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How To Avoid Getting Screwed When Dealing With A Contractor

flickr / Amanda Tipton

Sometimes, picking the right contractor feels like more work than just fixing it yourself. It’s a nerve-racking experience. You have to trust another person with your home, and – unlike you – they’re not going to be living there when the work’s done. Picking the wrong person can mean delays, ballooning costs, shoddy work, or worse.

the money pit movie

If there’s one person who knows how to get good work at a fair rate, it’s Scott McGillivray. The host of HGTV’s Income Property, Scott’s seen his fair share of contractors and is an expert in two things: home repairs and how to spend your money wisely. Here are his tips for making sure you’re paying the right price for the right work.

Do The Research

You know how you feel like there’s no consistent baseline for cost of services when you’re hiring a contractor? Well, you’re right. “There’s really no system in place for pricing in this business,” says McGillivray. “If you don’t understand or have a little bit of background on terminology, you can be a target.”

He says the best way to avoid becoming a target is to learn the basics and know what exactly needs to be done. “Let’s say it was a bathroom renovation,” McGillivray says. “I’m going to engage the contractor and say, ‘I’m going to totally redo this bathroom – but I’m going to keep this toilet flange here for simplicity.’” McGillivray says just knowing the words “toilet flange” might just save you $2000. Because if you let your contractor move it, you’ll need a permit and your costs will skyrocket.

under the tuscan sun villa

Be Sure To Shop Around

It doesn’t matter if your neighbor used Hal from Wrench Dip Plumbers: McGillivray says you must shop around. Because there’s more than one way to do any job and more than one price to do it. Talk to one contractor and you’re going to do it their way, at their price. And that could lead to increased costs and a nice glob of egg on your face.

You want to get at least 3 quotes before hiring anybody, and call twice as many contractors as you need. “If you contact 5 or 6 people,” says McGillivray, “you’d be lucky if half of them show up.” And you also want to use an online database like Home Advisor which offers reviews and references. “Under no circumstances do you want to go with someone who says, ‘Let’s not get permits on this, it’s not a big deal’,” says McGillivray. Because, well it is.

Don’t Skimp

One of the most common mistakes McGillivray sees is people opting for the lowest estimate. “Only rich people can afford to be cheap,” he says. Meaning, if someone can fix your house for next to nothing, they have to be doing something to keep their costs down. And that might end up costing you a lot more.

Take, for example, retiling your bathroom. McGillvray says the variety of estimates can be staggering and if you get a cheap quote from somebody, they’ll just tile the shower and the bathroom. “But if you find a contractor worth his work belt, he might say, ‘I’m going to suggest an uncoupling membrane be installed first and then a waterproof membrane being installed in the shower’,” he says. That second option is going to cost you an extra $1000 – but you won’t get mold, your tiles won’t crack, and you won’t have to pay to get all that work done all over again.

life as a house movie still

Get Everything In Writing

Your contractor is going to give you an estimate, but it’s just an estimate. The price and the timeframe they give you might change – unless you get it in writing. This means obtaining a “scope of work” — a signed contract between you and your contractor that lists everything that’s going to be done, how much it’s going to cost, and how long it’ll take. “That is your protection as a homeowner,” says McGillvray. “Anything discussed outside of that doesn’t exist.” That goes for the money, too. “Don’t pay in cash,” he adds, “as you’re eliminating the paper trail.” If you’ve watched a lot of crime movies, that’s not necessarily a good thing to do.

Be Open To Change

“Not everything goes exactly the way you imagine it,” McGillivray warns. If your contractor takes out the drywall and finds out your house is insulated with cotton candy, it’s not their fault.

If such a thing happens, then get that in writing, This is called a “change of work order” and the document says what’s going to change and how much it’s going to cost. “If you don’t put it in writing, then it may not happen,” says McGillivray. Worse yet: “it may happen – and you get a surprise bill later.”

When it comes to the place you live, the last thing you want is surprises. But as long as you do the research and get everything in writing, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to get — and you’ll get exactly what you asked for.