Five Tips for Working with Contractors

It’s all about communication.


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Richmond-based contractor Hector Ahumada (right), pictured with manager Davey Cetina (left), has been doing renovations and remodels in the Bay Area for 12 years.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

When Dawn Richardson decided to install a deck in her backyard, she ended up hiring a contractor with whom she’d never worked before. Nonetheless, “it all turned out great,” said the San Francisco resident.

Richardson said the process went smoothly because of several factors: “The contractor kept in close touch, he was good about putting things in writing, and he gave us a realistic idea of what we could get for what we could afford,” she said.

Those three elements — communicating regularly, getting things in writing, and having a realistic understanding of the project’s cost — are essential to having a successful relationship with a contractor. Hiring a licensed contractor and being specific about the scope of the work are two other important elements.

Hiring a licensed contractor is important for several reasons, according to Richmond-based contractor Hector Ahumada, who has been doing renovations and remodels in the Bay Area for 12 years.

“An unlicensed contractor might not know what the codes are, and they might not understand the health and safety aspects,” Ahumada said. “Also, you need a contractor with experience in the work that’s being performed. Don’t get an electrician to do plumbing.”

Few, if any, unlicensed individuals have a bond or workers’ compensation insurance. That means that if a worker is injured on your property, damages your property, or does faulty work, you might be on the hook for it.

It’s important to have a realistic idea of how much work can be done on your budget. One way to figure this out is to get three to five bids.

Often, if a bid is inordinately low, it means the contractor is desperate for the work — not a good sign. Also, a lowballing contractor might hit the homeowner with upcharges for materials or other options.

It all goes back to “the triangle,” said Davey Cetina, who does project acquisition, management, and outreach for Ahumada.

“Do you want it quality, fast, or cheap?” he said. “You can have two, but never all three.

If your budget won’t cover everything your heart desires, start off with the most necessary work and do the job in stages, Cetina said.

Another tip: Be specific about what you want done — or, in contractor jargon, the scope of work — in order to prevent disasters like coming home and discovering the kitchen sink is ripped out when you just wanted a new counter.

Include a time frame and payment terms, as well as how to manage changes to the time frame and budget. And get everything in writing before the job begins.

“If there is no written document, it becomes a ‘he said, she said’ communication,” Cetina said. “Even if your preferred form of communication is on the phone, follow up with a text or email.”

It’s good to settle on a communication plan and stick to it. That way, if there are unexpected delays, the contractor can help the homeowner understand what is happening and how long any delay might last.

One tip that never fails: Treat the crew right.

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