How to Hire a Contractor | Basement Renovation Series

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Inside: Tips for hiring a general contractor and the start of a series on major renovations; budgeting, planning and keeping the project on time.

There comes a time in every DIYer’s life when hiring out is the best course of action. It’s a case of ‘just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.”  We found ourselves in that very situation with our basement sunroom renovation. We knew what needed to be done. We could understand the fundamentals and steps in theory. But in practice, we knew it would be money well spent and time saved if we hired a professional contractor to do it for us. 

Today, I’m beginning a series on our major basement renovation; walking you through the behind the scenes processes we’ve used to plan the new space, hire a contractor and how we are budgeting for this huge project. This is the biggest, messiest and most expensive project we’ve ever done and I fully anticipate this series will take all year! 

What is the Basement Project? 

I guess I should lay the ground work for you. The basement project has been the one I’ve been desperate to do since the month we moved in. It’s always been a nice to have and not a need to have, but if you know me, you know inefficiency and wasted space are my nemesis. 

This half of the basement has been plagued by inefficiencies since the word go. Three small rooms, carved up awkwardly, separated by an outside wall. My studio sunroom never had a power outlet, the floor sagged so badly, I couldn’t ever make a straight cut and the gaps in the boards were impossible to keep clean. 

Not to mention, I couldn’t store anything in there because the insulation was so badly done, it was almost like it was colder in there than it was outside. 

My grand vision has always been to insulate the sunroom/garden room and fix the floor, pull down the wall between the two most awkward rooms, (making one large, less awkward room) and blend it into the laundry space on the other side. 

On paper, the project looks something like this:

  • Phase 1 – rip up floor, insulate and re-lay solid, level floor 
  • Phase 2 – demolish exterior wall between sunroom and interior space
  • Phase 3 – lay subfloor in laundry room area, in-floor heating in sunroom area
  • Phase 4 – finish gyproc with insulation in the walls, add storage units, closets, and finishings

Let’s talk about hiring a contractor, shall we? 

Finding the RIGHT Contractor for the job

The truth of the matter is, I started interviewing potential contractors for this job almost four years ago. It was so important to me that I find the exact right person and team for this job. My intention with the ‘interviews’ was to test them to see how they’d tackle the job, what limitations they identified off the top and if they were willing to give a moderate time estimate for how long they thought it would take. In fact, if you’re doing a really big renovation – like a kitchen, a home build or an addition – This Old House suggests you get full blown bids on the work before making any decision. 

A couple contractors clearly didn’t want the work and gave me huge, lofty time estimates – like three weeks. When I knew Phase 1 was only going to be a week at most. 

We had contractors in a few years ago to do our Master Closet renovation. They moved a wall back a few feet, replaced the flooring and widened the closet opening from 22″ to 48″. We gave them first rights to quote the basement job and, at the time, we felt they came in way too high. What actually happened was they weren’t able to communicate to us that we could do the work in Phases. 

Walk-in Closet
Building a Walk-in Closet

When we finally found our current contractor, he looked at the space and gave us a clear outline of what the work, scope and timelines could look like. It gave us the ability to see costs in chunks rather than one giant bill. Somehow, it’s easier to plan for three $5,000 bills than one $15,000. 

Signs of a Good Contractor

There are a few things you need to know about your contractor before hiring them. The first is that they have full liability insurance for themselves, their business and any subcontractors who will be working on site. 

You also want to gather a few referrals. Any contractor worth their mettle will gladly give you the contact information for past clients. Call them. Find out if they are as good as they say they are. 

A good contractor won’t have any problem putting everything in writing for you either. Whether it’s an email quote outlining the job, an official quote document that lists specific materials – it doesn’t really matter. The fact is, you should have something in writing before you start. 

Showing up on time is a big one for me. If the contractor says they are starting work at 8am, the expectation is that they are set up and literally ready to start work at that time. Remember, most will bill based on hours – so any lost time in set up is time that is eating into your bottom line. 

Working with Contractor’s Expert Knowledge

It’s always nice to have a contractor who can see the bigger picture. What I mean by that is, someone who can anticipate things you’ll want before you realize it yourself. In the case of our basement, our contractor was able to foresee that we’d want a warm floor, and create an end project (after Phase 1) that will easily allow us to install in-floor ambient heat. 

Further, he was able to flag any potential problem areas before starting ANY work. We had some puckering of our outside siding on the sunroom. Our contractor was very clear the he would not continue any cosmetic work on the floor until he’d determined the puckering wasn’t being caused by a rotten joist or beam. He was also upfront with us on what that could mean for the entire project. If the beam had been rotten, it could’ve derailed our entire renovation because the replacement cost would have increased our overall budget by about 25%. 

Luckily, the beam was fine and the crooked siding just needed to be replaced. 

The last thing you’ll want to get from your contractor is information about waste disposal. This is a part of home renovations we often forget about – but they create A LOT of garbage and refuse. Make sure your contractor has a plan for dealing with waste and debris and that it is part of the overall contract. 

I’m so excited to be into this project and I cannot wait for the next phases! I know it’s going to get ‘worse before it gets better’ in terms of the mess and the noise, but I’m living in the moment when I get to walk through my basement, with warm feet, look around at an open, creative space that is bathed in natural light!

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