How to Hire and Manage Contractors Without Losing Your Mind!

Aug 3, 2021 | Whole House

Warning: This is a long post with not a lot of photos but I’m hoping the helpful advice will make up for that!

I’m going to tell you a story about how I screwed up managing contractors in the hopes that you’ll not make the same mistake. Because after all, this little blog is about my wins and losses and lately, I’ve made mistakes in dealing with contractors, even though I totally know better!

With 6 rental properties and a big renovation on this house, I’ve worked with a lot of contractors over the years. I’ve worked with awesome contractors (I’m looking at you, Rene the painter) and with really crappy ones (curse you prior contractor who shall not be named!). Outlining my best tips will hopefully help you and definitely remind me of the best way to hire and manage contractors.

But first, my story.

We just got back from vacation on Sunday, and while we were gone, I was so happy to know that the last of the renovations would be done without us having to live through any more construction. I sat on the beach and thought, “Man, this is the life… While I’m sitting on the beach, work is being done at my house by competent contractors who know I just want to move into my flippin’ floppin’ house already!” I planned out exactly what rooms would be fully unpacked first, because I thought by the time we got back home, the renovations would be done after four LONG months.

To check on the progress, I asked my dog sitter to text me photos of the baseboards (since that was the biggest thing on the punch list). I saw the photos and though, oh no! The shoe molding that the contractors were installing was big, chunky, and totally spoiled the look of my elegant, custom made baseboards.

The contractor and I talked about the type of shoe molding I wanted before I left for vacation and he was supposed to bring me a sample before installation and he didn’t. I didn’t follow up with him and I went on vacation. He installed what he thought I wanted but it was a big miss! Total communication error on both our parts.

So, I asked the contractor to stop working on the baseboards until I got back and I asked him to instead finish the rest of the punch list while we were gone. Installing the chandelier in the music room, fixing the spindles that kept falling out of the stairwell (thanks crappy prior contractor!), and caulking the door casings were just some of the things on the list. I figured that the only thing that would be left when we got back would be picking out new shoe molding and the installation of said molding. It would take about a day. Totally doable.

We got back from vacation and other than the installation of a lot of ugly shoe molding, nothing else was done! Nothing. Seriously?!

When I talked to the contractor, he gave me an excuse about not wanting to do anything else without my input. Like I have a lot of input to give on caulking door casings and installing spindles that won’t fall out of the bannister…

As of now, the contractors are coming tomorrow to finish up the rest of the work under my close supervision because apparently that’s what’s needed.

Okay, so that exercise in me complaining is not just for me to vent (although I do feel better, thanks!) but to point out what I could have done differently. So let’s get to it!

Tips on Dealing with Contractors

Get Recommendations: This seems like a no brainer, so I’ll keep this tip short. Get recommendations for a reputable contractor from friends and family. I also like to post on FaceBook within community groups for good contractor recommendations. That’s how I found my painter. It’s always better to use someone that others have given good reviews instead of cold calling contractors.

Shop Around: When starting a project, I always get three estimates. Even if I’ve worked with a contractor in the past who I like and think does good work, I still get 2 more estimates. I do this because when you’ve worked with a contractor before, he might not give you their best price on subsequent go-arounds. Contractors who think they’re a shoe-in might hike their price a bit and for me that’s fine because I like to pay a fair amount for good work that I trust, but I don’t want to be gouged so I compare their price against 2 competitors to keep them honest.

If their competitors give me significantly better pricing then I’ll go back to “my” contractor and show him the estimates in the hope that they lower their price. Sometimes (most times) that works, but sometimes it doesn’t and I have to think about if I want to work with someone I know and trust or if I want to cultivate a relationship with another contractor.

Start Small: When working with a new contractor, I try to never give them a huge job because I don’t know their quality of work yet. I might give a contractor a piece of a job first, evaluate whether they did a good job, and then give them the rest of the big job. I will however have them bid on the entire job so that they don’t hike up the price on the larger job after doing the small job. But, I’ll tell them after receiving the estimate that I only want them to do the smaller job. Then if they do a good job, I’ll give them the rest of the job.

It’s a bit of game playing on my part, but I never a trust the work of a contractor I don’t know yet, and this is my safeguard against a lot of bad work instead of just a little bad work.

Be Your Own General Contractor: If you want to save money and if you have the time, be your own GC. I do this pretty much exclusively since I like to save money where I can. I spoke with a general contractor recently who told me that when he subcontracts out a job, like electrical or plumbing for example, he always upcharges 10-15% to the client since he’s the one who sourced and will be managing the subcontractor. I’d rather pocket that money to add to my budget.

Being your own general contractor involves good timing though and you have to know that for a certain project, plumbing should be done before electrical for example, so if you don’t have that type of knowledge, here’s another tip. Use YouTube to get the basics. If you want to hire out a bathroom renovation for example, go to YouTube or just google the steps necessary to renovate a bathroom and the almighty internet gods will give you a timeline. Go by that timeline in hiring out your professionals. Demolition first – contractor. Electrical next- electrician. Plumbing next- plumber. Tile next- contractor who’s good at tiling. Etc., etc.

Ask the Right Questions: I’m so guilty of not asking the right questions and vetting my contractors enough. I have the mentality that all professionals strive to do a good job because that’s how I like to operate. But that’s now always the case so vetting a new contractor is so important. Ask your contractor lots of questions on how exactly how they will go about tackling the job, how big their crew is (you don’t want to hire a 2 person crew and have them take FOREVER), what the timeline is, what happens when they go over the timeline. Tell them if they meet their timeline, you’ll give them a bonus and tell them beforehand how much that bonus is.

Ask for prior references and photos of their work. Ask for their website and FaceBook page and visit those sites to see what their past clients say about them. Check their Google profile to read the reviews. In short, vet the snot out of them so that later if something goes wrong, you won’t kick yourself for not doing your due diligence.

Walk Through: For every medium to large project, I try to walk though the project with my contractor. When I do that, I write down exactly what needs to be done in front of the contractor (or go over the list if I’ve written my list prior to the meeting) and I include anything that the contractor and I add to the project list. Then I send my written notes to the contractor so that we’re both on the same page on what he’s giving me an estimate for. Sometimes I’ll even record our initial walk through and send him the video. That way if and when there’s a miscommunication based on the project scope vis-à-vis the estimate, I have written proof of what we talked about.

And of course, get the estimate in writing and make sure that it is as detailed as the written communication or video that you gave to the contractor. You don’t want to end up thinking that something was covered in the estimate when it wasn’t and being ticked off when your contractor wants you to pay more for that “extra” job.

Clear Communication: I’ve said this a thousand times throughout my current home’s renovation- if you don’t like something that the contractor is doing, tell him! Don’t live with something you don’t like and that you’ve paid good money for because is will annoy the crap out of you every time you look at it. I could have done that with the baseboard shoe molding, and I did think for a second that I could live with the chunky shoe molding, but I would be upset with myself if I didn’t speak up. So I talked to the contractor and the shoe molding is being replaced (at extra cost to me, but it’s worth it in my opinion).

It’s also good practice to just check in with your contractor once a day to make sure the project is going smoothly. I do this by either visiting the job site (if I’m not living there), or by having the contractor video what was done that day if I can’t get to the site. Clear communication is key in establishing and maintaining a good relationship with your contractor.

Being Too Nice!: Being nice to contractors is a good thing. However, being TOO nice is not. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but if I’m too nice to contractors, they think we’re friends and my job gets pushed to the back of the line.

I used to work with a contractor who did good work and was fairly priced. He invited me to his son’s play. So sweet! I would make him lunch and we’d eat together and talk about his grandkids. So nice! But after a while, when I called him to work on my house, he’d either no-show or push me to end of his job list. He’d say, “don’t worry sweetie, I’ll get to your job.” When he did show up, his work quality was terrible. He once took a year to fix shoddy tile work. He’s still a nice guy but after a while, I stopped calling him to do work on my house because as a contractor, he wasn’t doing a good job. But, it was my fault for moving our working relationship into friendship territory and not keeping it professional. I KNOW this sounds harsh but from that point forward, I am now polite and professional with my contractors but I don’t allow them to get too comfortable with me.

Manage Expectations: When I say “manage expectations” I mean YOUR expectations. Contractors will go over their timeline (but maybe not if you offer a bonus!) and might go over budget. These are things that happen with most jobs and knowing this will make you a saner person to deal with when you’re asking why things are not going the way you think they should.

Contractors get sick, their kids get sick, bad weather happens, they schedule another job on top of your job thinking they’d be done by now, and the list goes on and on. I’m not saying that all of these excuses are good, but some are. Go into your project with a time buffer (they say the job will be done in a week, plan for 2 weeks) and with an over-budget allowance (plan on 10%) so you won’t be rocking mad when crapola happens because it will.

Okay, those are my best tips based on working with dozens of contractors. If you have any that I’ve missed, let me know in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll be hoping and praying that my renovations are done this week and I’ll keep reminding myself to follow my own advice!