Does working alongside your contractor help or hurt?
Renovations are something most home owners endure either by choice or necessity. Due to lack of skill and/or time many of us must outsource the project. The decision to entrust our renovation with a contractor is difficult as quote comparisons come back looking like apples and oranges. Some give us various allowances toward materials and labor, some just state general facts with a price tag, and others just quote their work and don’t include subcontractor pricing at all. All we know for sure is this will cost more than we really want to spend (which is nothing).
Because the project starts out with muddled emotions of dread and excitement, it’s natural to feel compelled to “help” out. I struggle with this constantly and find mixed results and reaction for my efforts. While I personally don’t have trade skills, I do find myself with gaps of time to research or perform tedious tasks. So when’s the right and wrong time to step into action?
I spoke with John Marchese of Kitchens by Lombco in Tewksbury, MA. We both agree that watching certain shows on HGTV has empowered homeowners to know enough to be dangerous. If you’re a viewer, how many times have you seen a sheepish couple tear down a small wall or paint in order to afford a costly oversight, like a needing a new roof? It gives us hope that marginally inserting ourselves into construction somehow pays off tenfold. I asked John to provide some realistic ways homeowners can help and when they should simply step away from the hammer!
- Figure out your preferred method of pricing. As mentioned above, contractors have different quoting styles. If anything, simply understanding pricing structures will help you narrow down options. If you’re unclear how they make money on the project you may find yourself unknowingly assuming risk which opens you up to headaches. Much more on this later.
- Determine the project scope before receiving multiple quotes. Things get confusing when you describe various “must-have” and “would-be-nice” features to multiple contractors. One quote may come back with everything included whereas another may just show the must-haves.
- Gather ideas and photos of the project so the contractor can provide a more accurate quote. Why is this so important? If you simply state you want a tile floor the quote will likely reflect the labor for a single tile grid pattern. Remember, contractors know you’re quoting out the job and want to come across as competitive as possible since price is the number one trigger for your decision. If you have a specific look or materials in mind let them know.
- Ask questions. If you’re unsure whether an idea is marginally more expensive or a budget buster don’t hesitate to ask. For example, when I renovated my bathroom I assumed large format tile would be a time saver compared to small subway tile. It turned out that large format was more difficult to cut and complicated to set compared to the subway. In another project, I chose a premium tile which wasn’t included in the quote. The contractor said to reconsider and review the standard options again. Instead I asked him to tell me the extra cost, which turned out to be marginal given the scope of the project. I’m extremely glad to have paid the small difference to get exactly what I wanted.
- Find out their preferred suppliers. If you have a favorite showroom or store in mind ensure the contractor works with them. Ask how surplus materials, design exchanges, and additional orders are handled.
- Prepare a new space to mimic the space you’re losing. This helps you stay sane during the renovation and also keeps the work zone from being disturbed.
- Make sure the space is cleared out for demo day. You don’t want to waste time and money having your contractor unload the dishwasher and cabinets.
If you notice, the ways you can be involved to save on time and money all take place prior to demo day. John recommends you, “allow the contractor to act as a maestro to coordinate deliveries, installations, and permit inspections.” Their value is to keep you distraction free so you can get through the work day without having to worry about the project schedule. They also have established relationships with suppliers and trade professionals to ensure that the quality and overall experience meet your expectations.
- Don’t attempt demolishing the space yourself. One wrong swing of the hammer and you’ve potentially created more work than you intended – costing you both time and money.
- Don’t touch their work after the fact. The contractor and his team should be licensed and insured. It would be crazy to try to change or expand upon any of their work after they’ve gone home. Same is true for bringing in your own tradesman that has no relationship with the contractor. You’re essentially voiding out your warranty. If anything goes wrong it will be assumed you or your worker fudged it up.
- Understand how buying materials on your own affects the project. This isn’t a strict no-no, but it has risks that may cause you to decide it’s simply not worth the savings. Speak with your contractor to understand the implications.
Watch my video to hear tips on completing a successful renovation.
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My first point in this piece was to understand your contractor’s pricing. While I prefer to write out a flat fee check for service, that’s not how it typically works. Whether you like it or not, their fee is essentially a commission on labor and material. Doing things like buying your own tile or bringing in your own plumber is undercutting their pay and therefore value in coordinating the project.
Most importantly, whenever you separate product and workmanship you essentially assume responsibility for future issues. For instance, if I purchased inexpensive tile from Lowes for my bathroom remodel despite John telling me he’ll coordinate supply through a preferred local tile supplier I’m now responsible for that tile. This makes perfect sense as he hasn’t been paid to assume responsibility and he has no relationship with Lowes to encourage them to remedy any issues. If that tile breaks 6 months later it’s my problem. So be sure to speak to the contractor prior to making purchases and evaluate the savings vs assumed responsibility. Potentially an arrangement can be made ahead of time so you’re both happy.
I’m going to give one more example on this because you might be thinking, “But Quentara… what if my product has a store warranty and my contractor has a labor warranty. I’m covered on both ends, right?” Technically yes, functionally no.
Here’s why. If you have the unfortunate task of replacing windows like I did, you’ll find that you can purchase windows from a local supplier and hire your own contractor for installation OR you can also hire a window company to both supply and install. In the former scenario… good luck my friend if you have a leak 5 years down the road. The window supplier is going to point at the installer and the installer is going to point at the window. You’re going to be left paying for a new window or repair because it’s extremely difficult to prove fault. Through my research the majority of complaints leveled against windows played out in this exact scenario whether the homeowner realize it or not. The savings could certainly be worth absorbing the risk, just ensure to leave a cushion for unexpected repairs in your budget or cash reserve.
If you have questions about affording your next home renovation please reach out to discuss how I can provide non-biased fee-only advice during a free consultation. We can powwow on budgets, financing options, the impact on your long-term goals, adjustments to insurance, and much more! If you’re in the quote process, see if Kitchens by Lombco is a good fit by scheduling an appointment with John.
About the Author
Quentara Costa helps the sandwich generation prioritize kids, self, and aging parents. For years Quentara was the primary caregiver for her father who was diagnosed with Alzheimers at the age of 70. Since his passing she’s become a mother of two sweet girls. Professionally she received a master’s degree in Personal Financial Planning from Bentley University and has held the CFP® designation since 2010. Community involvement includes hosting the Merrimack Valley Senior and Caregiver Group and volunteering for Budget Buddies.Schedule A Free Consultation