Choosing the right contractor can spell the difference between a successful home remodeling experience and one that can makes you wish you had never watched HGTV. No matter what anyone tells you, home remodeling is stressful, disruptive and can even ruin friendships and marriages.
Recently there was an excellent and amusing article entitled "Building Rage" in the New York Times by Joyce Wadler. Here are some myths about home remodeling contractors. Keep these things in mind and you are less likely to drive yourself and your contractor crazy.
Myth #1- All general contractors are the same.
The ups and downs of the housing and remodeling market periodically swells and shrinks the number of contractors available. It also results in definite changes in the quality of the staff your contractor employs. Some general contractors retain highly skilled carpenters and work with plumbing, electrical and HVAC subcontractors. The is pretty much the norm. Recently, some general contractors are even subcontracting the rough carpentry work to companies who only do that.
Other contractors are repurposing themselves. They are trying to do more complex jobs, e.g. from decks to family rooms without the experience and training. You'll be offered great price, a personal relationship, made a god father or god mother to the founders kids and kick youself for being so stupid and foolish.
Myth #2- There is a "One Size Fits All" license for general contractors
Don't assume that if a contractor is licensed in your State that they are qualified to do your project. Many States issue licenses based on the knowledge and skills that a contractor possesses. For example, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, almost anyone can get a Class C license which allows them to work on small projects (no more than $7,500). Class B licensees have to pass an exam and are limited to projects valued at no more than $120,0000. Class A licensees also must pass a test and are the most knowledgeable class of licensee. In Virginia, you need a Class A license to work on projects greater than $120,000.
Before you get too comfortable, don't think that the State is making sure that a Class C contractor who builds decks for a living is not going to be offering to do work that a Class A contractor should be doing. You are on your own and must check to see if your contractor has the right license at a minimum. Check to see if a contractor has the right license here
Inspect license certificates, especially the expiration date. Follow up and confirm that your contractor is licensed. If they lied about this, they'll lie about everything. Find someone else.
Myth #3- I can relax, my contractor belongs to NARI Not so fast. Any contractor who joins NARI aka the National Association of the Remodeling Industry has to be full-time professional and agree to a Code of Ethics. That's fine, but what really separates these contractors from the rest is whether they are NARI certified. Contractors have to be in business at least 5 years before they can attain NARI Certification and also take courses and a test. This NARI brochure for homeowners [PDF] is helpful.
Myth #4- I'll use Angie's List or something similar
Contractor Referral lists like Angie's List are all the rage these days. However, they are no substitute for doing your home work and checking out a prospective contractor. Why? Because Angie's List and other lists are merely snapshots of a contractors performance at a point in time. That great carpenter or plumber may no longer be with the company that the review is based on. The company can also be owned by different people now.
If you use the above lists, get recent references, go inspect the work and speak directly to the people who had the work done.
Myth #5- Building inspections are all I need to ensure a quality job
This is pure folly. Quality is in the eye of the beholder and has nothing to do with an inspection. In fact, building inspections ensure that certain aspects of the job meet the minimum requirements of the building code. This is tantamount to getting a passing grade of "C" as opposed to a B or A. Pass and Fail is really more like it.
Also remember, your City or County building inspector only inspects structural, electrical, plumbing and HVAC aspects of the job. Things like ceramic tile work, finish carpentry, installing kitchen cabinetry, painting, hardwood floor refinishing are not inspected.
Myth #6- The Contractor has standard charges Absolutely not. Contractor's consider a variety of factors into what they charge. They do charge higher prices for jobs in the better neighborhoods. That's because they understand that customers in those neighborhoods can afford to pay more and generally have very high standards.
If you appear picky or demanding, a contractor may factor this into the price also. Get used to it. We're sure that the general contractors who are working for Donald Trumph are charging him a good penny because he demands quality. Just be like him and stay on top of things.
Myth #7- Housing is slow so I can low ball the contractor
Correct, the housing and remodeling market is slow and contractors must be more competitive. However, a contract price has to be fair for you and the contractor. You need to get a quality job in a reasonable time and the contractor has to pay for labor, materials and overhead and make a reasonable profit.
A contract price that is too low forces a contractor to do several things:
- Put less qualified and experienced people on the job and/or layoff the better people,
- Cut corners in terms of materials used (you'll never know it) unless you can be on the job site all the time
- Nickel and dime you when they have to do the slightest thing that departs from the contract,
- Harbors resentment- a contractor may take it out on you in terms of shoddy workmanship. His or her attitude, may be "you going to get exactly what you are paying for."
Myth #8- Contractors will protect my stuff and clean up after themselves
Forget what you see on Design on a Dime or other HGTV shows. People working construction are there to do a job. They are not your maids. They could care less about protecting your valuables, peeing on your shrubs or using your bathroom to do their business.
If you are meticulous or a very clean person, opt for an outside toilet for their sole use or designate a place for them inside. Also, if you can manage it, don't live in the house during the job and protect your belongings above all else.
See our article on how to improve the odds of getting a good general contractor and contract price.