Finding a Quality, Fair-Priced Contractor

Finding a Quality, Fair-Priced Contractor

By Al Heavens

RISMEDIA, October 15, 2010–(MCT)--Q: The books “The House You Build” by Duo Dickinson and “The Not So Big House” by Sarah Susanka have provided valuable insight into building and designing spaces for the way we live, artistically well-designed and comfortable, without breaking the bank and not too large.

A few years ago, we hired a contractor to renovate our family room with floor-to-ceiling casement windows, marble-face fireplace, and new bookcases flanking the fireplace.

The result was stunning and we loved working with the contractor. We were very happy with the price and quality.

We are in the process of securing estimates from contractors for a kitchen renovation of 13 by 18 feet. Our home is 18 years old.

We asked a builder we had met at a recent home show to provide kitchen-renovation estimates, and naturally, asked our previous contractor to provide an estimate as well, since our first experience with him was very positive.

The home-show contractor brought his designer along, and they would entertain using only pricey custom cabinets we cannot afford.

We were surprised also when our previous contractor’s estimate came in well over $50,000, almost $20,000 higher than the budget we talked about when we met with him.

Where can we find contractors who are willing to give a fair price as discussed in both above-mentioned books? We are using the same footprint, same flooring, stock cabinets, and not moving any walls but removing soffits.

How do you suggest we find someone who provides decent quality at a fair price?

A: That question probably has been asked since Grog and Clog looked for someone to build a fire pit in their cave.

I wouldn’t look in those two books for answers, since their intention is simply to offer a snapshot of the market in time — before the recession — and most likely of the regions in which the authors live. The situations they chronicle are typically based on their personal experiences, and that’s perfectly natural, since who knows your own situation better than you.

Basically, these authors are trying to offer some insights into the renovation process, not promises. Every house and situation is different. And no book, no matter how encyclopedic, can provide all the answers.

For example, materials and labor costs where the authors live might be different from ours — certainly labor costs are higher here, union or not.

Many contractors today are struggling to survive the economic downturn — the last one in the 1990s killed off thousands of smaller firms — and your job may be the only one on a very bleak horizon.

Contractors are paying all of their obligations — insurance, permits, workers’ comp — with less money, so prices they charge go up to compensate.

Prices can be forgiving when there is volume. For example, you are just one of three or four customers buying from the same cabinet or tile supplier, so a discount is offered and you all benefit.

But that’s not happening today.

Now that I’ve defended the authors and the contractors, let’s get to you.

First, when the contractor comes with his own designer, you are already looking at big bucks. This is your house and your money, and you determine what goes into your kitchen. If you want standard cabinets, say so. You’re the boss.

Second, if these estimates are coming in too high, lower your expectations to meet reality.

Do you really need to redo the kitchen now? If you think after 18 years your present kitchen has outlived its usefulness, determine what really needs to be updated and changed.

Then sit down with both contractors and go over the list. Ask for breakdowns of the costs, and whether there is a less-expensive, though effective, solution to whatever problem needs correcting.

When you decide that, spell it out in a contract, and add a provision for change orders that both you and the contractor understand. Costs can be kept down if you don’t keep changing your mind, but the procedure needs to be spelled out clearly.

(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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