By Jeb Breithaupt, B.Arch, MBA
If you ask anyone with any common sense, they’ll probably tell you 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. And nowadays, with technology involved, you can even browse for and purchase a car entirely online, sight unseen.
When what you’re buying is the services of a housepainter, however, 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, and make you 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? Who has a good reputation?
Same goes for any other 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. A lot of the customers we serve at Re-Bath are interested in walk-in tubs. One of my customers recently had a designer come out to give her a quote for a walk-in tub, and the first thing she did when my designer arrived was walk him out to her garage and show him a big box with a walk-in tub inside.
She said, “I bought this tub months ago, and I’m going to send it back.” When the designer asked her why, she told him she had gotten another company to come and give her a quote for a walk-in tub, because she was having trouble stepping over the side of her traditional tub, and she needed to take baths for her bad back and bad knee. The company sent a salesman out from Dallas, and he quoted her a price that she liked, but there was a catch. The tub would be shipped straight to her within 6-8 weeks, and then she would need to call the company back so that they could schedule a technician to install the tub, and that technician would give her a quote for the installation. So when she received the tub in the time frame they quoted her, she called the company, and they told her a technician would call her in about a week, she believed them.
A week went by, and no call. So she got back on the phone and called the company, and they told her it would be another two weeks. Two weeks went by with no word, and she called again. This time they admitted that they didn’t have any active techs in the area and would have to send someone from out of town, and that it would probably take closer to a month, maybe two. When they finally did send someone, he arrived in an unmarked van, dressed in sweatpants, and told the homeowner that this would be the first time he would be installing a walk-in tub for the first time. So she sent him away, and called us, because she knew that we’re a local company that provides materials and installation at once.
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 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 on Facebook or Google. 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, is the president of Re-Bath in Shreveport. You can contact him at 318-216-4525 or by visiting www.rebath.com/location/shreveport.