How to Work With A Contractor

architectOnce you’ve got your place, you’re probably going to want to make a few changes. In other words: remodeling. At the very least, you’re going to want to paint. So, great! This can be an exciting project, whether it turns out to be a couple coats of paint, or a bathroom redo. If you’re exceptionally handy, or if you love to paint, maybe you’ll do it yourself. But if you’re undertaking a larger project, particularly something that involves plumbing or electrical outlets, you’re almost certainly going to need to go with a contractor. In fact, your Association or co-op board may require it. They probably also want the plumbers and electricians to be licensed and insured.

Before you start, meet with the building’s super. You need to know the building’s rules and requirements regarding permits, approvals, work hours, and contractor’s and worker’s licenses and insurance. It makes no sense for you to hire the great contractor your cousin used in his house but who lacks the proper insurance, and who is therefore not allowed to work in your building.

Do as much as you can before you move in. It’s easier to stain your floors or replace your carpet before your stuff’s on top of the floor. Simple. Painting, too – you won’t have to worry about moving your furniture away from the wall when there’s no furniture there. Same with a bathroom – you can’t use it if someone’s installing a new toilet. So, if you can, do your improvement projects before you move.

Finding a good contractor is crucial. Think of how nice a fabulous paint job makes a room look, and how shabby a room with a poor paint job looks. The same concept holds for carpets, light-fixtures, appliance installations and so on – if someone does a bad job, it will look bad… and you’ll likely be stuck with it. So choose your contractor well. Don’t just go with the cheapest bid – and don’t just go with a relative or someone your friend knows, at least not without checking out your options first.

Finding a good contractor takes time. Look through Yelp and see what people say – not just the number of stars. Consider buying an account with Angie’s List for better, more comprehensive reviews. Check the Better Business Bureau. Review the contractors’ websites. Look for good ratings (obviously), but also signs of professionalism. Do they respond politely and directly to complaints on their Yelp page? Is their website maintained? If you call requesting a quote, do they call back within a day? All these small details go into your final decision.

Have two or three contractors come out to your condo to give an estimate. If a contractor says your place is a “standard job” and they don’t need to actually come and take a look – that’s a red flag. When the contractors come, they should be punctual, polite and patient – and they should be able to answer any questions you have. Get a sense of whether you’re comfortable with the contractor. 

See about getting references. Ideally you actually go and see the jobs the contractor has done, so you don’t have to trust someone else’s concept of “a job well done.”

Discuss in detail what will be done when you’re getting an estimate. Review what’s included and make sure there is no confusion. Have them put in writing, and in detail, the work they’ll do. For example, if you’re hiring a painter, have them specify what brand of paint will be used and how they plan to protect your belongings. This is a way to protect both you and the contractor – you want to understand each other and know exactly what will be done. Once you have three or so estimates in hand, it’s time to make a decision.

While price is a factor, remember that you’re looking for the contractor who will do the best job – in other words the contractor that will make your place look great for the longest period of time. So saving $300 in the short term is not the goal. Which means that, assuming all bids are competitive, go with the person you think does the best work, regardless of price. Sometimes the best contractor gives the lowest bid, but not always. So don’t automatically go with the lowest bid – really consider each option.

Negotiate a payment schedule. It is normal to pay something on signing of the contract (maybe 1/3), then another payment when certain parts of the project are completed, and then the final payment after you are satisfied that everything was done as contracted. 

Then, let them do their job. It’s easy to get anxious when a relative stranger comes into your home and starts making a hole in your wall or tearing up your carpet. And it’s easy to hover and try to “check up” on progress all too often. Try to relax and remember that you hired a contractor because they know what they’re doing… and you don’t. So stay out of the way. If they have questions, or if they need anything, they’ll let you know. That said, if you see something that does not look right, or things are not proceeding on the agreed schedule, ask for an explanation.

Once the work is done, inspect thoroughly. Make sure that what was agreed upon was completed and completed well. If there are any moving parts, electronics, etc., have them tested out in front of you. If anything seems wrong, this is the time to bring it up, before the final payment is made. Do so respectfully and without accusation – likely the problem can be easily addressed, and the contractor should be happy make sure the work is done as agreed to.

If you appreciate the work your contractor did, make a recommendation to your friends – and consider posting a positive review on Yelp. It’s a win-win-win. Your contractor will be happy for the additional business, your friends will be glad for the good advice and you’ll enjoy showing off your newly remodeled condo!

Author My First Apartment
Alex Starace

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Alex Starace and his wife own a condo in Chicago. Alex enjoys basketball, biking and jazz. His writing also appears regularly in My First Apartment, South Florida Opulence and TriQuarterly.

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