Hiring Contractors and Avoiding WAGs

This post was imported from a blog called Contemporation where Amy and I wrote about the renovation of our 80’s contemporary home in Atlanta. That blog is no more but I wanted the content to live on.

Amy and I are pretty frugal about spending money. As the son of a carpenter and the daughter of a tile setter (pictured above), we also have high expectations about how projects should be done. With that penny-pinching perfectionism, it’s no wonder that we typically take on most home improvement projects ourselves. In our last house, we did electrical work, replaced plumbing, painted (a lot), scraped popcorn, took out a wall, installed cabinets, laid sod, cut down trees, swapped out doors and did lots and lots of other crazy things that most first-time home owners would pay a professional to do.

With that said, there are some projects that are just too big, too risky or too time sensitive to take on yourself. In 5 years at our old place, there were three major projects that we hired contractors to do: tree removal, roof replacement & installing a new HVAC unit. For each of those jobs we followed the same basic formula.

1. Rely on Recommendations & Reviews

Do not, I repeat, do not just call up and hire the contractor with the nicest looking yellow pages ad. In fact, this is 2012, it’s time to recycle that phone book and opt out of getting one ever again. Seriously, you don’t need it. The best advice I can give on hiring a contractor is to simply ask your friends, neighbors and coworkers for recommendations. You probably know at least 2 or 3 people who’ve hired the same type of contractor. Just ask them if they’re happy with that decision. If the answer is no, you’ll get some great advice on who and what to avoid. You might as well grab a Snickers because you’re probably also in for a good renovation horror story. If they say they were happy with their contractor, ask if the project was on time, on budget and if there’s anything they would have done differently. Referrals and recommendations are what make the world go round and they can also help you find a good doctor, accountant or even just good eats.

If you absolutely cannot find anyone who has experience hiring the type of contractor you need (even Twitter friends? C’mon?), the next step is reviews. Kudzu and Angie’s List are 2 of the most popular contractor review sites, but I wouldn’t stop there. Check with your local Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, look for reviews of the business in Google Maps. Essentially, you want to find contractor feedback that you couldn’t get in person because you don’t have enough friends. There, I said it. Even phone book companies know in this socially connected day and age that people don’t call contractors without reviews or referrals. That’s why they’re trying to win us back with programs like the Super Pages Super Guarantee. It sounds nice in theory but there are very few real reviews there and a $500 (maximum) guarantee might not be enough to fix an improperly installed roof or (insert your expensive project description here). Avoid having to deal with a guarantee by getting recommendations for contractors instead.

2. Call *and* Meet Contractors in Person

Once you’ve got a list of recommended or positively reviewed contractors, it’s time to call them up and make appointments. Most contractors do not sit around waiting for phone calls and many do not have an office with someone to schedule appointments. When you call, you might get the voicemail on their cell phone because they’re meeting with a client or working on a job. If you get through, the conversation might be brief while they’re on the road to their next project. Be ready with a short description of the work you need to have done, a quick explanation of who referred them to you (they always like to hear that) and a calendar so you can write in a date that you both can meet.

When they show up for the appointment, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. The end goal is to get an estimate, but you should also treat the meeting like a job interview. Ask yourself if the contractor seems knowledgeable, professional and friendly. Most importantly, is he or she someone you feel comfortable having in your house?

3. Get at Least 3 Estimates

I know you’re probably a busy person. I also know it’s a hassle to have to leave work on a weekday to meet with a contractor. If you’re going to hire the first contractor you get an estimate from though you might as well not even get an estimate. Having at least 3 estimates in writing for the same project description allows you to really compare apples to apples. A lot of people will tell you never to go with the lowest estimate. I disagree. It’s ok to go with the lowest estimate, but only if that estimate is relatively close to the others. If one estimate is very different (higher or lower) than the others, that should serve as a red flag that they’re either bad at estimating or that they’re betting that you didn’t get other quotes. Either way, you shouldn’t trust them. As a case in point, when we replaced the roof on our previous house we got 4 estimates. Three were very similar, both in price and in their estimating method. Each brought a ladder, got up on the roof and measured. The highest quote, which came from a Lowe’s contractor, came in at nearly double. Perhaps it was because Lowe’s was taking a big cut of his pay or maybe it was because he measured the roof by counting shingles from the ground. Either way, I wasn’t letting him near our house.

4. Don’t Pay Till All Work is Done

As with most contract-based work, there is usually some money due up front to start a project. On a small project, this is typically around 30% with the remainder due upon completion. On a large project, it might be 10-15% with a pay schedule that includes several other payments as specific project goals are completed. Regardless, a large portion of the project estimate should be withheld until all work is completed and thoroughly inspected by you.

5. Never Hire a WAGer

WAG or not, the rot was pretty extensive.

During our home inspection here at the pulley house, we discovered a badly rotten corner board on the exterior. When we pushed on the same wall from the inside, it wiggled, so we knew the damage probably affected some of the framing too. This was clearly something we couldn’t fix ourselves and we needed to know how much it was going to cost before making our final commitment to buy. We didn’t have time before closing to go through the estimate process 3 times so in a blatant violation of rule #3, we settled for just 2 estimates.

We did, however stick to rule #1. One of the contractors was referred by a friend from work and the other by our real estate agent. Since we didn’t own the property yet, we couldn’t just let them rip open up the wall to see the extent of the rotten wood. Because of this, the first contractor gave us 3 separate quotes based on several scenarios. The contractor that the realtor recommended though ruined his chances of getting hired in a single sentence. While he was a nice guy and seemed professional in person, his written estimate included these words, “The WAG (Wild Ass Guess) of repair costs are between $1,800 and $3,000.” I’m all for honesty, but a professional contractor should never give, or at least never admit that they’re giving you an estimate that’s a wild ass guess.

Our Biggest Contractor Job Yet

The reason why this process has been on our minds lately is because we’re currently planning a 3-story addition to the pulley house. Assuming we get our setback variance approved tomorrow we’ll be adding a garage on the first level, a new kitchen and half bath on the main floor and an extra bedroom up top. We’re looking forward to sharing more about or reasons for the addition, going through the variance process and working with an architect but at this stage of the game it’s time to start looking for a good general contractor and we’re definitely planning to follow all our rules this time.

3 Comments

  1. Very good tips!! Great job with the blog and good luck on the applying and I’ll be crossing fingers for you guys to get approved!

  2. Ah!! So exciting. I love home renovations and can’t wait to follow along 🙂

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