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Hiring a contractor versus a handyman….

Bountiful Utah, Kitchen Remodel.
Bountiful Utah, Kitchen Remodel.
April Elizabeth, Salt Lake Interior Design Examiner

The season for remodeling has now begun. We aren’t exactly sure if this fever is driven by a need for change, triggered by Salt Lake City’s, disgusting inversion causing us to want to stay inside… or that we are transitioning into that time of year where the tax return is greatly anticipated…a fever is not an understatement.

Is it time to update your kitchen? Make sure you hire someone who specializes in kitchen design.
April Elizabeth, Salt Lake Interior Design Examiner

With the holidays over and the great outdoors at it’s less appealing state folks are faced with their environments pros and cons. This is a season for change and it is everywhere.

In our design business we are often the target for many questions about what people want to do. We can often get involved either upfront or for the long haul in many important design decisions. Everything is essential. There is a flow and a process and while we evaluate every decision there is often one that is out of our hands or influence often until it is too late.

That is the contractor….or sometimes handyman. It is not uncommon for a designer to get hired mid process after the decision has been made…then we have to sometimes pick up the pieces to get a job inline…unless the client already has a good contractor.

But… unfortunately, It is not uncommon for a potential client to say “well, we have this friend who does this on the side”…”or it is kind of his hobby.”

This is a little dangerous because we designers know that you always get what you pay for. So while your handyman or friend of a friend may be cheap he may be cutting corners.

We know there is some intimidation in finding a contractor but we highly recommend it unless your handyman is willing to follow the plan & stay in close communication with you or your designer…also he needs to be 100% honest about his capabilities.

Since any structural changes by law require the pulling of a permit getting a contractor who has experience with this is a must. Do not take the risk by avoiding this step. It can get you into trouble. Not every contractor is created equal, nor do they always have the experience of handling various types of jobs.

Do consider that people have to start somewhere or they are at different levels in their quest to gain experience. You have to decide how much you are willing to let them grow while working for you. If it weren't for clients like that we wouldn't be where we are now.

Also, with changes in the economy over the past few years there are many capable contractors who have had to resort to working another job as well as doing remodeling…being self employed is tough so don’t always assume a contractor isn’t qualified just because he moonlights. Do your research.

Please remember, remodels are emotionally triggering events. This person is in your home, doing stuff to it. You may have thought that you wanted these changes more than anything but the transition is a lot like pregnancy…you’re going to have a bout of sickness where nothing that is happening feels right.

Here are some things you need to ask, look for or find out when selecting someone to tear your house apart...then put it back together better than it was before they got their hands on it.

Do you know someone they have worked for?

-This is really important actually. Getting a name off line is always a little iffy. Look for recommendations in their profile. That is a good sign. The more good said about them online the better ~ but getting a personal referral when possible is golden.

How long have they been in the business and what kinds of projects have they done? Even better, can they show you pictures of said projects?

-If the contractor has ever built homes, or worked for a builder or commercial jobs that is a plus. They are going to be much more experienced at running a tight schedule, foreseeing what is next and being ahead of the game. They also know the codes. Which means that trades won’t have to come back and fix things that should have been known in advance as no go’s….

That seems to be a trend with handymen…

If they are a handyman and not a real contractor what kinds of jobs have they done? Do they admit that they have never done anything very custom?

-To find this information out it is probably better to let them tell you what they have done in detail. Remember, you are hiring this person to work in your home so you need to interview them. If you’re doing a very custom job or something with lots of materials and details take note if they have mentioned ever doing those things and after they finish their list of accomplishments ask them if they have. If they say “oh, yeah of course” be wary. No remodel is the same as the next. No one has done everything, especially if they didn’t mention it before. Even if you aren’t going super custom it is nice to know they have the capability, or if they admit they don’t, look for them to reassure you they can find someone for that part of the project who is.

Are they taking notes? When you say you want a steam shower or a specific refrigerator, do they say “okay” or do they ask for the specifications?

-This is number one before any contractor starts a job he has to know exactly what is being put in it. We have been dumbfounded by those who move forward and have things like plumbing roughed in without even looking at the fixtures going in or having that conversation with their client. If your guy isn’t asking for a long list of questions to be answered don’t work with him. As much as you may think he can do it, he can’t read your mind. Over communication is a much better way to go in these situations.

How do they work for their money?

-Although we aren’t privy to how every contractor’s gets paid make sure you are before you commit. Some do a cost plus a percentage and some will do a flat rate of what it is worth to them and pass along their pricing. Many now do that and you are the one paying the bills.

Do they keep a clean house?

-This one is a bigger deal than you may think. Sure, you know it will be a mess for a while but that is no reason for them not to sweep up after themselves or the others subs at the end of a work day. That drywall dust gets into your ductwork and you unfortunately will end up breathing it.

Do they ask for drawings or a set of plans? Or when you tell them you have a designer do they ask to have the designers contact number so they can discuss the project before moving forward?

-Really this should be a no brainer. No one should even think about moving forward with a job without seeing the whole plan. If all you have to start with is a rough sketch they should be asking for more specific information. If they are not and are already ready to tear down walls then good luck! We are sorry to say, we have seen this before.

How do they feel about working with a designer?

-This is actually a pretty tricky one. A lot of contractors sell themselves as designers and a lot of folks think they are designers because they watch a lot of HGTV, but since we have at times become involved with jobs like these in order to fix up botched work we are going to say, do this at your own risk. A contractor may have done some pretty good looking jobs but we find that they have a tendency to make them all look the same…or like his house. They will often steer you towards what is easy for them…another red flag…and not what is in your best interest…we have seen mothers, friends and family do this as well.

You may feel that you yourself have a pretty good eye but unless it is a trained by degree sometimes costly errors are made. The ability to project the samples into a finished look takes an experienced designer. The good news is that once you have your direction you can hire a trained eye for even just few hours to give you a second opinion and some feedback. This won’t break the bank and is money well spent.

There are of course other things to look for but these are some of the most important.

You want those you hire to do a good job for you but please also remember they don’t work for free, they have their own family to feed and they have to pay for materials. If you are scaring away contractors because you’re asking for something unrealistic you may end up with a poorly done job or no one to do the job.

It is just as much your responsibility to be a fair and honest client so you can attract fair and honest services.