Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Hiring a Contractor: 6 Tips for Beginners

Two years ago, I was nearly 42 weeks pregnant with my second little one and every hour stretched into eternity. Those extra weeks past my due date were exhausting, but probably really helpful in the long run: we’d only just finished our South Austin home renovation, and in our last-minute panic spare time, we set up the house and adjusted to our new space.

And here I am, reminiscing about my baby-turned-toddler, and contemplating a second renovation project here in London. I can hardly believe it, but it’s got me thinking about how we got started in Austin. The first big step, sometimes even before picking a property, is looking for a reliable contractor. But if you’re a total beginner, where do you start?! Here’s how we chose our guy in Austin:

#1: Look for someone with reviews. We started by looking for companies with reviews on Houzz and Yelp. I’d eliminate anyone who didn’t have four stars and up, and often eliminated companies without at least 5-10 solid reviews. We were inexperienced, and we didn’t want to hire someone who might also be inexperienced! Then I scanned the reviews for key words and phrases: “on budget”, “on time”, “polite”, “respectful”, “professional”, “quality”. I also paid attention to the scope of the project(s) mentioned – if a company only had experience with huge, big-budget projects (or the opposite), they probably weren’t going to work for us. (More on this later.) We were looking for someone who dealt with modest additions and home renovations.

#2: Check their website and portfolio. After looking at reviews, I headed to the company’s website to see how they described themselves and the type of work they wanted to do. There’s no point in hiring a contractor who wants to work on million dollar projects to do your modest project, because the minute something bigger comes along, you’re likely to be ignored. Some people might argue that all contractors have to start somewhere, and I’m sure this is true with some companies, but I didn’t want our house (and life savings) to be ceremoniously dumped if a juicier option appeared. I also looked at photos of projects they’d completed: did it look like our style? Did it look like quality work?

#3: Make sure they’re registered with the Better Business Bureau. This type of organization may seem less important in the days of Yelp, etc. but to me, it’s a sign of integrity. Your local BBB will log and handle disputes between customers and businesses, and you can check if a company is registered (and for how long) and that company’s history here:

#4: Read between the lines. I called one company and had a super short chat with a partner there. He gave me their pitch, I told him what we wanted, and he said, we don’t do projects under $250k. (He also said, we don’t build things that fall down, which made me laugh. Like, those are the two alternatives: a house that collapses or a super-high-end architectural masterpiece.) Thank you, goodbye.

One company with a reputation for doing mid-range, high-style projects couldn’t return our calls. Message received.

We found a contractor we really liked, and on their website, they featured a remodel for a house one street over from ours. The style looked great and they had a strong reputation – sounds great, right? We held a meeting at their office and went over our plans. The guy was totally unenthusiastic and his ballpark estimate was definitely out of our price range. When we asked him about the house in our neighborhood, he kind of shrugged and dismissed the question until we brought it up again. Turns out that project was for a family member – someone’s sister-in-law. Suddenly, the guy’s attitude made more sense: they didn’t usually work with our style of house (that is, 1960s ranch – they preferred older homes) and they didn’t usually work with our budget. We moved on.

The next contractor was a guy in his 50s: very friendly, professional, great reputation – he met me at the house to discuss our plans. His estimate was 50% over the top of our budget and didn’t even include everything we wanted. He told me it wasn’t possible to get what we wanted for our budget. He also had a six month lead time before he could even begin to work on our project.

I started to think that contractors were overbidding for our project because they didn’t want it – and I was right. Austin is a highly competitive market for anything involving real estate. Successful contractors with a lot of capital have their pick of projects, and ours simply wasn’t glamorous or expensive enough to justify their time, so they jacked up their prices to discourage us (or rake in a big profit if we agreed, I guess).  Once I learned to think about our project from a contractor’s point of view, the process became much easier. I started pitching our project as the Toyota of home renovations: I’m not looking for a luxury product, just something functional and reliable made with safe, quality materials (and a hint of design). The pace started to pick up, and the next contractor I spoke with was “the one.”

#5: Choose someone you respect – and who respects you. You’re going to spend a lot (A LOT) of time talking with your contractor, so pick someone you respect. Between my husband and me, I knew I’d be the person working most closely with our contractor. He worked full-time and I was a “stay-at-home” mom. (Of course, anyone who’s done that job while pregnant knows it’s hardly a walk in the park, but it was more flexible than my husband’s schedule.)

Also, my husband really didn’t have the vision for this project. He was on board, but he couldn’t see it. He also had very little experience with construction, whereas I’d grown up with a Mr. Fix It dad (also an engineer) and worked with Habitat For Humanity, so I felt more confident talking about the process. So I needed a contractor who I wanted to work with AND one who was willing to work with me – not so easy, it turns out.

All of the contractors we met were male. Most of them were at least a decade (more like two) older than I was. If my husband was in the room, they spoke to him – even if I’d asked the question. One contractor – the one who overbid to discourage us and told me we’d never get what we wanted for our budget – said as his parting remark that he’d be happy to go over all of this with my husband since he was probably the one making the decision.

Uh, no. Absolutely not. I am not going to pay someone who thinks it’s acceptable to engage in overtly sexist behavior. In the end, the contractor we hired was a man, but he was younger – pretty much my age – and totally comfortable working with me.

#6: Be completely up front about your project from the minute you first meet your (potential) contractor until you shake hands at the end. Tell them what you want. If there are things you’re not sure about, speak up. Give them your actual budget, including your contingency. (We did generally wait until we’d had a rough estimate from contractors before revealing our magic number, but I’d done enough research to know I wasn’t asking for the earth.) Tell them how you’re paying for it – cash, finance, or both. For example, we told our contractor that we’d being paying cash. Bonus: no delays waiting for the bank to release the funds. Downside: once the money was gone, it was gone. That number included our contingency for any problems that emerged, and he needed to know that up front. Honesty now makes everything else so much easier later.

I could actually keep writing about #6, but I think I’ve held you hostage long enough. Maybe next I’ll tackle tips for a successful relationship with your contractor! If you can add to this list, feel free to comment below – and good luck finding “the one”.



Texan, teacher, writer, reader: that’s me in a nutshell. Originally from Texas, I now live in London with my husband (he’s a Brit) and our two boys. I spend my time devouring books (especially young adult/middle grade fiction), baking cookies and generally going in ten directions at once. More than a decade ago, I moved to London for a teaching job, met my husband, stayed, and started a family. The last few years have been a whirlwind: in 2013, we moved to Austin, TX and I decided to stay at home with our son; in 2014, we bought and renovated a house in South Austin; in 2015, we welcomed our second son at a local birth center...and in 2016, we packed up and moved back to London! 2017 is set to see more changes as our eldest little starts school and I head back to the classroom. Read on for renovation info, book reviews, creative writing posts, and the general flotsam and jetsam of my life.

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