How to Find a Contractor: It’s Not Just About Price

On Monday I mentioned that it pays to shop around for the lowest price. This skill is specially important when making large money decisions. You should always shop around when purchasing a car, obtaining a mortage, or hiring a contractor. We've discussed getting the best deal on a car before. We've touched on mortgages, and are sure to discuss them more in the future. Today I want to share my approach to finding a contractor.

The New Roof
We bought our first house in the spring of 1993. The roof was in bad shape and needed to be replaced before we could close the deal. Fortunately, we had a good working relationship with the seller: he offered to grant us a $2,000 credit if we would take care of finding a roofer.

I had never done anything like this before, nor had any of my friends. I looked in the phone book and found a local roofer. When I called, he could sense that I was confused, so he talked me through the process, asking about the size of the house, the slope of the roof, the material we wanted to use, the condition of the existing shingles. He gave me a quote of $2300.

I called two more places. One quoted $2500 and the other quoted $1800. But the last place couldn't do the roof repair for three weeks. Three weeks!?! I needed it done by the following weekend. This was getting complicated.

I got out a sheet of paper and made a list.

CompanyCostLead TimeNotes
Johnny B. Goode$23005 dayslocal guy
Golden Shingles$25003 days
ABC Roofing$180021 daysno weekends

I spent my lunch-breaks during the next two days calling roofing contractors. When I was finished, I had a list of twenty bids. The lowest quote was $1200; the highest was $4800. (I've never figured out why that bid was so out of range.)

I had created this list on a whim, but found it invaluable. After eliminating from consideration those contractors who couldn't meet the time-frame and those that would not offer a strong enough guarantee, I had a list to six or seven potentials. The contractor I hired did not offer the lowest price, but he:

  • ran a family business like mine
  • was willing to answer my questions
  • offered a $500 reduction if I helped on the project (he was short-handed)

Though this contractor wasn't the cheapest, the $1800 net cost was relatively low. A friend and I spent a long weekend ripping off old shingles and nailing down new ones. It was hard work. I learned something about roofing in the process, and for the decade we lived in that house, I was filled with a sense of pride whenever I had to climb on the roof to clean the gutters.

In the summer of 2006, we had to repair a section of the roof on our current home. We didn't call twenty contractors this time, but we did call half a dozen. Again there was wide disparity in the bids: they ranged from a low of $300 to a high of $3000. We chose a company that quoted $800, but which seemed to understand what we wanted.

The Bathroom Remodel
When we bought this house, we knew that the bathroom would have to be remodeled. It was a mess, filled with eighty years of shoddy add-ons:

  • The shower stall was huge, and dominated the room.
  • The plumbing and electrical work were not to code.
  • There was minimal lighting.
  • You could see through to the basement in one section of the floor.
 

 

We went to the Portland Home & Garden Show to get ideas. There we found a company whose work we loved, and invited them to bid. They gave us an estimate of $34,000. That was more than twice what we had planned to pay.

Kris found a web site that matched jobs with contractors, and it paired us with a fellow who gave us a bid of $15,000. That was exactly at our budget (probably because we had to tell the web site what our budget was), but we weren't confident that this contractor was listening to what we wanted. He didn't seem competent.

One of Kris' co-workers recommended another contractor. We met with him, liked him immediately, felt he was playing fair with us, and were pleased that he could meet our timeline. He quoted us $18,000 — $21,000 if we did everything to code and got all the permits, etc. We chose the latter option.

In retrospect, we probably could have spent more time to find a lower bid. But we were pleased with the final results, and plan to hire this contractor again in the future.

Conclusion
When you shop around for groceries, you can save maybe $1 on a loaf of bread. When you shop around for a plasma television, you might save $200. But when you shop around for big-ticket items, you can save thousands of dollars.

Some people feel guilty asking a company for a price quote and then not using them. Don't. That's how it works. The company isn't offended. They quote similar jobs every day. Sometimes they get the work — sometimes they don't. Your priority is finding a company that you can trust to do the work at a reasonable rate.

When comparing prices, be sure you match apples to apples. The deal from Rock Bottom Cabinets might not be so impressive if they don't offer any sort of guaranty on their workmanship. Consider the following when making your decision:

  • Reputation — Ask for references. Check the references. Better yet, search the web. (Angie's List is a good source for information on contractors.)
  • Reliability — Is the company licensed and bonded? Registered with the state contractors board? Do they offer a warranty?
  • Schedule — It's no use taking the lowest bidder if the company is unable to complete the project on your timeline.
  • Quality — Try to get a sense of the quality of each contractor's workmanship. Those who bid on our bathroom remodel brought photo albums to show us. The low bidder didn't.

You can also save money by doing some of the work yourself, but that's a subject for another day!

More about...Home & Garden

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Anne
Anne
13 years ago

Often if you ask for a bid from a contractor who’s plenty busy already, the bid will be through the roof (no pun intended). This might explain why you got such a huge range of bids.

The Hubby
The Hubby
13 years ago

Usually the lowest priced contractors are the busiest, and they tend to take on too much, and they won’t devote the time to your project.

Read about my experience with my plumber:
http://wisdomfrommywife.blogspot.com/2007/01/deal-of-no-deal.html

j&w
j&w
13 years ago

The most important thing in my mind are references. Get as many as you can, call them, and analyze the feedback you receive. I am constantly amazed at the amount of people who don’t check references for reasonably large jobs. Also, guys who will cut corners on licences, permits and insurances “between me and you” are not people I would allow to work in my home. They could be cutting corners on code items etc too.

(I work in construction)

KMC
KMC
13 years ago

I can’t recommend Angie’s List enough (no, I don’t work for them). I just used them to find a plumber to replace my water heater and they guy did a great job. If it weren’t for that resource, I would have started where J.D. did – the phone book. I figured that wasn’t the best course of action. I agree that the lowest bid isn’t always the way to go. It could be low for a good reason.

Allie
Allie
13 years ago

I have an instant decision-making process that blows most possibles out the window very quickly. When I ask a question, do they answer me or do they talk to my husband?

We are on our third architect for our new house. I said I want to be on the sunny side of the house. Two of them put me on the shady side, so now we have a different one (who is great, by the way).

Nicole
Nicole
13 years ago

I find this article to be very true. The tough part is having time to get multiple quotes. I own investment property and when something breaks my tenants want it done ASAP.

To Allie’s point…So many times I hear from the contractor…so did you inherit this place? Did you buy this with your husband? Good Lord, like a woman is not capable of buying property.

Chuck
Chuck
13 years ago

Price is an important factor but you are so right, it’s not the only factor.

A J MARTIN
A J MARTIN
13 years ago

One of the best ways to find a small contractor is a reference from another trusted workman. If you have an electrician or plumber or painter or lawn maintenance guy with whom you have a relationship, ask him for people he has worked with.

These guys know each other through working at the same jobsites and have high standards. Plus their buddy will always have to answer to the referring craftsman.

rocco
rocco
13 years ago

I have had similar experiences with contractors. I also know some people in the business and have been told that if they are too busy then they will give a very high quote because that is what it is worth to them to do the job. They do not get upset if their high quote is not accepted, but if it is then they will make a very large sum of money on the job. So make sure you call around before accepting a bid and if the local guy is reasonable ry o give them the work.

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