Around the House — Fall Fix-up

Hiring a Contractor

When the leaves have turned and there is a definite nip in the air, I get ready to hunker down for the winter. I typically get lots of calls from my clients who want to start interior renovation projects; the nesting instinct definitely seems to kick in this time of year.

Unless you are extremely handy and have oodles of time on your hands (I don’t know anyone who fits this description), renovation projects require hiring a contractor. I have seen my friends and clients agonize over this.

Wouldn’t it be simple if hiring a contractor to work in your house were like shopping for an appliance – you choose the model with the features and functions you want and then shop around for the best price and, bingo, it’s done. Well, it’s not so easy; engaging a contractor is more like hiring an employee who will be bringing his own team to live and work in your house for an extended period. Such an arrangement should not be entered into without some serious forethought.

First Impressions

On the first meeting – you, the client, and the contractor will both be sizing each other up. You’ll be looking for someone who is responsible, answers questions directly, is honest, and polite. You’ve got to feel like you can trust this guy (or gal) because he will be moving in for the duration of the project. From the contractor’s point of view, he’s looking for a client to pay him on time, treat him fairly and to have realistic expectations. Go with your gut on the first impressions but don’t neglect to check references.

Estimates: Apples to Apples

On a project of any scale, you will want to get a few bids. If you are unfamiliar with construction, first solicit a bid from a high end contractor. You should receive a detailed estimate that covers everything. Use this as a guide to soliciting further quotes from more reasonably priced contractors. Generally, you get what you pay for in terms of quality and service; a low price may seem appealing but shoddy work ends up costing more if it has to be re-done. On the other hand, if you get a significantly lower bid from a person who seems trustworthy and professional, ask him or her how they are able to do the job for less as they may have special circumstances that allow them to perform more efficiently. I remember one stunning example. I worked for a company in the city; we solicited bids to build a fire escape on the side of a 12-story building. One bid came in very low and when we asked how he was able to do it, the low bidder explained that while the competition based their bid on erecting expensive scaffolding to do the job, he figured he could build the structure from the ground up, one tier at a time and eliminate the need for scaffolding – a creative, cost-saving solution.

Be Realistic

Don’t expect perfection. Good craftsmanship – yes; a clean jobsite – yes; but painting, tiling, and carpentry are done by humans in the physical world; the work will never look like a pristine, computer-generated image. Learn to appreciate the tiny imperfections as evidence of the hand of man.

Keep change orders to a minimum. Yes, you may want to change something as the work progresses but, the more things you change, the more costly it becomes and the more frustrating for the contractor.

Be patient. Unforeseen events can hold up the job. Materials don’t arrive when promised, people get sick, the weather doesn’t cooperate. Delays can be very aggravating, but it’s unusual to have a job that runs absolutely as planned, so keep your cool and prepare to be inconvenienced.

Make the Crew Comfortable

A happy crew is a productive crew, so accommodate the workers as best you can. Designate a bathroom that the crew can use; some people have been known to make them travel to the nearest gas station which is insensitive and a time-waster. Often, they bring their lunch – it’s nice to have a place for them to sit. Keep the indoor temperature reasonable – not too hot or cold and, finally, be cheerful and diplomatic. If something really bothers you, wait ten minutes to collect yourself before you address it – don’t yell at the crew.

Designers and Architects

Straightforward fixes like replacing the roof or the windows won’t require consultants, but for any complicated interior jobs, architects or designers are a good idea. Bringing in a pro can give you a fresh perspective on how to make your space work for you.

Don’t expect your contractor to do the design for you. One of my clients contacted a very talented carpenter to construct a wall of built-ins in the family room. They talked vaguely about what they wanted but the carpenter never followed through – he wasn’t really interested in figuring out what to build. In order to get the project off the ground, they had to call me in to design it.

And Finally

In an effort to save money, some people want to do part of the work themselves or hire their brother-in-law, the electrician. It’s rare that this kind of arrangement works; usually it results in delays and substandard results. My advice? Let the contractor do his thing. He’s in the business of hiring subs and he knows who’s available and who’s appropriate and he knows how to coordinate them most efficiently.

As in any relationship – you keep your contractor happy and he’ll keep you happy.



Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 4 So. Washington St., Tarrytown, bsternau@optonline.net

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau