The Lady and the Contractor: 7 Things I Learned While Managing a Renovation
Last year, approximately $24 billion was spent on home renovations in North America. Women are accounting for a majority of those home renovation decisions on where that money goes. We also account for 85% of all consumer purchases including everything from autos to healthcare. Add to that, more and more women are managing projects that range from a simple basement renovation to a massive home gut job than ever before.
Three and a half years ago my husband and I bought our first house. Over a hundred years old and only a few renovations done during that time, the place needed some work. I had a few general contractors quote the job, and after doing a little research on the cost for each separate trade, I was shocked to see how much extra we would have to pay to have ‘a man in charge’.
Because my husband was at work for most of the time the renovation would happen and I was home with a baby, I felt I should take it on. With a little naïveté and a whole lot of learning to do, I said, ‘screw hiring a GC. I am the GC’, and started hiring each trade myself. I received quotes for replacing the floor throughout each three levels, painting all interior walls, completely gutting the kitchen and replacing all doors and windows. I know people who have managed much bigger jobs but for a novice like me, it was definitely a large load. The overall cost of the renovation would be $10K less if I were to manage the job myself! I just couldn’t believe it.
With my 10 month old baby in tow, I stood in our new future kitchen, which was a demo site at the time, talking about measurements for the cabinets with a man who had very limited English. With dust flying around and the smack of hammers in the distance, I craned my neck and squinted my eyes.
“What?” I said many times.
Whether it was the fact that I only spoke English and couldn’t understand him, or possibly because I was a woman, he was visibly agitated. He shook his head slightly, and I’m pretty sure I saw some eyes rolling. For a second, I felt dumb. But only for a second. Then I realized that I was paying him; I was the one in charge.
I put my baby down and let him crawl in the rubble. I pulled out the drawings my friend did for the kitchen cabinets and said, “Here. This is what I want. If you can’t make it happen, I’ll find someone who will.”
And from that point on, I called the shots (with advice from amazingly informed friends and Google). I realized that if anyone sensed I lacked confidence or the ability to make decisions, I was going to get charged more money and feel like a dummy.
If someone didn’t finish a job, they weren’t getting paid. If they couldn’t understand exactly what I wanted and expected, they weren’t getting paid. If someone was agitated with me because I wasn’t on the same page as him or her, that was a problem.
I’m still navigating through challenges with each little project we do, but here are six things that I learned dealing with each trade contractor:
Don’t ever say, “I have to check with my husband.”
I know it’s tempting because I’ve been there. Three beefy dudes in their Caterpillar kicks standing there waiting for an answer about how much you’ll pay them to start the job—it can be intimidating. It’s a great way to stall, telling the seemingly insignificant fib that need approval elsewhere so that you can have more time to make your decision, but let me warn you: the second you pass on power, you lose it. Just say, “I have to make sure this fits into our budget. I’ll get back to you.” Of course you have to discuss this with your husband but you are the GC and you know the project more intimately than hubs at work. You, my lady, are the boss.
Get everything in writing.
Set out a payment schedule after doing a walk through to manage expectations on both sides. Jot down every little detail down so that when he says, “Can I get some money? I gotta pay my guys,” you can check your notes to see if that particular step has been completed. I can’t tell you how many times I would hear, “So can I get that cash for this week?” and I’m standing there looking around trying to figure out what stage we were at in the project. Eventually I learned to have my trusty little list and I would just refer to it and if we hadn’t gotten to that step in the project, I wasn’t rushing to the bank.
Make sure the kids do not distract your meetings with the contractor.
Be able to focus on your conversation with him or you may regret it later when he says, “But we talked about this. You said you didn’t mind that the door opened out and not in.” Even if you didn’t say that, he very well might use your kids as an excuse after he accidentally puts the door to swing outwards. This, of course, has happened to me.
Play the field, don’t commit too quick.
Whenever you receive a quote for a trade, say, “Hmmm, okay, well it’s a bit more than what I expected, but I’ll think about it.” Allow him to think/know that you are receiving other quotes and that you are a deal seeker. You are looking for quality but you’re not about to pay more than it’s worth. Get as MANY quotes as you can possibly handle without going insane. It is the education that lays the foundation for your career as a GC.
Don’t EVER pay until every little last detail is done.
And I mean everything. This is the absolute most important thing. Anyone who has ever managed a renovation will tell you this. Leave a large lump sum for the end so that your contractor doesn’t leave before things get done. Also, make sure to understand how each job fits together from the start so that you can plan out what needs to happen when. For example: Need the cupboard guy to frame counters before booking the granite guy. Need floors to be put in before the cupboards. And so on and so forth. If you have friends who have done this process before, utilize them. I was lucky to have a designer friend who had been through it many times so I bugged the poor girl a lot during that time.
Contractors need to show, not tell.
See samples of each item, baseboards, flooring, doors etc. Don’t ever let them ‘describe’ the item that will stay in your house for the next twenty years. When my contractor described the stone that was to go in the backyard, he said in a thick Polish accent, “It’s gonna be nice. Trust me!” I was taken aback later when I came out to see a not-so-nice pad of stones already half laid down.
Always get a second and third and fourth opinion
Today, as I look at my newly renovated basement that we just did six months ago and see the ripped up walls and torn floors due to a main drain being replaced after the fact, I kick myself. I do this because back when we were renovating the basement, I asked my contractor if that one hundred year old drain should be replaced as our toilet clogged quite a bit. Although we were on a tight budget, I wanted to do things right. He blew it off and basically said, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. He described the job as a big one, motioning up and down and out dramatically, “We’d have to diggy diggy all the way down into the ground and out.”
I nodded and went along with it and then months later when the toilet didn’t flush at all, we had to rip up everything to replace it. Contractors seem to be less eager for these bigger, less sexy jobs. Show me a contractor who is giddy with excitement to do every single job you need and I’ll eat my words.
The reason why I kick myself is that I listened to him even though I had a gut instinct that we were putting a Band-Aid on a corpse. I knew that it would be easier and less expensive to just cover up the creepy old drain but really, I should have known better. I should have asked around.
Trish Bentley is the editor-in-chief and founder of thepurplefig.com. She graduated from The New School University in NYC with a B.A (concentration in writing). She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Parentdish and has written for The New York Press, 12 St. Journal, shedoesthecity.com. She has also published the children’s book, About Town with Benny Be. Trish lives in Toronto with her husband, their two boys and Benny the dog.