It’s been a while since I posted about my kitchen renovation, but I have been working on it. I’ve finalized the design, chosen cabinets and doors, decided on two versions of appliances (high and low, in case I need to cut budget), obtained building plans from my co-op and confirmed that the wall I want to remove is not a retaining wall. Then… crickets. I know. Truth is, I’m in a quandary about the contractor. My go-to contractor’s timeline has slipped. He called with his reasons, and I do understand. The same attention to detail that he gives my projects is right now laser focused on finishing up someone’s brownstone in Brooklyn. The question is, do I wait for him—a known entity? Or do I hire someone I’ve never worked with before? There are risks both ways it seems to me. Tell me, what would you do?
Way back in March while deep in the planning stages, I contacted my favorite contractor — the one who gut renovated the bathroom in our current home before we moved in. He’s done a lot of work for me, going back over a decade. He renovated both the kitchen and bath in my previous home in Brooklyn. He’s done multiple built-in projects for me, both closets and book cases. He’s done excellent work for my friends as well. His work is impeccable. He’s easy to get along with, has a collaborative nature, and an eye for detail. He has internalized my style and can recommend product replacements when something doesn’t come in on time or doesn’t look right. He comes in on budget, too, though he doesn’t always come in on time. (I forgot about this aspect, but I’m being reminded now.) That’s actually been okay for me. I work in an industry of digital projects, where the motto is: We can give you fast, cheap, and good—choose two.
Four months ago when I walked him through this kitchen project, we’d agreed on a June start date. We’re now more than halfway through the month and I haven’t got the proposal yet or the copy of his license and insurance that co-op boards require. I’ve agreed to an extension, as long as I get the proposal by the end of the month. But I need to have a fallback plan, in case his current job goes off the rails. So, I’m getting in other bids, which seemed like a good time to share some tips.
How to Hire a Contractor
Step 1: Get referrals from friends, neighbors, and online services
I have several names now. One from a friend, another from a neighborhood message board that I belong to, and three more from an online service called Sweeten.
Step 2: View their work
Most contractors are too busy to have a website showing their work, but many belong to services like Sweeten or Angie’s List where you can view photos. That’s a nice first start, but don’t just go by the photos, ask to see a current job site. When you view the project, ignore the product choices and design, which are a reflection of the client’s taste and budget. Look at the workmanship. Is tile aligned well? Is grout smooth and uniform? Are cabinetry doors aligned? Are there gaps between walls, ceiling, cabinets that look unfinished? Are electrical outlet plates aligned or crooked? Do dimmers flicker? Are appliances installed properly? Do ice makers make ice and water lines work? And finally, is the job site swept and neat? A messy job site is a red flag.
Step 3: Compare proposals
No two proposals will look alike, but they can reveal a lot about the person who put it together. Is the bid comprehensive? Is it explained in an orderly way? Does it show forethought about your project.
Don’t go with the lowest bid or the highest bid. Rather, note differences and ask questions. If one contractor’s framing is way less costly than another, ask the higher bid why and ask the lower bid why? It could be the lower bid has a carpenter he’s worked with a long time and has a good price locked in. It could be that the higher bid doesn’t have a guy available and is going to have to pay a premium that he’s passing on to you. You’ll only know if you ask the right questions.
Step 4: Ask for references
This step will be easy if you did your footwork getting referrals in Step 1. Talk to at least three former clients. Ask if the contractor is a good communicator, a collaborator, a problem solver. Ask if the job came in on budget, on time. The answers will be very revealing.
I’m on Step 3, getting proposals from my go-to, a neighborhood referral, a friend referral, and three referrals I’ve been matched with at Sweeten.
Meanwhile, I’m weighing the question, do I want to move ahead with an unknown? Or would it be better to wait for my go-to contractor to finish up his job? My timeline is self-imposed. I simply wanted to do this during the summer when Ross and I can escape to the summer cottage on the weekends and have a refuge from all the mess. But really, we could start this job in fall. Is my dread of living in construction mess a good reason not to wait? What would you do?