I don’t know how it became common knowledge among homeowners that the best way to hire someone to remodel your home is to get three different bids for your project.
I’d call that a fallacy for two reasons. First, you might think you’re going to get apples-to-apples prices to compare, but you rarely do. Second, if your goal is to find and hire the lowest bidder, prepare yourself to accept cheap products and crummy service.
Remodeling a house is not the same as buying a car. If you want a Honda Accord, you can shop around for the best price on that model and the best price on a built-in Bluetooth and iPod charger. You know exactly what’s included, and sometimes, one dealership might charge less for it than another.
When what you’re buying is the services of a housepainter, there’s no standard model to shop around. Each painter uses a favorite brand of paint and provides a different level of service. One painter might use a quality paint for two coats. Another might use a generic paint and skip the insides of the closets. A third might give you a lower price, but you have to buy the paint yourself. And this one might not show up until Wednesday, even though you both agreed he’d start on Tuesday. Another question to ask yourself is, which crew do you trust inside your home? Who is insured?
Same goes for any kind of remodeling project. If you need someone to lay a wood floor, the least expensive of three bidders just might use the cheapest wood and provide the worst service.
Remodeling isn’t a product with a fixed price. It’s a combination of product, customer service, craftsmanship, experience and trustworthiness. Anyone can give you a good price to paint your house; he’ll just use cheap paint and rush through the job.
Shopping for the lowest bid is a recipe for a mess. I know a group of three women who jointly own a vacation home that’s located three hours away from where all of them live. They’ve agreed to remodel the place, and figure they should get bids from three different contractors.
That’s going to be a holy mess.
They could split the task up so each owner interviews a separate contractor, and then compare notes with the others and make a group decision. But Woman A might tell one contractor that she wants a few frills that Woman B doesn’t mention to her guy, and Woman C might decide during her interview that the guest bathroom probably doesn’t need new fixtures after all.
The bids will all be for substantially different projects.
An equally unproductive alternative would be for the women to do a group interview with each contractor. They’ll all be talking at once to make their preferences known and to disagree with each other about the scope of the work and how much they’re willing to pay.
Even if you’re the only one who will decide on a remodeler, you should know that different contractors have different views of how a project will unfold.
Say you want a new wood floor. One contractor might assume you want solid wood; another might estimate for engineered wood; and the third might write up a price for laminate. One might include the underlayment. Another might add the cost of taking the base floor out, while someone else might assume you’ll leave it. Some of the estimates might include the threshold at the doorway and the cost of finishing the floor once it’s in place. Some might be for the floor only. Other questions, who moves the furniture? Who protects your home from dust if the floor requires sanding?
So if you get a bid for $10,000 for your floor, how will you know if that’s fair or too high? I can’t answer that—and neither can you—until you know every single product needed for the job, which part of it the contractor is going to do and which part you might have to hire someone else for; who’s going to draw up the plans; how long the job will take; and much more.
If you get three bids for vinyl siding, will you know which ones include rot remediation or an insulated backing? If you choose the lowest bidder, are you still getting a quality product and an expert installation?
A rule of thumb in remodeling: You get what you pay for. The highest bidder might not always be the best contractor for the job, but there’s a better chance that his estimate includes even the work and materials you won’t see–and probably don’t know you need–than the low bidder who’s just pricing the product alone.
What the low bidder leaves off of his estimate so you’ll hire him will show up on the invoice at the end of the job.
On a remodel, there are just too many moving parts for comparison shopping.
So my advice is: Shop for a contractor you can trust instead of shopping your job around. Ask friends and neighbors for recommendations. Read reviews from rating systems like Angie’s List. Check with the Better Business Bureau for red flags. Interview a few contractors to get a feel for how well you get along and whether you like his or her process. Ask for and call former clients and suppliers to find out if he shows up on time, delivers what he promises, does high-quality work and charges a fair price. How long has the company been in business?
If you hire someone you trust, you won’t have to worry that he’s hiding costs or cutting corners or charging you for work behind the walls that he’s not doing. Face it: Unless you’ve worked in the home-improvement industry yourself, it’s impossible for you to know everything that happens in a remodeling job. Find someone trustworthy who does know.
You’ll feel better about what you’re paying if you hire well and trust that you did.
Jeb Breithaupt, B. Arch., MBA, has been president of JEB Design/Build, an Angie’s List Super Service Award Winner, in Shreveport since 1983. You can contact him at 318-865-4914 or by visiting www.Jeb.net.