Regardless of where you call home, my goal is to improve your remodeling success story by sharing information to help you make a better decision. I believe that everyone benefits when more educated consumers demand higher performance from home improvement contractors. In the Philadelphia and Main Line suburbs where we work, there are contractors who provide only construction and other builders who offer combination one-stop shops that can handle design, planning, and production (Design-Build firm). Other contractors fall somewhere in between. How will you know if a remodeling outfit can handle your project or if you will need to find a separate design team? It largely depends on your project requirements.
You already know that a custom remodel of your kitchen, bathroom, or building an addition to your home can be a deeply rewarding experience. Finding the right partner to bring your vision to life is a top priority. You need to choose a contractor who understands your design vision and can bring it to life. Whether you hire a carpenter-contractor, a general contractor, or a design-build firm, you should learn how to select the relationship and service that provides you with the best experience possible. Even a minor basement remodel can be a big deal when workers interrupt your family’s personal space to complete an extended project.
1. Planning Your Renovation to Include a Pre-Construction Phase
Don’t let anyone tell you that your project is easy and won’t require much planning. Even a remove and replace of fixtures or cabinetry merits some serious forethought. Horror stories about bad contractors usually begin with an excited homeowner easily convinced to start construction without insisting on a full confirmation of the project details and at least some exploration of their options. A contractor never intends to ruin its reputation through poor service. It’s just too tempting for undisciplined parties to blindly jump into a project together. Similar to car accidents, a cautious driver can usually avoid a careless driver but when careless and inattentive drivers meet there is higher risk.
Does your contractor provide some version of a pre-construction phase? Most contractors won’t have an in-house design team but that doesn’t preclude thoughtful conversations about the pros and cons of your intended kitchen layout. Have you considered how to arrange the work areas? Where will furniture go? How about the kitchen configuration or work triangle? Should you consider a pocket door solution to improve flow? The less experience a contractor has the more pre-construction management is needed. The more complex your project is, the more you should slow down and find answers to these questions: How much pre-construction planning is enough? When should you bring in a design professional to help? Should your designer be a friend, a 3rd party project manager, an interior designer, or an architect?
A thorough pre-construction process for a mid to large scale renovation normally culminates in a complete set of plans with elevations and a written scope of work. You should also ask for a few perspective views in order to help clarify the final appearance.
Most homeowners don’t have the architecture or design experience that would help them interpret floor plans. Perspectives can be crucial in setting expectations and raising concerns early.
You need to feel comfortable with your contractor since you will be relying on them and spending time working through many decisions together. It is important to find a contractor that pays attention to details and is not only good at delivering the end result, but documenting what success looks like before construction begins. Plans, perspectives, and clear scopes of work are not only important between you and your contractor but for the builder and her or his team. Alternately, if your contractor plans to be on site for 8 hours every day until the project is finished, then the documentation may be less important. Spoiler alert: Your contractor will not be at your project every day, so get it all in writing.
2. Checking for Positive Reviews and References
If you are like most homeowners, you will begin by searching for home remodeling contractors online. In the Philadelphia and Main Line region, Houzz.com and NARI (National Association for the Remodeling Industry) websites both work well. Sometimes Angie’s List and Yelp! have information but usually for smaller or specialty contractors like painters and electricians. Porch and Home Advisor (formerly Service Magic) can help but often push you into contacting a provider before you are ready. There are some other websites but I suggest that you take some time to check out the players and then explore a few qualified firms to ask about their pricing approach without any pressure.
Most reputable and seasoned contractors should have reviews (usually shown as X out of 5 stars) on multiple review websites. A reliable firm should be rated between 4-5 stars. As usual, reading through the bad reviews is most helpful in order to determine if the bad reviews were legitimate and to see if the contractor responded appropriately to any upset customers. Some review sites are worth more than others but if a contractor makes mistakes and fails to take care of their clients even a few times then it’s likely to show up online. In some rural areas, I have worked with older contractors who are quite good and have no interest in setting up a website or getting involved with the internet. They find work through word of mouth (referrals from past clients) and will not show up much on the web.
Regardless of their web presence, all home remodelers will be able to provide multiple references from past clients. Obviously you won’t be given the number for anyone who’s project turned out badly, but references are helpful if you are willing to ask thorough questions about the overall experience. The most honest feedback is from your friends and family who can guarantee honest feedback. Try starting with those leads, but make sure that the scope of work is a good match. A contractor skilled at small jobs may not handle large jobs and vice-versa. One last strong suggestion is to make sure that the company has been in business for 5 years or more.
3. Ensuring Good Communication
Getting professional advice about how to approach your particular project shouldn’t be difficult since most qualified professionals in the building industry are happy to talk with you about their process before you engage them. Everyone has a slightly different approach but their ability to clearly communicate how they will work with you is a must. A successful working relationship begins with a solid initial connection but continues only if there is a clear plan for communication at every stage. Your confirmation that the contractor has a solid success record (good reviews and references) suggests that their communication has been good and that their communication systems have worked well for their clients. That doesn’t replace the need for you to find out how they plan to support that connection through pre-construction and production phases. Communication in every aspect is important to the success of the project. Clear intentions for process, scope, plans, and timeline must be communicated to you both verbally and in your written contract. If they can get your vision on paper and relay your desires effectively to you and their team then your project is set up for success.
Certifications may be optional, such as educational training, or may be required by the town where your home is located. Except in rural areas, a municipal services department is in charge of authorizing contractors to perform all residential work. You can call your town’s building department to see if a particular contractor is currently licensed or not. Home remodelers may have awards for outstanding projects which indicates their commitment to quality craftsmanship and service. Other positive indications are their participation in relevant volunteer organizations or local and national groups such as NARI. Such memberships can build your confidence that they can uphold their commitments to you and your project.
5. Liability and Workman’s Comp Insurance
A certificate of insurance with coverage of 1 million is standard. You should ask for a record of this document called a “liability insurance certificate” and you should have your name listed as “loss payee” printed on the certificate for your records. Make sure that the coverage dates span the project dates. If anything does go wrong with the project, you will be very glad to have it. Additionally, you should confirm that the renovation contractor has a workman’s comp policy in place in the state where you live.
Permit requirements vary by township but generally are required for any project that involves substantial changes to the home. Replacing fixtures, cabinets, and windows in their original locations usually does not trigger permit requirements. A complete gut of a room, repairing/removing or changing structural elements, or changing exterior openings in the house will require permits. Normally, the contractor responsible will apply for the permits, because you don’t want the responsibility of conforming to state federal and local codes unless you are very knowledgeable on the topic. It goes without saying that your contractor must have past experience with all relevant permit and code considerations.
Except in rural areas, each town has a municipal services division serving as the gatekeeper in charge of authorizing and permitting all residential work. The Building and Planning department, as in the case of Lower Merion Township, or Licenses and Inspections department in Philadelphia are examples of the gatekeepers for permitting. These public services have helpful staff who are available to talk with you (you pay their salaries through your taxes!). You are not allowed to work in most towns without processed applications for a permit to proceed with a project.
If you believe that your project may require zoning then you should absolutely be working with either a Design-Build firm or an architect or design professional that specializes in this area. Zoning is normally required during the planning stage as a precursor to the application for a building permit whenever expanding the home in any way. It is triggered when designing any sort of addition, expansion of the roof line (as when adding a roof dormer), finishing a basement or enclosing any outdoor patio or porch. In most townships a zoning application will be required when building a deck and in some cases even installing a fence. There are plenty of exceptions depending your location, and this makes your Building and Planning department an important resource before you get too far.
It is important to note that your town may not give you the permission to build exactly what you are proposing. You may need to change that plan so that it conforms to the local zoning laws for residential alterations. If you decide to appeal the zoning limitations in order to get what you want, then you will be completing an application for a “variance” to the zoning code. Depending on the details of your application, this may be a minor event or you may need to hire a zoning lawyer to help you. Even then you may fail.
It’s up to you to select the home remodeling contractor with the skills to match the needs of your project. They must have the capacity to meet your timing needs and have the past experience to show that they can easily handle your type of project. Go through their portfolio and see if their work standards match up. You can also inquire about their dispute resolution process which should be clarified on their contract with you. What are your options if you are not satisfied with how they managed the bathroom tile installation? What are their warranty terms?
When approached thoughtfully and methodically, home renovations deliver a wonderful life improvement. Selecting the right remodeling contractor will reduce the risks and the stress associated with the journey. Find the right company for you; someone that you can trust to be a steadfast partner before, during, and after the renovations. To succeed is to enjoy the entire process!