Home Improvement Contractors: How To Work With Them on Your Renovation Projects

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What do these projects have in common?

  • Replacing zone valves (not just the heads) for forced hot water heating
  • Installing a 220-volt outlet for an oven
  • Installing a hot water heater

The common bond between these projects is that I won’t do ‘em. It’s not that I don’t have handyman skills – I do. But these are all projects that if I do, and do badly, can cost me a fortune (think a fire or flood). I won’t have an unlicensed handyman take on tasks like this either – I’ve seen a lot of handymen who were no more handy than I am. No, for projects like this, I want a professional licensed home improvement contractor.

I want to have a really good professional relationship with my electricians, plumbers, and HVAC guys. I want to be one of their best customers, somebody they respect and want to please. I want to be the guy they help first on a busy night when they have a dozen people calling for assistance.

At the same time, I don’t want them to take advantage of me, thinking I’ll overlook unprofessional behavior because I’m such a friendly guy. I’m not looking for friendship, but for mutual respect. I show my respect for my contractors in three ways – by recognizing their financial needs, the value of their time, and their professional abilities.

Recognizing The Financial Needs of a Contractor

I have a friend who buys bulk quantities of computer components for resale. He knows what his suppliers must charge in order to make a profit, and never asks them to charge less. He also pays promptly for every shipment.

On the other hand, I’ve heard many stories of landlords who make a game of trying to shaft their contractors, squeezing every penny and delaying payment as far as possible.

Your home improvement contractor is a small businessperson, who depends on his earnings to run his business and feed his family. Recognizing financial needs means settling on a fair price for the work to be done, and making prompt payment when the work is finished. I hear so many appalling stories about landlords who delay payments to their contractors, or try to avoid payment altogether. These people congratulate themselves on their smart business sense, but are destroying vital business relationships for the sake of a couple of dollars. Not only that, they may get an unofficial blackball from their contractors – making it difficult to find anyone willing to do work for them. We pass the word about bad tenants – don’t you think these guys pass the word about bad customers?

Your contractor sets a value on his time pretty simply. Officially or otherwise, he bills for each hour he works for a customer. Four hours at $60 per, that’s $240. Simple as that. How do you recognize the value of his time? By helping reduce the amount of time he wastes. There are many ways to do this, but one big one is by combining jobs.

Let’s suppose you have three jobs that will each take an hour. It takes your contractor 20 unpaid minutes to travel from his shop to your property. If he can do the three projects together, his ratio of paid to unpaid time is 4.5 to 1 (180 minutes work, 40 minutes travel). If he has to do them separately, his ratio is 1.5 to 1.

Your contractor will also appreciate it if you show up on time and don’t cancel appointments. If you can, try to use the same contractor for all of your jobs that fit his skills. You’re increasing his business, reducing the time he must spend on marketing, and making him more dependent on keeping you satisfied.

Recognizing their Professional Abilities

It’s not easy to become a master electrician! Here in New Hampshire, it takes five years of work experience, an associate’s degree in Electricity, and the passing of two exams. This means my electrician knows a heck of a lot more about his trade than I can.

Therefore, I’m not going to nitpick every decision he makes or denigrate his abilities. I’m going to work on the assumption that he knows what he is doing and treat him as a professional.

Don’t Let Your Home Improvement Contractor Walk All Over You, Though!

All this talk of respect does not mean I’ll roll over for bad work. Certainly there are bad contractors! We know them by the work they do and the way they do it. If my contractor does shoddy work, misses appointments, is consistently late, or overcharges, he doesn’t deserve my respect. I have two very effective ways of dealing with these situations.

Perhaps the problem is not with the contractor (the master plumber, electrician or whatever who owns the company) but with one or two employees. In that case, the boss needs to know about these bad guys. “Joe, Pete and Aaron really didn’t do good work for me, and you need to talk to them.”

On the other hand, perhaps the problem is with the contractor. In that case, don’t use him again, and let him know why.

Photo: Tony alter

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7 Comments

  1. Brendan,

    Thanks for your fair and thoughtful post on working with contractors.

    I read so many times in BP about “investors” wanting to learn how to do electrical wiring and all the other skill sets you mentioned. They think they are saving money when they might be voiding their insurance coverage or worse, setting their house up to hurt someone.

    Keeping great subs in a mood to work with you is a valuable asset. We just had a roof blow off a house on a Friday. Insurance guy was out Friday as well as the roofer to take a look and price it. Our roofer was there the following Monday to replace it. Check was in the mail same day.

    Thats a low stress way of dealing with what could have been a real emergency.

    Thanks again
    Diane Menke
    Myers Constructs Inc
    Tailwindproperty.com

  2. Diane, you make a great point about the insurance. I knew this but didn’t mention it in the piece.

    This very day there was a story on the news about a multi here in New Hampshire being destroyed due to fire. If that had been my building, I would have been very upset. Now imagine if the insurance company had said “we won’t pay” because the fire was caused by bad electrical work I had done. I would have been wiped out.

  3. Mr. O’Brien,

    Thank you for your insightful and clearheaded explanation of the role and responsibilities of professional contractors.

    My name is Scott Day. I am president of the United Contractors Association in Sacramento Ca. Our main focus is to find ways to encourage publishers to verify the validity any license number used to advertise for construction. Thereby adding an additional layer of security when inviting potential contractors into their homes.

    We intend to influence legislation that would remove the loophole in the California B&P Code that allows anyone to advertise for any and all home improvement projects by simply saying ‘Unlicensed’ in the ad.

    This bad law is B&P Code 7027.2
    The link below will explain why 7027.2 must go.
    http://www.gouca.org/support.html

    If I still have your attention, you can learn more about what we are trying to do by visiting the UCA site
    http://www.gouca.org

    I have also produced a video that further explains our position.
    http://www.gouca.org/uncon/ucv.html

    As a realtor, you are aware of how things could turn around in the fixer-upper-market within the next few years.
    You folks will play a huge roll in who gets the calls for repairs. We need your help to inform realtors across the country that making responsible choices in vendor selection will help to establish strong and lasting relationships.

    Thank you,
    Scott Day
    President of the United Contractors Association
    916. 749-5222

  4. What a great article Brendan! I like the way you explained your reasoning in your contractor choice. Too often we make rash decisions. There are a lot of people who think that all contractors are trying to rip them off. In actuality, we are just trying to make a living. Some of us are busier than others, some have better skills, oh and there are those give us a bad name.

    There are several good ways to find quality contractors, or any profession. Word of mouth is always a good start. Talk to you friends, neighbors, co-workers and see if they know someone that can fill your need. Also, the internet is a good source of many local directories.

    And finally, share what you have found. You know a good contractor? Tell the world! Post to their web site, write a review, or post a testimonial. Being appreciative of good businesses can go a long way.

  5. When I hire contractor’s I like to see previous work and will phone previous employer’s to see how his work was but I also like to know how they qualify as a ‘professional’ and I completely agree with your post, they should have to have at least 5 years as an intern and even more working alone before I would qualify that as a professional.

    Thank You for the post, very good read.

  6. Unfortunately, no matter how much due diligence you do on a contractor, you’re bound to find the bad apples like I just did. I’m dealing with a situation where a contractor with phenomenal reviews and references did shoddy work for me and doesn’t want to take responsibility for the level of quality. It is just too bad, because it is going to hurt his business in the long run.

    What most bad contractors forget is that they are in a service business, and if the word gets out about the level and quality of service, they don’t have a good chance of surviving. There’s just too much competition.

  7. After renovating over a hundred properties (not actually me and a hammer) I still find the construction phase the most difficult.

    It is a VERY tough business being a contractor and there are way to any who decided because they could frame a wall or lay sometime that they should become a general contractor.

    Most of the time they fail to make what they thin they were going to make because they aren’t good at business and accounting.

    The biggest problem I run into is contractors being under capitalized. They then run out of money part way through the job and spend all there time trying to find new jobs and end up losing money because they don’t focus on the jobs they hae.

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