knows that… well, you know.

At minimum, your contract should contain the following:

  • The contractor’s full contact information and license number, if applicable
  • Payment schedules for the contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers
  • Estimated start and completion dates
  • Contractor’s obligation to obtain all necessary permits
  • A detailed list of all chosen materials and products including models, colors, sizes, and brand names
  • Warranties covering all materials and workmanship, including names and addresses of the parties honoring all warranties
  • Length of the warranty period and any limitations
  • Procedures the contractor will and will not do, e.g. whether or not clean up and trash removal are included in the price

It’s a good idea to have all plans and contracts reviewed for omissions and errors by a third-party expert, such as an attorney or home inspector with a strong construction background. Address how any hidden obstructions or unforeseen conditions prior to commencement of work. If the project is a particularly large or complicated one, arrange to have a third-party to do progress inspections as well as a final walk-through inspection before making the final payment.

 Don’t sign anything you don’t understand, or any document that isn’t completely filled out. Don’t feel pressured to sign anything before you’ve had a chance to review it at your leisure. If you do feel hurried by him, that’s a red flag that you need to be extra careful before proceeding with this contractor.

Keep updated. Put it in writing that you will get regular updates on the progress of your renovation. Specify dates for updates, and whose job it is to contact whom.

If there are unforeseen changes to your original agreement, then make sure that those changes are acceptable to both parties. Be sure to update the original contract accordingly. Everything goes in writing. No exceptions.

Be Nice

Contractors are people too. They take pride in their work, and hope to add you to their growing list of satisfied customers. They certainly don’t want an adversarial relationship with you. When you are friendly and positive, most people respond with their best work.

Start by centering yourself. Acknowledge that you are going to be living with a certain amount of constant stress throughout your renovation. Sure, you may be thrilled that you are finally taking this step, and excited by the ongoing progress, but you are also going to see your beloved daily routines disrupted. You may turn a corner and see a sub-contractor, whom you’ve never met before, ripping a hole in your wall. These things are part of the process, but they can take an emotional toll. Bear this in mind, and if you find yourself about to lose your cool, take a deep breath. Before you speak, try to be as detached and objective as possible..

In day-to-day terms, do the following:

  • Smile and greet all workers warmly
  • Show interest and enthusiasm for their work
  • Motivate their excellence through encouragement
  • Offer a cup of coffee, a cold drink, or a snack
  • Feel free to ask questions, but do allow them space to do their work

Looking Ahead

Your current renovation will (hopefully) soon be over, but your relationship with your contractor need not be. You may love his work, and go on to refer him to a delighted circle of friends. He knows this, and hopes for it. You yourself may have additional projects down the road that he can assist you with. Consider this the start of a beautiful friendship, and it may actually turn into one. And isn’t it nicer to work with friends?

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