Whether you are doing a pull-and-replace update to your bathroom or adding a three-story addition, renovating your home is a monumental task.
Thankfully, when you have the right support team, anything is possible — including surviving a home remodel project. The key is to find the good contractors, which can be a daunting task when everyone promises you your dreams for “less than the last guy.”
There are only three steps to finding the right team to take on your home renovation project. The first step is simple: Ask the people you know for referrals. Neighbors, friends, family, co-workers — odds are, you know somebody who has recently done work to their home and can tell you about their experience.
While it is important to ask about their job as a whole and the end product, be sure to also inquire about other aspects: the design and the construction. Was everyone on their project professional and courteous? Was there a reasonable explanation for any delays? Would they hire the same company again? I also like to ask my clients, in retrospect, about their favorite and least favorite parts of the entire process.
When you are having work done on your house, you can count on unexpected problems to pop up. Some of these are avoidable: Did your contractor check inside your kitchen soffits early to ensure they were empty? But some issues are not predictable, like HVAC ductwork unsuspectingly snaked between wall studs. Mold, water damage and termite damage are some of the most common additional issues uncovered during demolition that can be invisible before a space is taken apart.
So one of the most telling questions you can ask is how a company responded to unexpected problems. Some contractors will postpone telling a homeowner about an issue until the last possible second (like when the final invoice is due and needs to be adjusted); others will be prompt and upfront to disclose a problem as soon as it happens, laying out the options to resolve it.
It is never easy or pleasant to be given bad news, especially when that news is going to cost additional money to resolve. But finding a company that is upfront and responsible about problem management will make a big difference in the long run to reduce stress and help ensure your project is completed properly.
If you are new to an area or do not know anyone who has remodeled recently, you should not hesitate to ask the company for references. In fact, you should do this no matter what: Every reputable company should be happy to oblige (at least after a preliminary meeting) with a list of recent clients who want to sing their praises.
The second step to finding the right contractor for your project is to do your research. You can start by looking up the company on the Better Business Bureau and make sure they do not have low marks or any open complaints.
A company’s website is a cornucopia of information. Scroll through their pages to get as sense of the work they do and gauge how much you like the designs in their portfolio. Read through testimonials to get a sense of how happy their clients are at the end of each job: Does everyone talk about great design but not a soul mentions the installers? Omissions like that are not cause for concern but possibly worth inquiring about for more details.
Facebook, Twitter or Instagram can be slightly informative, but websites like Houzz.com, where professionals from around the world can post photos for homeowners to “save” as favorite ideas or styles, is going to be more helpful. As an extension of their portfolio, you can get a sense of how custom each project is to the client — or is there a company “style” they imprint on each job?
But on many of the sites that post reviews, companies pay for better rankings and visibility — so be careful. Regardless of the website (or even industry), online reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, no matter what the context. More people are motivated to post complaints than compliments and some companies incentivize positive online posts — or even forbid negative ones in their sales contract (always read the fine print). Perhaps the biggest weight should be given to opinions in your own network.
The final step to find the right contractor for your project is to take the time to be prepared. This starts with giving thought to what you are really looking to get out of this experience.
I often start by asking my clients to put these priorities in order, starting with what is most important to them: technical specs (Do you like knowing every single engineering detail?), budget (Is your primary goal to spend as little as possible?), beautiful end product (Are you visual and cannot wait to fall in love with your new space?) or project management (Is your top concern having someone else to manage all of the headaches?). Knowing where your priorities are — and communicating those to your contractor, designer, architect or handyman — will help ensure that everyone’s goals are aligned with yours.
When you meet with a company, they should have a long list of questions to review with you early in the process to learn more about you and your project (scope, goals, budget, etc.). But this is a two-way street. Just like on a job interview, brainstorm questions to ask them and consider your priorities as you think up questions. This will help determine not just if the company can deliver, but if they will be a great fit for you and your family’s needs.
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Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.