Before Getting a Contractor for Home Work, Do the Homework : REMODELING


Most everyone knows that when you're planning to hire a contractor for a home project, you need to ask for bids. But knowing how to interpret the bids when they come in is a little more difficult.

How do you know you're getting an accurate bid? Why is there such a range between high and low bids? And how can you be sure that the contractor really understands what you want?

Even if you're not doing the work yourself, all home-improvement projects require you to do some homework.

The clearer and more specific you are in telling the contractor what you want, the more likely you are to get it. That means making a lot of decisions and settling a lot of choices before you start talking to contractors.

Say, for instance, you would like to add a family room and turn an old pantry into a powder room. It isn't necessary to know what kind of nails to specify or how many board feet of lumber you'll need. But you do need to know about how big you want the room, what kind of ceiling and wall finishes you want (cathedral, nine-foot, paneling, drywall?), what kind of flooring you want in each space (wood or carpet for the family room, vinyl flooring or ceramic tile for the bath?), what kind of windows and doors you'd like (French, patio doors to outside?), what kind of fixtures and cabinets you want, and what kind of trim you prefer.

All of the decisions you make affect the price of the job. Spend some time in showrooms and home-improvement centers to get a better idea of what things cost.

Then make up a bid package for each contractor you consult. Include a rough sketch, pictures if you have them, lists of materials you want used, names and model numbers of fixtures and cabinets. The more information you can give the contractor, the more likely you are to get a reasonable, accurate bid.

If you can't make up your mind about something, or don't know what your options are, or can't be specific about what you want, you are not only making it hard for the contractor to produce a good bid, you are setting yourself up for hassles later.

Contractors are usually willing to make suggestions based on their experience with similar jobs. But they can't read your mind, and few of them have time to counsel you on every decision.

And if you appear too indecisive, you may have trouble getting bids, because contractors figure it will take too much time to work out details on a job they may not get anyway.

When you have your package together, make sure you give the same information to each person bidding the job. If one contractor makes a suggestion you want to incorporate, make sure the other bidders have information on that.

When the bids come back, take time to study them carefully so you will know why they are different.

Contractors base their bids on what it will cost them to do the job. Besides labor and materials, contractors have to figure in overhead--which may include office rental, payroll, gas, insurance, licensing fees, worker's compensation taxes, liability insurance, Social Security and Medicare payments. (Employees are used to having the last two items taken out of their paychecks; remember that the employer has to match those payments, which amount to about 8 cents on each dollar.)

In most cases, a large company will have to charge more for its work to cover overhead.

On the other hand, large companies may be able to buy materials more cheaply in bulk and may be able to finish each job more quickly. With a smaller firm, you may deal only with the owner; the job may take longer, but you will be getting personal attention and can count on the same quality of work being performed every day. Problem resolution may be easier with a small company as well.

Materials costs can also differ widely from bid to bid. If you've been specific about fixtures and cabinets and what type of finishes you want, that will help.

But there may still be a wide range: One contractor may be planning to use R-30 insulation in the ceiling, while another is using only R-19. If you haven't specified fixtures, those prices can vary too.

If you haven't specified some items, such as light fixtures or appliances, the contractor usually includes an allowance for them. Allowances can be low or high; remember that the actual number will be based on what is bought.

If you want a $600 light fixture, and the allowance is $120, you'll have to make up the difference, either by getting a less expensive item in another category or by paying the difference.

If anything in the bid isn't clear, ask for an explanation. Work performed "to code" is often the minimum standard; you may want something more elaborate.


For some people, price will always be the most important element. But remember that the lowest bid is not always the best bid. It could mean that the contractor left something out, is using cheaper materials or doesn't really understand what you want. You should be able to tell from reading the bids carefully what each contractor plans to do.

Bids are negotiable. If you like a particular contractor, but his or her bid seems a little high, discuss it. You may be able to work something out to lower the price--doing painting yourself, for instance, or using less expensive trim.

(Remember that whatever it is, the bid covers only the work specified. If demolition turns up a surprise--a number of termite-damaged joists that have to be replaced, for instance--you will have to pay more for more work.)

Having your house worked on is a nerve-racking process at best. It's hard to prepare yourself for the loss of privacy, the disruption of routine, the dust and dirt, the tools underfoot.

For some people, the process is so unsettling that it can never be a happy experience. That's another reason to do your homework well: The more you know about what is going on, the more you will feel in control of the process.

Getting a good bid and selecting a contractor you respect is a good first step on the road to enjoyable home improvement.

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