Brownstone Boys Renovation Diary: Contractor Shopping and How to Choose the Right One

We're going to be as hands-on as possible during reno

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 11th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary. We’re excited to publish their tale of buying and renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

Our renovation project is approved, our neighbors are notified (DOB requirement), and we are ready to get a contractor in the building. We provided the architect’s detailed drawings to the contractors we were considering so they can build out their quotes. If you’ve followed along you know we have a tight budget. We had to adjust our project several times to make sure we stay on budget. We hoped we were going to spend about $200,000 on the labor and rough materials (so basically the contractor’s proposal, not including finishes).

However we knew that was going to be a stretch. Our first choice for a contractor was one that we worked with on a past project. We’re familiar with his work but we know he can be a bit more expensive. His proposal came back at $270,000. We thought about continuing to cut down our project, but we are down to the necessities. So, we decided to bid out the job. The process got us thinking about what our shopping list for choosing a contractor should be. Price is important but there are so many horror stories we’ve heard about bad contractor experiences. How do we put ourselves in the best position to avoid that?

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One of the first things we did after purchasing our home was a full walkthrough with our initial contractor and architect

1. Price. Most contractors figure out their pricing based on cost of materials, labor, insurance, complexity of the project, etc. So when they run the numbers they shouldn’t be too far off. However there can be some key differences in figuring out the price. Do they sub work out? Or do they have crews that do all trades? We need to be able to pay for our project, so either we need to reduce the scope or go with a contractor who bids within budget.

2. Communication. Most of the horror stories I’ve heard are about contractors not showing up, falling far behind schedule, not returning calls, and generally not being available. The communication before starting is a good indication of the kind of communication you’ll get during the project.

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Our project is considered an Alt-1 renovation so certified letters must be sent to our new neighbors letting them know details of demolition

3. Reviews. Any experienced contractor should have tons of reviews out there. There are websites like Brownstoner, Houzz, HomeAdvisor, Angie’s List, and others. Surprisingly, one of the ones I felt the most comfortable with was Google. You have the ability to click on the reviewer and see other places they left reviews. It was pretty clear that they were real people (you never know).

4. Past work./referrals Most contractors have websites with photos of past work. (Although I don’t necessarily think a basic or lo-fi website in the construction industry should be looked down upon too much.) You can also ask for referrals to past customers to speak with before moving forward.

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We helped remove the current kitchen to make way for the contractor and crew

5. In-person meeting. I know that we are going to spend a lot of time with our contractor throughout the project. There will be stressful situations and lots of decisions to make. I want to make sure that the person can explain things clearly, make recommendations, and be generally easy to work with. The in person meeting helps with getting an understanding of how the person communicates and how those stressful conversations might go.

6. Knowledge. At this point in our project, we’re very familiar with every part of it. As we walk around with our contractors and talk about each area it’s very easy to understand how much knowledge and experience they have. I had a few questions ready to ask for each area to see how they respond.

7. Licensing and insurance. Most general contractors are licensed and have insurance, but obviously it’s important to confirm.

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The backyard as it looks now. Our work is cut out for us

We’re not professionals, but those are the things we thought are important. If there are things you would consider let us know! For now, we have selected a contractor based on the items above. We found someone who is not only very close to our budget, but he has been excellent at communication, has great reviews and prior work, and he seems very knowledgable on every area of our project. Our in-person meeting went great, and he has already been very helpful.

Since we are working with a new contractor, we tried to be as diligent as possible. There is a bit of the unknown and nerves working with someone new, but we feel that it was more important for us to not have to cut more from the project.

After months of planning we finally have a demo start date of Tuesday, January 22!

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