When I was a theater director, yes — believe it or not I was a theater director before getting into construction — I used to say picking the right actor was 60% of getting a good show. There was only so much you could do with an actor. The same applies to pretty much everyone you hire, particularly, contractors.

You can tell contractors, write them a list, show them, leave sticky notes, plead, beg, threaten or pray but pretty much they’re going to do what they do which will not be much different from what they did for others. Keep in mind: sometimes they can be worse than expected, but rarely are they better. Don’t even hope for it and don’t believe the explanations.

In this article:

  1. I’m going to explain the contractor landscape
  2. Give you a strategy for finding, interviewing and checking out a contractor to get the best choice.
  3. Explain why a set of plans and specifications will save you a lot of headaches and when you might not need them.
  4. Help you avoid some common mistakes as you make your final contractor selection.

The Landscape: Two Types of Contractors

First of all, you only need to workers to do your bathroom, usually a lead craftsman and an assistant. If there’s a third person, he’s the project manager or owner of the firm.

So the two types are the two or three man team or the larger entity.

Why choose one over the other? Here are the differences:

Two/ Three Man Team Larger Entity
Price Lower Higher
Dependability Lower Better
Quality Lower to Good Generally Better
Warrantee Weak to Good Good to excellent
Low to ModerateModerate to high
Time to complete project Much longer to same time Faster
Ability to deal with High rise or other complicated paperwork Rarely suited. Good to excellent
Keeping your home clean Lower Better
Taking responsibility for damage Who, us? Better
All insurance papers in order Now always Will have them in order
Worker’s comp Seldom with real coverage Will have in order
Chance of disappearing after receiving your deposit Possible Rare

So there’s a lot of overlap. If you can find a great two man team, you’ll get price and quality and hopefully no long-term issues.

Finding the right contractor — search, interview and check

  1. Finding your contractor

Post on Facebook, Next door, the family chat line, or call a few of your OLDER trusted friends and family members.  I say older because if they’ve likely been through a remodel they’ll have a lot to tell you about. Our best customers at Stratagem Construction are those that have had been chastened by bad contractor experiences.

Ask specifically what they did for them. Someone who did a bathroom might not be able to handle a full kitchen. There’s a lot more cabinetry skill needed in a kitchen.

If you hear great things, ask them if they know of anyone else they worked for. Often, people pass good contractors around so they might have worked for several friends. If so, put them on your list for a call. Be sure to ask about what they didn’t do well. There will be something and you should know if just to be prepared.

Once you have some names look them up on line. You might not find them; you might find them well regarded; or you might be shocked. If you’re shocked, BELIEVE IT! (I’ve made every mistake at least once and I made this one.)

  1. Interview

If your contractor can do the work you want done, say a kitchen, in the location you want it done, say a high rise, it’s time to call them.

Mentally note how long it takes to get a call back. Two man operations call back at the end of the day or during the next day or have their wives take the call. These are good signs of someone who wants the work and is considerate.

We return new client calls in under 15 minutes if we can, maybe a few hours if we’re off our game. A larger organization should be able to return your call promptly if they’re well organized.   It means they have the manpower and organization to call back. If it takes a day to get a call back from a larger company, they’re not run well. The longer it takes, the more significant the problem. It doesn’t absolutely mean it’s going to be a bad experience but it much more likely and it will be a major annoyance if your heating stops working mid-winter or your toilet starts leaking and you can’t get a hold of anyone.

When you talk to your contractor try to get a sense of their professionalism. You can tell a lot from a voice. If they make you feel comfortable, listen well, and leave you feeling like you’re talking to a nice person, that means a lot. On the other hand, if they sound arrogant, irritated or make you feel stupid for asking questions, FORGET IT! It usually only takes about 10 seconds on the phone to figure this out if you have experience but give yourself 2 to 5 minutes before excusing yourself  as the first impression can change.

  1. Check

You found one to three people that sound good and check out, ask to see a recent example of their work. Usually they’re working on a place or just finishing one. If they told you they do kitchens, they should have done one in the last four or five months. If they had a happy customer it shouldn’t be hard for you to stop over and see it. The same applies for bathrooms which a contractor usually does a lot more of.

If you stop over, look at the quality of the tile work, drywall work and whether all the cabinetry doors look even and function nicely and ask the owner how the experience was when the contractor is not around. If this is good, your probably have a winner.

Is it absolutely necessary to look at their work? It depends on the quality of the rest of what you have heard or seen. We always look at a subcontractors work before hiring them but we have the advantage of knowing what to look for. Many of the details we see might not be apparent to the average consumer but they tell us a lot about the contractors abilities and attention to detail.

On the other hand, the issues can be obvious. If you start by looking closely at the tile work wherever you see it residentially, you’ll begin to see the differences and you’ll be prepared when you go out and look at a contractor’s work. Don’t compare it to commercial work as it’s generally awful. Also watching appropriate episodes of “this old house”, George Villas, or Youtube won’t hurt.

Question: should you do all this for an 8K bathroom? Not really. It’s a lot of work for a little job.   Someone working at that price point might not even want to go through the trouble. See if you see the work of the person who recommended them. Our guest baths start at 18K and about 5%  of our clients visit a site and about 10% call references. This occurs most frequently on larger jobs: kitchens over 50K or whole house remodels in the 200K range. At this price point, we’re happy to do it and it makes total sense.

Getting the Bid

Now that you have a few contractors you’re interested in, it’s time to have them to your place and bid.  

A Set of Plans and Specifications

A set of plans and specifications are invaluable for a higher end project. Figure 90% of what you say to someone will go in one ear and out the other. So if you want what you want, then you must give the contractor plans. If it’s not complicated, then you can get away with a list of what you want and showing him with hand drawings or labeled pieces of tape on the floor and walls.

It’s so easy to change plans and so painful to tear things out and correct. With a good set of plans, the bids will be apples to apples. Without plans the bids will be based on what the contractor thought you meant. It can be wildly different than what you meant. With a plan, you can hold a contractor accountable, without one, it can be a battle of wills and threats.

Either way, going through the entire project step by step will give you the best chance of communicating well and getting an accurate price and result.

In Addition here are a few things you should ask for:

  1.  Copy of their contract.
  2.  How the plans are handled if any.
  3.  Are the rough materials included (glue, grout, underlayment, paint, etc)
  4.  Who will buy the finish materials and if they’re buying them, what’s the mark up.
  5.  How allowances and extras are handled.
  6.  How long will it take to complete
  7.  How payments are structured
  8.  How much money you can hold back to insure the job is finished.
  9.  How the warranty is handled.

Typical Answers

Two/ Three Man Team Larger Entity Stratagem construction
Contract One page — we’re going to provide labor for the follow…. One to three pages describing the work in rough terms with terms and conditions, often with allowances or exemptions for materials. Contract includes schedule of values defining each and every material and labor cost to help understand extras and credits easily and avoid confusion
Plans Plans?  You buy, I put in.  You tell me. I make happy. Back of napkin to architects drawing.   Sometimes can provide professional help. Detailed specific plan and full set of specifications created by designers.  “Good fences make good neighbors.” +
Rough Materials Often included in their price, confirm Included Included
Finished materials You will be buying them and they will tell you how much you need to buy.  They may come with you to Home Depot to help you pick things so you get the right sizes.  ++ Allowances or specified. Almost always specified.  Turnkey
Allowance No needed as you will provide all the finish materials.  Extras — I tell you. Not large. Allowances or materials specified Rare allowance because all specified
Time to complete project It doesn’t matter what they say.  What will be, will be. “My Uncle Steph died, I have to go to the funeral for 4 weeks.”  Very long, far away. Bathroom 2 to 16 weeks ++ Bathroom 2 – 4 weeks depending on size and complexity.
Payments You pay me half now, half when finished. 10 to 33% deposit up front, interim payments 10 to 33% deposit up front, interim payments
Hold back I say “half” when finished. 0 to 10% 10%
Warranty What’s warranty?  If fix, all good. I fix, I fix, I fix.  (But don’t count on it.) One year warranty One year warranty but will likely fix something further out if due to our error.  Regular punch list schedule at 1, 3, 6 and 12 months ++++

+   A well-defined plan right down to the grout color is your best chance of getting what you hoped for with the least amount of tsuris (headache).  If the light is in the wrong place we move it for free, if’s as indicated on the plan we move it but for a cost.

++ Like 16 century Dutch shipwrights, they can’t say 30 inches but with their eyeballs they can tell you what will fit.

+++ Airoom has been known to take 16 weeks.

++++ Once the original punch list is done, we allow non-emergency punch list items to accumulate and repair them at 1 month, then again at 3, 6 and 12 months as needed.

Keep Observant

One goal during their visit is to gather information and better understand who you’re dealing with. If they’re really slow to get you answers, seem irritated or don’t answer at all, that is the experience you should be prepared to have when they work for you. Don’t be afraid to pause and let them speak.

Very often contractors will go through all the steps and not give you a bid. There are too many reasons to discuss why this might happen but as in relationships, if it’s wrong for one, it’s wrong both. Be glad your relationship ended so quickly and cleanly.

Read the contract carefully and ask questions

The best time to settle misunderstandings is before contracts are signed. Usually the language is clear. If it doesn’t say the contractor is going to do something don’t assume their price includes it.

I had a client hand wrote in a contract, “tile on all 4 walls”. It wasn’t anything we discussed and I just thought she was trying to be extra safe thinking I might not tile all the shower walls. Nope. She demanded I tile all the walls of her bathroom though it wasn’t in any of the plans. Eventually, we did it for free.

Take the time to understand all the words and clauses. The contractors will be happy you did.  They don’t want to have misunderstandings either. Sometimes they will have forgotten what you wanted or planned to give it to you but forgot to write it down. Either way, in 6 weeks when you bathroom is under construction memories will be blurry, so a clear, complete contract you can refer to really helps everyone get along.

The failures of the 3 bid strategy

In the typical 3 bid strategy, general contractors hand out sets of plans to multiple bidders and then often select the lowest price contractor. This works for large commercial projects but will not work for you for several reasons.

  1. Apples to apples is impossible on small residential work. In residential projects, skill level, customer service, and warranty make a huge difference. In commercial work, it’s just has to be “good enough” to pass inspection. Most likely in your house it has to be better than that.
  2. You’re not an expert and you need someone who you can trust. A general contractor can take more chances and go cheap because he knows more and can throw his weight around if need be.
  3. This is your home and a bad choice is not just going to be a delay, it’s going to be a lot of worry,  headache and inconvenience. I had one client who used used for phase 1, saved money on phase 2 with someone else, and then said to us on phase three “just tell me what it costs.” Money is a much smaller factor once you’ve had a bad experience.
  4. Some good contractors will not bid a project against multiple contractors if it’s about price.  We won’t. We don’t want to be the least expensive. It costs something to provide the level of service we provide. We want to be selected based on the numerous happy customers we’ve had and that we will treat new clients in exactly the same way. It’s like Marshall Field’s in Chicago if you remember them.

Your goal shouldn’t be to bid people against each other for the lowest price but rather to find the contractor that matches your needs and price point and make sure your contractor is in the ballpark.

No disrespect to contractors but sometimes they bid like they’re on hallucinogens. Having met more than one for you job, helps you ask intelligent questions and double check their answers.

I hope that’s helpful, please leave a comment if you have a specific question. If you need your renovation done in Chicago, please consider Habitar Design and Stratagem Construction.

Article by Mitchell Newman, Principal of Habitar Design and Stratagem Construction. Mitch has twenty years of experience in construction and has been named twice in the Fixr 200 for top influencer in the industry. His company has won numerous awards based on recognition by consumers.