In 2020, my husband and I bought a home built in 1901. Although the home was relatively well-kept, it still needed a lot of work: roof, kitchen, structure, insulation, floors, siding, paint, yard, fence, and more. Here are the steps we’ve learned to take when working with a contractor.
1. Referrals and/or References
If you have a home improvement project in mind, do you know who you want to hire to do it? If not, you probably know someone who has hired a company to work on their home. Ask around. If the company did a great job on a similar project for a friend or family member, they would probably do a good job on your place too. This is how we found a great home inspector. Other than getting referrals from family and friends, you can do some online searching. This is how we found the structure company we hired. Make sure to check their reviews. Meet them in person, and then ask them for references or examples of completed projects. Try to speak with someone on the phone. We did not know to do this with our roofing contractor, and we wish we did. Learn from us!
Pro tip: Once you find a contractor you like and trust, you can ask them for other referrals, i.e. your fence guy probably knows a tree guy.
We recommend getting multiple quotes for your projects. You may be surprised how much the prices will vary. To compare them, ask for line items. Our kitchen quotes were as follows: $47,000, $35,000, and $27,000. How could we properly compare those if one included material and the other two didn’t? As it happens, those quotes were good apples to apples comparisons, which shows the value of getting multiple quotes. Our floor quotes on the other hand were within a couple hundred bucks of each other. We used the smell test with our roof project, and we shouldn’t have. We’re not necessarily saying you should always go with the cheapest option either! But having multiple quotes in hand will give you piece of mind that you did all you could to not get ripped off.
Pro tip: Ask for material data sheets to confirm the warranty information promised in proposals and quotes.
3. Certificate of Insurance
It’s easy to take insurance for granted but try not to! You should have general liability coverage on your property (and potentially even an umbrella), and you need to ask the contractor how much insurance they have in your initial meetings. Once you choose to work with one company, have them add your address as an additional insured and send you the Certificate of Insurance.
Pro tip: We also recommend sending the certificate to your own insurance broker to validate that everything is on the level.
4. Awarding the Business and the Contract
Deciding who to give your business to is complicated. There are many factors to consider. Obviously, price is one, which is why we recommend getting multiple quotes. You should also consider personalities. Do you like the contractor? Do they listen to you? Our kitchen contractor never treats me like he thinks my ideas are dumb (even though some surely are), and gently offers different viewpoints and suggestions when appropriate. He also has a great disposition and ungodly amount of energy, which we find contagious. Once you deliberate and decide who you’d like to work on or in your home, you need to negotiate. You may be able to negotiate on price or scope. We did both during this process. We asked the structure company if they’d do the project for $2,000 less and they agreed quickly. In order to get the kitchen cost down, we had to make changes to the scope. You also may be able to negotiate favorable payment terms, which is what we did with the roof. One thing I insisted on with the kitchen – and suggest you do too – is some kind of payment terms where you hold out 5 or 10% (or more if you can) at the end for punch out (step 8) and make sure you BOTH agree that the project is complete before making the final payment. These conversations can be a little uncomfortable, but they’re important. Timing is another important consideration. For example, we needed the floors done before the kitchen so the sanders wouldn’t bump up against the new cabinets. If the flooring company we wanted to work with based on price, feel, payments terms, etc., was scheduled 6 weeks out and our kitchen cabinets were arriving in 3, we would have had to go with someone else to complete the project as quickly as possible.
Pro tip: You may even be able to get a discount for paying with cash, which is what we did to get a landscape design down from $400 to $300.
5. Notice of Commencement (NOC)
As far as I know, this is a Florida-specific notarized document that marks the start of a project. Your state or local jurisdiction may have something similar. It is one step of many in ensuring everyone on a job site gets paid. If an NOC is not filed, the homeowner may pay the contractor and then have to pay all the subcontractors as well. On our projects, the contractor has sent this to us right after we’ve signed the contract, already containing their information and a description of the project. Then, I’ve gone to have the NOC notarized, and then returned it to the contractor, who files it with the authorities.
Pro tip: Ask professionals you work with if they are or if they know a notary. Our insurance broker sent me to her friend, who didn’t charge for the service. Also, if you work in an office, one of your colleagues may be a notary.
Filing a permit with the government ensures the work done on the property goes on record. It also means the work will be inspected to make sure it’s up to code. When the owner decides to sell the property, the buyers will know what work was done, and will know improvements were done according to code. Most of our contractors filed for the permits themselves and charged us the actual cost later. Our tree removal person, on the other hand, handed us the permit application and told us where to drop it off (next door, since City Hall is our neighbor). Permits are required for these phases of our project: roof, structure, kitchen (including the electrical and plumbing), fence, and tree removal. Whenever we replace our water heaters and ACs, we’ll get permits then too.
Pro tip: In our area, if not replacing more than 25% of the windows, you don’t need a permit for them. We learned this with the kitchen project.
After much ado, the project will begin! Communication is key throughout the project, and we suggest making sure timelines and expectations are set up front. The contractor will apply for permits and provide the labor and most of the materials. There may be decisions you need to make along the way. For example, we had to pick our paint color, decorative ceiling tiles, faucet, and backsplash for the kitchen. We also decided on cabinets, sink, and countertop. There may be delays. In the case of the kitchen, we were told initially we didn’t need a permit or inspection because we were not moving any walls. Then, we were told we did need to have an inspection because we moved plumbing and electric. We lost a few days because of this. The roof had its own delays – rain, broken down truck, OSHA training, etc. In the midst of a project, we find it’s important to roll with the punches and be as flexible as you can. Make sure you understand what work is being done, and when too. For example, a small thing like not noticing an electrical outlet in the wrong place can be a very annoying thing to have to live with or fix later. Continually check on progress, inspect, and ask questions.
Pro tip: Breathe! It will be worth it when it's completed.
8. Punch out
Once the project is completed, inspect it yourself, then with the contractor. Since we could see a bit of daylight through our roof in one spot, and since the contractor needs to apply for a warranty on the roofing materials, didn't send final payment right away. Since our floors were bowed upward in a couple of rooms, the structure company came back out and adjust the system under the house. If you’ve negotiated payment terms the right way (see step 4), it will be within your rights to hold out until the contract’s scope is completed.
Pro tip: Some warranties require the contractor to apply for them. Hold out final payment until you receive the warranty information. This is the case with our roof.
9. Release of Liens
This step may also be specific to Florida. Once the project is complete, and final payment is sent, the contractor and subcontractors (that’s ANY and ALL companies that worked on the project) will release the homeowner from any liens.
Pro tip: Ask if the contractor will be working with subcontractors and get the names of those individuals and companies up front.
Note: this is what works for us in Pinellas County, Florida, and you should do some research to see what you need to do in your area.