Knowing how to hire and work with home remodeling pros effectively is the difference between a successful home improvement project and a nightmare.
This is what we will cover:
- Who are the remodeling professionals?
- Surprise candidate: the cabinet company
- Picking remodeling professionals
- Interview questions and bids
- Project management and follow up
- Staying organized to stay in charge
Depending on the size of your project, you may consider hiring an Architect, Interior Designer, or other related professional. As builders, remodelers and cabinet guys we have worked with all of them with great results. If you do hire an architect or interior designer, you will also need a licensed general contractor who specializes in remodeling.
You will certainly want a remodeling contractor for a full house remodel. So here is a rundown on how to choose your professionals. And we know all about this because we are remodeling professionals ourselves.
Who are these remodeling professionals?
First, what kind of professional do you need for your project?
Here are the main types of professionals that could be involved.
And be aware that there is frequently some overlapping among them.
The main distinction is between design and execution
The first question is whether you need design services, or at least construction drawings, separate and apart from the execution of the project itself.
At the top of the design food chain is the professionally qualified architect. Probably (at least 9 times out of 10), you will not need an architect. An architect may come into play in a very large project, involving changing the entire character of a big home. If you plan on employing an architect be sure to hire one well-versed in residential remodeling projects as these are entirely different animals as compared to, say, the design of a new home.
The Interior Designer
You are much more likely to need an interior designer than an architect. These come with a variety of certifications. They will very often specialize in kitchens, bathrooms, and general space planning. Interior designers are familiar with working with general contractors and will especially help you in your selection of materials and color schemes.
A draftsman will produce floor plans and help you understand the layout of the various components of a remodeling project and how they interrelate. They can also provide the drawings that will be necessary for submission to the building authorities when it comes time for obtaining construction permits. A draftsman will often work hand in hand with your general contractor.
The Design-Build Contractor
This is basically a general contractor providing both construction and design services in-house. In our opinion, having “been there done that,” as a design-build contractor this is the preferred way to go.
With everything under one roof, it is much easier to make design changes on the fly. It is also a good idea to have all the responsibility in one place.
The General Contractor
For anything bigger than a DIY or handyman project, you need a general contractor. This would be one that specializes in remodeling projects. It is the general contractor who would be responsible for executing the design produced by your architect or interior designer.
However, many projects just do not need a separate design service. In these cases, all the design details are simply agreed upon between the owner and the contractor. If you make the right choice, the contractor will bring years of remodeling experience to the job and be able to guide you through all the product and material selections.
If you have read our posts on general, kitchen, and bathroom remodeling, you will know that there are hundreds of details to be accounted for and coordinated, even with the smallest jobs. Your general contractor will help you through this.
There are plenty of remodeling-related jobs that are well within the capabilities of a competent and experienced handyman. By handyman, we mean someone who is a jack of all trades in the home improvement arena and can do things like installing cabinets, tile, and electrical and plumbing fixtures.
A good handyman will likely know the ins and outs of the work of many of the specialized trades, even if they are not licensed. So, if you are not changing any of the rough plumbing or electrical, a handyman can do just about anything else without you running foul of state licensing laws. And he will be much less expensive than hiring a general contractor, who has a bigger overhead and will himself be paying someone else to do the work.
Be aware, however. That some states have limits on the dollar amount of work a handyman can legally do.
Surprise Candidate: The Cabinetry Company
This is some inside baseball you probably won’t read anywhere else. And it’s because of our own experience as both a general contractor and cabinet company owner.
For smaller projects (say a full bathroom or kitchen) but still beyond the reach of all but the most adventurous DIY owner or handyman, we suggest you consider using a capable cabinetry company to handle the entire project.
Here are the reasons:
- For full kitchen and bath remodels the core and, usually, the most expensive component is the cabinetry.
- Cabinet companies have, either on staff or on call, a Certified Kitchen & Bath Designer (CMKBD®). This would be a member of NKBA (National Kitchen & Bath Association). A capable NKBA designer will be able to help develop your vision and design intent and make sure the project reflects it.
- A good cabinet company will also have a General Contractor’s license in-house that will allow them to cover coordination with the other principal trades involved (plumbing, electrical, tile and stone). If they do not have a license in-house, they will certainly have good working relationships with licensed remodeling contractors they could use.
- A cabinet company is also a great resource for other built-ins for your home, including home office, den, bar, and media systems.
Picking Your Remodeling Professionals
We strongly recommend staying as local as possible. It is much easier to check references and check their references and visit past and current projects. Also, local contractors will be familiar with local building codes and are used to working with the local building department, which will have jurisdiction over your project.
Word-of-mouth referrals are key. It is fine to get a feel for who is out there on HomeAdvisor or Angie’s List and by Googling “remodeling contractor near me” However, word-of-mouth referrals are by far the best way to start. Talk to friends and neighbors. Would they use that guy again? Talk to real estate agents, and local suppliers (such as lumber yards, building supply stores, and tile stores. And also talk to the trades. These are the people who are used to working with general contractors in the trenches. Talk to plumbers, electricians and cabinetry companies. Ask who they like working with and why.
Ask for credentials: state licensing; designations from professional associations, such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), or Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) from the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) or Certified Bath Designer from NKBA.
Interview Questions and Shortlist
A remodel is a fairly complicated project and you want to make sure your chosen professional is experienced, reputable, licensed, and insured.
You also want to let your chosen professional know that you have taken the time to educate yourself on some of the ins and outs of remodeling. On the one hand, this will keep him on his toes, knowing that your BS meter is well-tuned. On the other, it will actually help him too.
- Related post: How to Approach a Whole House Remodel
- Related post: Kitchen Remodel Checklist
- Related post: Bathroom Remodel Layout
We know from our experience that there is no better client than an educated client. This is one who can actually be a partner in the project and who can participate intelligently in resolving the issues that always come up during the course of a project. In fact, one of the best clients we ever had was a real estate developer in his own right.
From your preliminary research develop a list of say six contractors to interview. This will enable you to arrive at a shortlist of three from whom to solicit bids. Evaluating more than three bids is pretty tough to do.
Here are the minimum questions you should ask the remodeling contractor you are interviewing to qualify for your shortlist. Don’t be shy. You are about to spend a lot of money.
- Licensing: Are you licensed as a general contractor in this state? How long have you had the license? Have you ever had issues with the state licensing board? Please let us have a copy of your license certificate.
- Insurance: Do you have liability insurance? What are the limits? Do you have workers’ compensation insurance? Please let us have copies of the certificates. Do you check that your subs have the same insurance? And in regards to insurance, make sure you contact your own insurance company and let them know that you are planning a remodel project and ask if there are any issues with this.
- Experience: How long have you been in business as a general contractor and do you have prior experience in one of the trades? Prior experience in a trade (preferably carpentry) is important because it is an indicator of hands-on rather than theoretical knowledge.
- Client references: Do you have client references you can give us? Do you have former client projects you can show us? Always follow up with client references. Were they on time and on budget? How was the execution? Did they keep the job site clean? If they have happy customers, those customers will be excited to talk to you and will often allow you into their homes to show it off.
- Trade and professional references: This is not a creditworthiness question. Rather it is an indicator of how well the contractor works with architects, designers, subcontractors, and suppliers. That the general has good working relationships with his these people is an important indicator of how smoothly the job is likely to go. Talk to them.
- Warranty on the work: What kind of written warranty on the work performed does the contractor provide? (It must be in writing.) How long does it last and are all components of the job covered? How will the contractor respond if a warranty issue comes up?
- Lien releases: Ask about the contractor’s lien release procedure. This is to protect you against claims by subs and suppliers in case they do not get paid.
- Current workload: Ask how many projects the general contractor has going right now. Is this a typical number? You want to be sure he has the time and resources to handle your project properly.
- On-site supervision: Will there be a supervisor on-site at all times of the day or only sometimes?
- Schedule and timeline: How long will this job take? What would the daily schedule be?
- How will you handle permits and inspections? How well do you know the officials in the local building department? Good relations with local officials can smooth the course of a project, especially when it comes to inspections of the work.
- Communications: How often will you hear from the contractor? How? Phone? Email?
- The numbers: Carefully go over the dollar amounts of the 3 bids. Make sure you are comparing like with like. Make sure you are looking at the same scope of work (quality and quantity) and in sufficient detail. Be suspicious of big differences in price and ask questions if you see major differences.
- Documentation: Does the proposed contract include: clear price and a payment schedule; specific scope and sequence of work (check that carefully to make sure it looks complete to avoid costly change orders); warranty; lien waiver procedures (to avoid claims from unpaid subs); dispute resolution? Does it seem fair?
- Attorney Review: Consider spending a few hundred dollars on an attorney review of the contract. But don’t let the attorney spend unnecessary money rewriting the contract and putting your proposed contractor on the defensive. Make sure the attorney is familiar with construction.
Pro Tip: Ask for a 5% – 10% retention of the contract sum. This is an amount you hold back until an agreed time (say six months) after project completion. It is to ensure a prompt call back on any items related to the project that may go wrong but are not obvious issues at the time of completion of the project.
Project Management and Follow Up
Frequent and open two-way communication is essential. There are too many details involved for successful “communication by osmosis.” You must avoid or head off miscommunication and misunderstanding and mutual frustration.
Here are some of the things you should talk about with your contractor.
- What disruptions to your life and your family’s life does he expect the project to cause and you need to be ready for?
- From your side, what events in your family’s schedule does the contractor need to plan around?
- Do you need to make arrangements to keep children and pets out of the way?
- Do you need to move stuff out of the house to make way for construction work?
Make sure that all work requiring a divergence from the contract is supported by change orders that are priced (or at least with a “not to exceed” number) and agreed in writing by both parties.
Job File: Your Project Binder
Make sure that you keep a job file as part of the Project Binder we discussed elsewhere on this site.
Here is an example of what we mean. We like this one. Click on the image and check it out on Amazon. This is an essential tool for success. Remember: it may be the contractor’s job to run the project but it is your job to manage the contractor. You absolutely need something like this to help you do it.
The file will include plans, permits, copies of insurance certificates, the contract itself, invoices, change orders, correspondence, manufacturer warranties and manuals for appliances installed as part of the project.
Walkthrough and Punch List
Do a walk-through by yourself and take your time. Make a list of everything you see that does not seem right to you. Then repeat the walkthrough with the contractor for review and correction
At the time you make the final payment, be sure to obtain a Mechanic’s Lien Release from the contractor. This will ensure that you are not held responsible for unpaid suppliers or subcontractors. Put the release in your Project Binder.
Celebration and Reward
Celebrate for yourself and your family now that the project is complete and you can enjoy the result after what has no doubt been a bit of a roller coaster.
And do not forget to reward your remodeling professionals for a job well done. If they have deserved it. Find some way to help your designer and contractor in their marketing. Offer testimonials. Allow them to take photographs and post them on his website. Allow them to bring prospective customers on a tour of your house. Offer your house in a parade of homes.
- Further reading on Amazon: Remodel: Without Going Bonkers or Broke