hiring a contractor, or how not to cry endlessly

Should anyone be staring down the barrel of an impending renovation, here are my tips for the bidding process, as learned through my experience and watching clients' over the years:

  • Before calling anyone, write out in as much detail as you can what you want done.  This will clearly depend on how much you know about renovation, but try to think in detail.  Do you want to have all the trim (baseboards, door frames, etc) replaced, or refinished, or left alone? Do you need a lot of new light switches put in? Are you moving any plumbing? Writing it out room-by-room in a bulleted list will help get your quotes as accurate as possible.  Give this to whoever you have submit a bid.  There are templates online to help you out.
  • Get recommendations from friends.  Lots of them.  Angie's list is apparently great, too.
  • Specify who is providing what materials in a written list.  If you've got a guy for tile or lighting, fine.  No decent contractor will have an issue with you providing some of your materials, but it might be worth having him price it out for you as well.  Cost benefits aside, when the contractor is in charge of ordering, he is also making sure everything arrives on time for his workers.  If you're going to buy something major on your own, you should coordinate closely with him, or else you'll end up one of two situations: a huge pile of materials delivered way too early, requiring the workers to move it every time they need to get something done (kill me), or else the project is stalled waiting for your crap to show up.  Most contractors are happiest when you tell them what you want, and they go get it.  The price will not be drastically more this way, either. 
  • Get three quotes, at least.  But more than five is excessive.  No one needs that many.  3-5 different companies will give you a decent spread on prices, but don't always go with the lowest.  Actually, the middle might be your best bet - often the low-end guy does crappy work.  There's not a huge margin of profit in construction, despite whatever you've heard.
  • Everyone must have all the insurance.  I'm not kidding, don't mess with the randos unless your job is small and uncomplicated.  You flirt with disaster, sir.
  • See if you can check out their work.  You'd be surprised how many former clients are willing to either speak to you or even let you into their houses to see.  I happily spoke at length to someone about Leo, my foreman.  I sang his praises.  Anyone else wanna talk to me about Leo? I totally will.
  • Check with your building if they have any requirements.  After-the-fact surprises suck.
  • Do you need to file permits? First off, if your building requires them, end of story.  But if you are simply replacing finishes at their current locations (e.g. new tile, new appliances, new flooring, new drywall, etc), then you only need a permit if your building is mean.  Simple updating without a permit is totally legal.  Also any walls that are not load-bearing are cool.  The easiest question is: are you moving plumbing? If not, you're probably fine.  
  • If you are moving plumbing or load-bearing walls, however...woe to you.  Plan for a few grand and at least two months waiting time if you have to file with the NYC Buildings Department.  In the most Italian-sounding thing I've ever heard, you seriously cannot get your drawings approved in this city without an expediter.  This is a person whose job it is to take your money to make sure all your paperwork is filled out correctly (actually helpful), and then to expedite the process of waiting for the department to look at it (total bullshit).  I assume this is nonsense on the part of the city, not the expediters, because the permits should be looked at according to when they were submitted, end of story.  And yet.  What the hell does expediting even mean? It is immensely vague and will cost you a few months' rent.  That is some Rome-style shenanigans right there.  Out in a Jersey Shore town my clients owned in, the wait was one week.  And the contractor was bitching about it! I laughed in his face! Then I apologized, because that was unkind.
  • Once you have picked a company, request a detailed list outlining exactly what work is included.  When they don't bother, insist on one.  Do not sign a contract without it.  I got burned a little in this.  Extra Item one was a legit add-on due to some absurd extra plumbing work that he could not possibly have known about until we opened the walls - ok, that's extra work I should pay extra for.  Fine.  But when they removed my lovely platforms, the baseboard radiators were still attached to the wall in cracked-out z-shaped lines that followed flooring that no longer existed.  I had very, very, very clearly said in our initial scope that I wanted those replaced, but it was all verbal.  Al insisted that he hadn't known I would want that done.  Bullshit.  It looked INSANE.  But I didn't have it in writing, so I had to pay extra for it.  This was the only time I was annoyed with Al, so I forgave him.  But still.