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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hiring a General Contractor - Dos and Don'ts

cottage porch renovation - before and after
Cottage Porch Renovation - Before & After

Much has been written about hiring contractors, and I've read a lot of it. The horror stories about bad general contractors are enough to keep a girl from even embarking on a renovation project. I'm not here to tell you any scary stories. I've had only good experiences so far. How do I account for my good contractor karma?

I do exactly what the experts advise:
  • Get recommendations
  • View past projects
  • Get everything in writing
  • And pay in thirds (first third on contract signing, second halfway through the job, third upon completion)

But more important, I go with my people-person gut. No project is ever perfect. There will be problems! Invariably I know that I will end up spending a lot of time trouble-shooting with my general contractor, so I like to choose someone I like - and I especially look for a professional with a collaborative spirit. Not a boss, not an adviser, but a team mate.

For this project, we were lucky enough to have friends in the area who had completed cottage renovations, which meant trustworthy recommendations. We asked for names for everything from electricians to carpenters to general contractors and one GC kept coming up - Dan Fischer - a local guy known for honest bids and completing projects on time and on budget. And his craftsmanship! We saw three projects Dan had completed - a sun porch, a bathroom, and a kitchen. All were beautifully done, right down to the nitty gritty details. But more importantly they honored the integrity, scale, and era of the houses.

The only problem with Dan that we could see was that he only worked during fall and winter (he likes to summer at his own cottage in Maine) and he booked up fast. Could we get him on such short notice?

One of the tough things about competing for contractors on the North Fork is the sheer number of renovation projects going on year round - from rehabbing old victorian farm houses to building custom kitchens in new "McMansions". And our entire renovation budget was a drop in the bucket compared to those jobs.

But we had one thing going for us that we weren't aware of yet... Dan loves the old modest fisherman cottages like ours, and the fact that we weren't interested in tearing it down or winterizing it scored us a first meeting with him.