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  • Jodi Blake

Nailed It: Tips for Working with Home Remodeling Contractors

Black tool bag filled with construction tools sitting on the floor against a dark orange wall

If you're a homeowner, you have likely thought about making improvements to your dwelling. Maybe you want to update your bathroom, redesign the kitchen, replace windows and doors, or add a new deck or screened porch. Just as likely, you'll also need a contractor to turn those ideas into reality -- unless you have the time and the requisite carpentry or other trades skills.

The reasons for home remodeling may be to change the aesthetic or configuration of a space, increase the functionality of a room, or repair damaged or old construction such as the roof, siding, or windows. Some home improvements can also add a little or a lot to your home’s value – what you can likely sell it for. There are lots of resources about which types of home remodeling add the most value, and here are a few you can check out:

My husband Dan and I have lots of experience with home remodeling projects over our 30+ years of home ownership. Except for some room painting and wallpaper installation we completed ourselves, we have hired contractors for most of the work. Although we always had a personal reason to remodel – our family was going to live and enjoy the remodeled space, after all – it was just as important to us that the remodeling would be attractive (or at least not be a turnoff) to prospective home buyers when we were ready to sell.

Finishing basement spaces was a favorite project for us – we’ve done it in three different houses to add more living space for an office space, a sewing room, or a kids’ playroom. The biggest project was redesigning the family room in our previous house to reconfigure and replace a wall of windows in the two-story room, cover over the floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace with drywall and add a slate tile fireplace surround and hearth, install built-in bookcases on either side of the fireplace, and add a false coffered ceiling. Then throw in medium-sized projects like replacing the narrow baseboards and trim around windows and doors with Craftsman-inspired trim, updating kitchen countertops and adding backsplash tile, replacing carpeting with hardwood floors, and adding custom-built cabinets and shelves in a kitchen pantry. We’ve lived through a lot of home remodeling disruption. Fortunately, we’ve also been very pleased with the results, and the biggest reason was hiring a good contractor.

If you’ve never worked with a contractor for any home remodeling projects or didn’t have the best experience with a contractor, let me share some tips that have helped Dan and me successfully navigate the process.

Disclaimer: These tips assume you have a good idea about what you want to remodel and have figured out your finances.

Finding Potential Home Remodeling Contractors

Two men and two women standing and talking in a group while holding coffee cups

If you are a first-time home remodeling client, this process step is often the most challenging, especially when you might also be new to a community – like our recent move to a St. Louis suburb. Dan tapped into his contacts at the office, and a colleague who had recently had remodeling done in his home gave Dan the name of a small family-owned construction company. After we checked them out, we hired this company to finish off our basement with open living space, a bathroom, and a large office for Dan. Then a few months later we hired them again for a kitchen upgrade project that included that wonderful custom pantry buildout that I mentioned earlier.

  • Seek word-of-mouth recommendations. Asking your friends, neighbors, and work colleagues often points you to one or more contractors who are worth checking out. Along with the recommendations, you can also ask these people about what the remodeling job entailed, their experience with the contractor, and the quality of the work.

  • Check out online information about potential contractors. It’s worth it to take the time to search for any information you can find online about the work quality, reliability, and professionalism of any recommended contractors. Dan also advises checking the company ratings provided by the Better Business Bureau.

  • Talk to former client references. Contractors can usually provide you with the names of former clients who have agreed to be their reference. Other times, you can find these references on the contractor’s website or through other review sites like Reach out to these homeowners to ask about the work the contractor completed for them, how they liked the work, whether there were any issues, and how the contractor handled any issues. Even contractor-supplied references can give you a better idea about the contractor, so you can make a hiring decision.

Meeting with a Potential Contractor to Discuss Your Project

Man holding paper with house layout next to a woman who is looking at the paper

Once you are confident that a potential contractor may be a good fit for your remodeling project, arrange a meeting with him or her. You can compare notes between different potential contractors to decide which one seems to best fit your project needs and comfort level.

  • Discuss your project requirements. Now is the time to share more details about the home remodeling you want. You will likely have this meeting at your home, so the contractor can see the space and ask you more detailed questions to understand the project scope. Also, a contractor can offer suggestions and ideas that can be easier or less expensive to implement for the project. For our family room renovation, the contractor suggested a hydraulic-powered shade to cover the two-story bank of windows to block the afternoon sun. We agreed, and that window shade was one of the best improvements in that room! You should also expect the contractor to take any room measurements needed to estimate the work. And be sure to get an idea about the timing for the project – when an estimate would be provided, when materials would be ordered and received, when work could start and potentially finish.

  • Ask about the contractor’s experience with similar projects. Even if your previous homework about the contractor checked out similar project experience, it’s still a good idea to ask some questions about previous home remodeling work. Does the contractor seem experienced enough or does he/she pull in the right tradespeople? For our latest basement finishing project, our contractor hired out the drywall work to a subcontractor who could do the work faster and with higher quality than he could. It was helpful to know – and set our expectations – that’s how he would handle that part of the project.

  • Review the contractor’s estimate and project schedule for the remodeling work. Once a contractor returns the cost estimate and schedule for your project, take a careful look through the estimate details and ask follow-up questions, if necessary. Do you understand what materials will be ordered and when would you need to provide payment for them? If there are subcontractors involved for plumbing, electrical, painting, or other trades, does the contractor’s estimate cover those costs or would you pay the subcontractor separately? Also, if the contractor is slow to provide an estimate, be sure to follow up. Although estimating work is time consuming and often completed in the evenings after a contractor works on other remodeling projects, a reputable contractor will keep you updated about the status of the estimate and not let you wait too long.

  • Negotiate with the contractor about project scope, cost estimate or timeline, if needed. If the contractor’s proposal doesn’t meet your expectations, be ready to discuss how one or two of the variables (project scope, cost estimate, and timeline) could change. If the cost estimate is too high, for example, discuss how the project scope could be reduced or whether you could have the remodeling work done in different phases. To meet a desired project completion date, you could reduce the project scope or substitute similar building materials that can be sourced more quickly. The contractor should have some options that can help both parties come to a good mutual agreement.

Working Successfully with a Hired Home Remodeling Contractor

Carpenter man in overalls stands next to a woman who is pointing at something off camera

Once you decide to hire a contractor, you are still an important part of the project process – and not just for writing the checks. It’s critical to stay attentive and in close communication with the contractor throughout the project. Nowadays, it’s so easy to text and email each other with questions and status updates. And be prepared for some disruption and extra dust in your house, especially if you and your family are also living there.

  • Get in the work queue for the contractor you want to work with. Contractors who do quality work often have lots of clients lined up for a few months. Depending on how many employees they have, a contractor may only be able to work on one-three projects at a time. Lead times to get building materials may also affect when the project can start. If you want remodeling work completed by a specific date, start your contractor search as early as possible.

  • Make sure the legal requirements are taken care of. It’s critical to sign a detailed contract with the contractor. It protects both parties regarding project scope, promised dates, and payment schedules. Another important legal step is for the contractor to request and post work permits with the local municipality. Then inspections, as required, should be conducted to ensure the remodeling work complies with local building codes. Not securing permits or skipping inspections will cause huge issues whenever you want to sell the house in the future.

  • Be careful about the upfront deposit you pay the contractor. Most reputable contractors won’t ask you to pay more than 10-20% of the project cost upfront – although the amount could vary a bit depending on the building materials, especially specialty materials, they need to order. If a contractor asks for more money upfront, that’s a huge red flag. Many unsuspecting clients can be ripped off by a contractor if they pay a larger portion of the project cost upfront; it can be too tempting for the contractor to walk away with the money without completing the work.

  • Check project quality and progress every few days. Be sure to inspect the on-going work for any possible issues and bring them up as soon as possible with the contractor. That way, the issues are usually easier to address. For example, little details like the placement of new electrical outlets or lighting fixtures can be more easily changed before drywall is installed on the walls and ceiling.

  • Be flexible about possible project delays or unexpected changes. Many things could cause a project delay or unexpected change – for example, late arrival of building materials, weather (especially for home exterior remodeling), or possible rework after a building inspection. In our basement remodel, the electrical panel had to be relocated to comply with building codes. Then later during the electrical inspection, some new circuit breakers had to be replaced in the electrical panel because the building code wasn’t clear and different building inspectors required different breakers. Ask questions so you understand what caused the delay or unexpected change, but don’t hold the contractor responsible if the issue is out of their control.

  • Understand that scope changes usually affect the project cost and schedule. One the remodeling work starts, it’s not uncommon to realize you want to make a change. Talk to your contractor right away to see what’s possible and how implementing that change will increase (or decrease) the project cost and change the completion date. Perhaps the lead time to source additional or different building materials adds another $800 and stops project work for two weeks. You can then decide if making that change is worth the ripple effects.

  • Work with suppliers recommended by the contractor. You may need to select certain building materials – such as kitchen countertops, bathroom tile, flooring, or wood stain colors. Often a contractor has suppliers in the area to recommend because they provide good quality materials and are easy to work with. For our last kitchen upgrade project, we replaced the ugly (to me) granite countertops with a simpler medium gray quartz option. Our contractor recommended a local solid surface supplier where we could select the quartz we wanted. They could also recut the existing granite countertops into a new one to fit a wet bar area in our newly finished basement space. You can check other suppliers for similar building materials and price comparisons. Then work with your contractor if you want the materials to be sourced from another supplier.

Wrapping Up the Home Remodeling Project

Smiling black man and woman sitting at a table with a laptop in front of them

Once the project is at the complete point, there are still some key things to pay attention to, especially before you write that final check!

  • Complete a final inspection and bring up any issues with the contractor. Before you make the final payment to the contractor, you often create a “punch list” during this final detailed inspection to document any issues that need to be addressed. Review the punch list with your contractor. We have found small issues like paint finish imperfections, a missing piece of trim, and a broken drawer slide in a kitchen cabinet. They were all taken care of before the contractor finished the project.

  • Agree to be a reference or write a review for the contractor. If asked, be willing to vouch for the contractor’s work by talking to prospective clients. You can also agree to let the contractor take and share photos of your remodeling project on social media or their website. Leaving a review that fairly and accurately represents the contractor’s work and any downfalls is another good way to share your experience with prospective clients – just like you were a few weeks or months earlier. And these actions are great for maintaining a good rapport with the contractor that can be useful if you have additional home remodeling plans in the future.

In addition to our end-of-project tips above, check out this additional advice from the Better Business Bureau: Hold on! Your home improvement project isn’t done until you do these 6 things.

Despite the extra dust and chaos in your house, the potentially substantial outlay of funds, and the anxious wait to see the completed work, hiring a contractor for home remodeling can be a satisfying experience. At the very least, the improved look and/or functionality should make you happy and more comfortable in the place you call home.

What home remodeling projects do you have in mind? Or maybe you are currently in the middle of a project or have just completed one. Let us know in the comments below. As for Dan and me, we don’t have any new projects on the horizon, but who knows what we may think of next.

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