1. Research pays off, but remember who the expert is.
DO research your project before you get quotes. It doesn't hurt to find out, at least generally, the correct way your project should be completed. Look at trade magazines and visit home improvement websites to explore different approaches to remodeling. Sometimes there is more than one way to complete a project. For example, one painting contractor may prefer to paint your room with a tinted primer followed by two coats of latex paint, another may use a one-coat self-priming paint. Find out what industry standards are, what is a no-no under any circumstances or what might work best for your project. A little knowledge gives you power to negotiate the best price for the best work.
DON'T think a little knowledge makes you an expert. Above all, don't think your project will be completed like projects you see portrayed on television. Home improvement television shows are deceiving. There are whole crews bringing the project to a finish in-between the time the camera is rolling. Mistakes are edited out. Remember that every remodeling project is different, and there can be hidden complications. For example, replacing the slider door that's been sticking for the last two years seems like a simple one-day project, but when your contractor takes out the existing door he might find it was not properly flashed by the original installer. Decay, dry rot or mold effecting the underlying framing may require him to do unexpected work. He may not be a shady contractor; he might be concerned that if he replaces the slider without fixing the underlying problem, in a few years you'll be unhappy with his finished product.
Most reputable contractors will keep you informed of any unexpected developments and will discuss solutions with you, including estimated extra costs. They will show you problem areas and explain the process for fixing them in detail. In some cases, they can tell you in advance what kinds of hidden problems they've seen before and whether they think they'll experience the same issues with your remodeling project.
2. Get competitive bids, but don't take the lowest bid offered.
DO get competitive bids. For small projects, calling 2 or 3 contractors is usually sufficient. For larger, more extensive projects, it's wise to have a minimum of 4 to 5 contractors bidding against each other. People will spend weeks researching the best cars and haggling over a car sale when it's time to buy a new vehicle, but don't hesitate to spend thousands of dollars on a remodeling project after mere hours or a few short meetings with contractors.
DON'T take the lowest bid offered, thinking you will be getting the best deal, even if your contractor shows up in a designer polo in a big, shiny truck with custom lettering looking like the perfect professional. Be leery of any contractor eager to bid lower than everyone else. It's common practice for less-reputable remodelers to have "hidden costs" they spring on you later in the project, when everything is torn apart and you feel like you can't back out without extreme inconvenience or loss of what you've already invested.
3. Negotiate for the best price, but don't under-value your contractor.
DO negotiate for the best price. Pick the best contractors, and give them a chance to bid against each other for your project. Most contractors are willing to negotiate. If you can't get them to negotiate on the labor price, ask them to offer you discounts on materials. Most contractors get commercial discounts between 5-25% from suppliers, and may be able to offer you a portion, if not all, of this discount without suffering a loss on the value of their time. Depending on the size of your project, this can equate to significant savings. Some contractors may offer you a much lower labor price to beat out other bids, but make up for it later through high mark-ups on materials.
DON'T get too obsessed with negotiating. Contractors often pay high insurance and overhead costs, especially if they have employees. They want to work for you, but if you want a high quality product, keep in mind that a reputable contractor with good references will walk away from your project if he thinks you are under-valuing his skills. No one wants to be under-valued. Asking for a bottom line price is not inappropriate, but asking him to be competitive with someone he knows to be the worst contractor in town could land you in spot where you have ONLY the bad contractor to complete your job. Be fair.
4. Insist on a contract, and understand its terms.
DO insist on a comprehensive contract. Surprisingly, many people think a contract locks them into a set price, which is not really the case. Anyone can write a number down on paper! The most important aspect of any remodeling contract is the detailed scope of services to be provided. Even for small jobs, this is the key to getting services with a set price. For example, if your contractor is replacing an old window, NEVER accept a contract that says: "Window Replacement $XXX.XX!" The contract should specify whether or not the window will be removed and disposed of (not all contractors dispose of construction debris); whether the new window will be caulked and weatherized; or even whether the old window molding will be re-applied or replaced. Also, the contract should state how long it will take to reasonably complete services, as well as what kind of materials will be used. Insist on high quality fasteners, caulking and other materials to protect the integrity and long-term durability of your project.
DON'T ignore payment terms, which can vary greatly between contractors. Make sure you understand terms fully. Pay your contractor in a timely manner, especially if he's efficient and provides quality workmanship. If you find the contractor is not meeting his end of the bargain, you have every right to withhold payment until a certain portion of the work is completed in accordance with the terms of your contract. Make sure payment terms state amounts to be paid at specified time periods. Having a clear and concise contract legally protects both parties and prevents misunderstandings about what is expected by all.
5. Check references carefully.
DO check references, and if possible, look at a portfolio of finished projects. Try to arrange a visit to a site where the contractor performed work similar to your own project.
DON'T let a contractor's charm sway you. The best con artists can "talk a dog off a meat wagon." If you are investing a sizeable amount of money into a remodeling project, you want to ensure that the contractor has a good track record by calling or visiting client references -- not his relatives. If possible, try to talk with clients who have finished projects more than a year old. Newly remodeled areas always look great compared with the old, but work that still looks great a year or more later is proof of quality workmanship.
Ask these questions about how the contractor worked: Did the project move along smoothly? Did the contractor show up to work daily or have a project manager so the project moved along in a timely manner, or did work go unfinished for days or weeks at a time, seeming to take forever to complete? Did they work haphazardly or clean up at the end of each day to minimize disruption? Some people want a project completed simply and quickly, some want fancy detailing finished to magazine perfection. Decide what services are most important to you, write a list of them and discuss how they will be completed in a reasonable timeline with the contractor.
Laura Foster-Bobroff is a Hometalk - http://www.hometalk.com - writer. Read more articles like this one - http://www.networx.com/article/5-dos-and-donts-for-hiring-contractors - or get help with your home projects on Hometalk.com.