10 Things Your Contractor Won’t Tell You

There are so many disastrous home renovations that entire television shows are devoted to making it right and restoring sanity to the homeowners.

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If you think hiring a professional means you can just delegate the renovation to him and he’ll take care of it, you’re a statistic — and a home-disaster show episode — waiting to happen.

A home renovation isn’t a task to delegate; it’s a task to manage. You need to ask questions upfront, in the middle — and all the way through to the end. Because no matter what happens on this job, your contractor is going home to his house. This “job site” is where you go home. So demand nothing less than excellence.

So, where do you start?

Here are 10 things your contractor won’t tell you — that you absolutely need to know before you start a renovation.

1) I’m not going to be at your house every day.

Sure, this renovation is a big deal to you, but for your contractor, it’s just another job.

“Contractors juggle jobs — it’s just part of the equation,” said Brian Kelsey, a television personality and home-renovation pro. “They need to have multiple jobs going to stay afloat,” he said, which means that they’re almost definitely NOT going to be there every day.

You have to accept this as fact, but what you don’t have to accept is a lack of communications, Kelsey said.

“They won’t tell you these things, because it makes homeowners nervous,” Kelsey said.

So, just make sure you stay on top of them and know what days they’re going to be in your house, how many guys they’re bringing and what they’re doing.

2) I know you’re the one paying, but my loyalties lie with that grungy guy I just let into your house.

When you hire a lawyer, personal trainer or general contractor you think, “That’s my guy. He works for me. He’s looking out for my best interest.”

When it comes to a general contractor, sorry to tell you — he’s not looking out for you. He’s doing his job.

“Unless the errors are flagrant and truly in-your-face, most general contractors’ allegiance tends to be towards his trades and subcontractors,” said Elaine Griffin, an interior designer and author of “Design Rules: The Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator.”

“They’re in a symbiotic relationship (I hesitate to say a fellowship of thieves, because there are tons of great and honest contractors out there!), and each directly depends on the other to make a living, 24/7/365/years on end,” Griffin explains. “Unfortunately, as the client, you're the odd man out. (Unless you are a big name … Cher's work is always done properly, and so is Donald Trump's.)”

3) I’m a Jack of All Trades — but a master of none.

You have to ask your contractor how he plans to execute your renovation — is he doing it all himself or hiring subcontractors?

You may be inclined to think that having one guy do it all is better — you’ve already met him and vetted him, plus it’s cheaper to have one guy instead of 10, right? Not necessarily.

“Lots of guys are a Jack of All Trades — but a master of none,” said John Hovde, the chief operations manager at Infinity Home Collection in Denver.

“That’s when you can run into problems,” Hovde said. “You’re talking about a skill set … Most guys are probably well-versed in a trade or two but probably not so well versed in all of them,” he said.

With plumbers and electricians, for example, you’re probably better off getting someone licensed.

“Never skimp on these two golden trades,” Griffin said. “And make sure you see your general contractors’ subcontractors’ licenses” – he may show you his, but it’s also important to see all the licenses of the people working on your house.

4) I have a police record in three states.

It’s easy to check a doctor’s qualifications — Chances are, he’s in your insurance network. And, when you walk into his office, you’ll see his degree on the wall. But how do you know if your contractor is licensed and insured, or if he has bad credit and a criminal record in three states? You don’t. Because you’re not walking into his office — he’s walking into YOUR home. Before you open the door, you should check to make sure he’s licensed and ask for proof of insurance for him — and any subcontractors.

Plus, find out if your contractor is bonded. If they’re bonded and fail to finish your job, you’re covered for up to $12,500. If they’re not — you’re out of luck.

And you’re going to want a copy of the lien releases for any subcontractors he’s using. That way, if he decides to not pay them — they’re not going to put a lien on your house.

Gary Drake, CEO of Drake Construction in Los Angeles also advises spending the extra $75 to run a credit check on a future contractor. “If hey have a history of not paying their bills or do not do so in a timely basis, this should raise a red flag,” Drake says. And that could be the best $75 you ever spent.

The National Association of Homebuilders has a searchable director of professional remodelers at http://www.nahb.org/remodel.

Plus, check with your state’s contractor license board. Either Google your state + contractor license board — or use a site like this: http://www.contractors-license.org.

Drake adds that if a contractor knocks on your door, saying he noticed something you may need done and here’s his number — it could be a scam. Ask him to send you an estimate in writing, and check his credentials before you call him back.

5) You probably should’ve picked the other guy.

With remodeling, you get what you pay for. So, the cheapest guy isn’t always the best guy.

“If you get three bids — you might want to look hardest at the middle guy,” Hovde said. “It’s not to say being the low guy or high guy disqualifies you — just that you need to ask a few more questions. If you’re the low guy – what did you leave out or do differently from my other two guys?” he said.

Jan Brady would be so thrilled to hear that sometimes, the middle is the best!


6) I’m just here to make it pretty.

OK, time for some tough love. Someone has to tell you that your contractor —





Most contractors aren’t going tell you that you could get an extra foot of space if you simply bent a pipe and ran it in another direction, or that they are capable of making your new flooring flush with the old floor with a little extra work, says Lori Dolnick, a public-relations executive and home-design blogger.

They just want to make all of your cherry wood and marbled granite dreams come true, take your money and move on to the next job quickly.

So, you either need to hire a designer — even for a consultation — or start thinking like a designer and insisting that your contractor execute your vision.

Part of it is laziness but it’s also money.

“These are the things that add costs,” Dolnick explains. “A lot of contractors are afraid to add costs to a job.”

And remember: They’re not in the hand-holding business. Designers are. A designer will say to you: “How do you want to change your space? What’s important to you — open concept? Extra storage?”

If your contractor scratches his chest and says, “What’s important to you, darling?” — you’d better pinch yourself, because you’re probably dreaming!

7) Let’s talk trash.

It’s easy to get excited about paint colors, exotic woods and granite countertops but once you nail all of those things down, you’ve still got a long list of things to talk about — and it’s not pretty.

Things like: What are the working hours (will they conflict with when your baby is sleeping?), when is it OK to use the noisy equipment, who’s going to clean up all the dust, who’s going to take out the trash, what are the rules of eating, drinking and smoking on the job, etc.

If contractor A goes through all the details of the work and then says “OK, let’s talk about trash and dust and working hours,” but contractor B doesn’t, it’s easy to say, “Maybe I’d better go with B … he wasn’t as negative. He left me with a better feeling,” Hovde said. “But maybe it would be better to go with A … instead of B,” who was just saying what you wanted to hear to get the job, he explained.

8) You don’t need a furnace that big.

It happens all the time — you need a new furnace, but know nothing about furnaces. So, you call in a contractor and delegate the job to him.

Well, here’s the reality: contractors often put in furnaces that are 50 percent to 300 percent larger than the home actually requires, says Dan Kartzman, the owner of Powersmith Home Energy Solutions on Long Island in New York.

“The reason? They don’t want you calling them back and having to go back out there,” Kartzman said.

“Every house has an energy load – an amount to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” he explains. “If you get one too big, you’re wasting a lot of energy …essentially, wasting a much bigger engine that your house doesn’t need, which keeps it from running efficiently.”

The solution is to have your house tested to find out exactly what your energy load is — and make sure you get a furnace that’s neither too big, nor too small — but just right.

9) Trust me, you don’t want stainless steel.

OK, so we all agree stainless steel is pretty and that’s what buyers want. And at the end of the day, your contractor is here to give you everything you want — like stainless steel. (See also, “No. 6: I’m just here to make it pretty.”)

But it’s your job to figure out what’s practical for you — not just what’s popular.

Dolnick and her husband recently had their kitchen remodeled. And, while she sings the praises of her designer, she regrets that her designer recommended a stainless steel dishwasher.

“OK, she’s young, she has no kids. Did I say no kids?” Dolnick wrote on her blog. “How many dented stainless-steel dishwashers have you seen in your friend’s kitchens?” she quipped.

“Unfortunately, many kitchen designers, unless they have children of their own, won’t see that their once-pristine dishwashers are now dented by toddlers who fling themselves at top speed into their shiny surfaces.”

Not to mention, all the fingerprints.

“I can tell who opened it by where the handprints are!” she joked.

That’s not to say you can’t still get stainless-steel appliances, just that you may want to consider spending the extra money to have cabinet surfaces installed on top of the appliances. It’s not just aesthetic — It’s more durable and resistant to toddler-flinging antics!

10) If you pay me too much up front, I’ll leave before the job’s done — or rob you blind.

OK, by now you know that home renovations always cost at least 10 percent more than you budgeted for. But what you may not realize is — if you pay him too much up front, he’s not going to finish the job.

“A lot of people pay as they install things,” Dolnick said. “But think about it: If you’re doing a kitchen, the cabinets are 90 percent of your cost. When they install the cabinets, you’ve just paid almost all of your bill,” she explained. “You might owe $100 at the end of the project — who’s to say they’ll come back?”

Griffin suggests that you make a “punch list” of things that have to get done. When the penultimate 20 percent payment is due, it should be contingent on round one of your punch list being completed, she said. The final 10 percent should be paid only after the final punch list is completed.

Likewise, you need to check in your contract how much your contractor will charge you for any change orders — things you decide to add on as you go along.

“Negotiate the labor per-hour cost of those changes” ahead of time, advises Missak (Mike) Balian, president and CEO of Toledo Homes in Pasadena, Calif. That way, if you say it’s going to be $30 an hour for labor charges for additional work, that way he can’t charge you $40 or $50 or $60. Plus, put a cap on materials, Balian says. Otherwise, you’ll forever be choking on your own rage during house tours for friends and family, when you point out your $10,000 sink!

“Don’t get sucked into paying as you go,” Dolnick said. Figure it out ahead of time.

Otherwise, your renovation will be one big string of profanity-laced tirades, instead of the dazzling granite-topped transformation you imagine it to be.

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