Thanks to YouTube, HGTV and a profusion of home improvement magazines, homeowners can learn a lot about the projects their contractors will be tackling.
Christopher Lowell, an interior designer, author and former host of his own show on the Discovery Channel, offers this tip: Become an expert on your project before you interview your first contractor.
When you discuss the project, “use the right terminology,” Lowell says. That will tell the contractor “these people are serious, they know what they’re talking about,” he says. The contractor will realize that you’ll be paying close attention to the job.
Be sure the contractor understands that, although you may not know how to do the work yourself, you’ve done your homework and know how things are supposed to go.
“The more you let them know you … have a strong idea of the process, the better off you’ll be,” Lowell says.
At the same time, encourage the contractor to be forthcoming, he says. You want to be in the loop, so your attitude should be one of “the more you can be upfront with us, the more we can solve these problems together,” Lowell says.
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Make sure the contract is very specific
The bid or contract should spell out exactly what the contractor will do and detail all of the changes to be made, the brand names of materials to be used and their placement in your home.
That contract should be “so specific it leaves nothing to chance,” says Michael Hydeck, who has a remodeling business in the Philadelphia area and is a former president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
That way, if you notice different materials or unapproved changes, or more materials ordered than your job requires, you have documentation.
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Include your significant other in decisions
If you are married or have a significant other living with you, include them in the discussions with the contractor, Lowell says. Make it clear that both of you are decision-makers.
This ensures that the work-at-home partner will know when the guys with the jackhammers are due to arrive and what they’re supposed to do. If both partners are involved in the conversations, “the person who’s home every day gets the same information as the (one) who’s not on-site,” Lowell says.
If you’re a stay-at-home spouse and you’re not included in the decisions, the contractor “won’t respect you, and that will drive you nuts,” Lowell says. In that case, he suggests that the partner who is not there during the day be the one to play “bad cop,” if necessary, with the contractor.
Even if you have a terrific contractor, “keep a diary from the beginning,” Lowell says.
He advises getting a daily email report from your contractor. The paper trail will help if you run into problems.
If your contractor is not exactly the “written report” type, try this: Email the contractor with specific dates, materials to be used, when items are to be installed and details of salient conversations, etc., says Lowell.
This frees up the contractor to send a simple reply saying, “Yes, that’s correct,” or whatever the case may be. A lack of response can be just as telling.
“The most important thing is to document every single thing,” says Norm Abram, master carpenter for the TV home-improvement series “This Old House.”
“Unless you document everything from the beginning, you will have a hard time.”
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Take lots of photos
Just like your last vacation: Take a bunch of pictures.
From the important milestones in the project to the materials that are being used, to the things you love (you could be a great reference for the contractor), to the things that trouble you, take photos of everything.
Smartphone cameras date and time-stamp your pictures, which is good for documentation.
Be sure to get pictures of any perceived problems, along with photos of “all the major phases of the project,” Lowell says. If you see substandard work or materials, “you’ve built yourself an entire case against this guy and he knows it.”
It’s a strategy that pros have used for years, he says. “It’s what we designers do with a contractor when we’re using him for the first time.
Too many times homeowners grouse to each other or friends, but they don’t talk to the one person who can change the situation.
“It’s no good sharing your concerns with the neighbors,” says building designer and carpenter Paul DiMeo, a former cast member of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on ABC television. “You have to share your concerns with the contractor.”
Address problems as soon as you notice them, DiMeo says. “Don’t wait. Do it right off the bat. If you see (a problem) on day seven, imagine what it’s going to be like on day 40.”
Lowell agrees, especially if your complaint is that workers aren’t cleaning up the job site at the end of the day. “After a week, look at the job site,” Lowell says. “If it’s a mess, you’re in trouble already.”
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Keep your cool in a difficult conversation
If you have a problem with the contractor or his work and you want to discuss it, make it a conversation, not a rant or an argument.
“Try and take the emotion out of it,” DiMeo says. “If everyone’s screaming and yelling, no one’s being heard.”
And don’t have that conversation in the middle of the job site or in front of the crew, DiMeo says. “I would do it over a cup of coffee.”
Striking the right attitude can help, Hydeck says. Even if the contractor deserves a dressing down, don’t be confrontational. “Do it more as a ‘let’s solve this problem,’ rather than placing blame,” he says.
“Most contractors are professionals. Most will understand.”
Constant communication is a must when you’re working with a contractor. So keep talking and keep that email volley going.
Hydeck agrees. “Usually when a problem develops, it’s because of a lack of communication.”
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Take it to the authorities
Before you make a formal complaint about your contractor, always talk to him first, says Abram of “This Old House.”
“Try to get a sense of why this is happening” and see if you can work it out, he says.
If that fails, take your concerns or complaints to licensing and accrediting authorities. Abram suggests:
The local chapter of the National Association of Home Builders, or whoever licensed your contractor.
The building inspector for your town or city. Just know that inspectors’ chief job is to make sure the work meets building codes.
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Find a pro to have your back
What happens if, even after everything you’ve tried, you’re being ignored? Or you fear that the work or materials are substandard?
You might need another set of professional eyes on the site.
Various home renovation experts handle this slightly differently, but the basic premise is the same: You hire a pro, such as a building professional or designer, to show up periodically to see what’s going on, examine the work and report back to you.
Try to find a retired carpenter to be there a few hours a week, DiMeo says.
You can often hire a designer to do the same thing, Lowell says. As far as the contractor knows, this is someone you’ve employed for the project. Designers’ charges vary wildly, from $75 an hour on up, but you’ll probably need only a half-hour here and there, so it shouldn’t add significantly to the bottom line.
Use your own eyes, too. It’s not a bad idea to go home for lunch once in a while and check in, he says.