What does a contractor look for in a client?

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I'm curious about the pink area rug...

The contractor interview is actually a two-way street.  You are sizing up the contractor and he is doing the same right back atcha.

 He’s looking for signs that you will be a nervous or unreasonable client, slow to pay, calling him up at all hours with questions and worries, unable to make a decision or changing your mind all the time, untrusting.

Prickly Pear Cactus - wikipedia picture

We are upfront with contractors about our clients …sometimes you are what I call a ‘prickly-pear’, rough on the outside but you have a good heart.  Or maybe you and your significant other argue all the time, which is OK, if that’s how you roll, but the contractor should be warned about that. 


Are you an unreasonable penny-pincher?  As in that guy who insisted on doing his own demo, and removed too much, putting the entire project in jeopardy with the City?  (the City had rules about how much you can demo and still call the project an addition)

Do you enjoy the contract negotiation process?  Maybe a little overmuch?  Just because you are paying less, doesn’t mean you’re getting a good deal.  Remember, it’s a service, not a product.  You might end up negotiating out of the contract all the little niceties that the contractor does for his client at his own expense (often unbeknownst to the client).

 Does the cost of everything shock you?  Do you continue to grouse about it?  Over…and over…and over… 

Feed me!

Have you done a project like this before?  Or are you a newbie?  Newbies can require more hand-holding from the contractor.

 Are you always right?  Even when you aren’t?  And believe me, you aren’t.

At least she has protective goggles...

Will you be living in the home while the project is going on?  That means the contractor has to be more careful with the jobsite, especially if you have children.  Just something he must consider when he does his pricing.   There are also timing and coordination issues if you are going to live in one area while work is being done there and move to the new area so work can be done in the old area – all subs will be called out TWICE to the job – eliminating a lot of efficiency.

 Are you so busy at work you won’t be available when he needs you? 

 We had one project where the hubby was busy and left most of the day to day process to his wife.  But she couldn’t deal with the stress of the project and kept arguing and fussing and carrying on, misunderstanding what was happening and why and what was needed next and throwing everyone into a tizzy – she would call with a question, get an answer and tell her husband, who would then call and say ‘what?!?’ and then say ‘oh, I get it’.  We finally asked that the hubby take her off the project! 

 If you are going to be a pain to deal with, the contractor will include an invisible ‘personality’ clause in his contract to enable him to get through the frustration of having you as a difficult client.

 The contractor/homeowner relationship is one of trust.  If you don’t trust each other, then the project won’t be as happy-making for either of you. 

 If a contractor hates working on your project, then…well, let’s just say you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  You want the contractor and his people to enjoy coming to your project.  If they hate working on your job, then yours might be the job that gets pushed to the side when a more profitable one comes along.  They won’t stop work, but they’ll have pauses between phases whenever they can.

Trust your gut, if you feel uncomfortable about a contractor, for whatever reason – maybe you don’t like his toupee.  Remember he and his team are living with you for weeks and months and a good relationship is of utmost importance.

 Remember, too that you are essentially hiring each other.  If a client is a pain in the patootie, it’s likely that no matter how perfect the job is, the contractor won’t be getting a good referral from him; simply because that’s the way he is – nitpicky, unreasonable and never satisfied – so the contractor won’t want that job.  Trade magazines say over and over that it’s better to walk away from anyone who seems that they would be a very difficult client than try to make them happy.  We’ll just spend lots of time, energy and money trying to please them, but its for naught.

We’ve known Jim & Marion Campisi, of Campisi Construction, www. campisihomes.com ,  for about 15 years.  I talked with Jim yesterday and asked him what he looks for in a client – his idea for a ‘best’ client and a ‘worst’ client and about the process he goes through when bidding on a job.  Here’s what he had to say:

Our best client seems to be a person who is, first of all, trusting and respectful of my abilities and able to work in a partnership.  We work on that relationship from the get-go and I work to understand the clients’ needs.


Clients should try to be confident in their decision-making skills and trust their own reactions and instincts.  Usually, whatever we are initially drawn to is the right decision for us.  When there is a lot of going back and forth, constantly second guessing their decisions, this affects the construction schedule and generally leads to confusion for the clients. 

Clients should also be realistic about their budget.  If you have a budget of $2/sf for flooring – try to stay with that.  If you find something you love for $4/sf, and decide to go with that, you will have to compromise somewhere else in the project if you want to stay on budget.  This can ultimately sidetrack your original vision for your project and lead to a treadmill of delays and a breakdown of your timeline and budget. 

I wouldn’t consider any of my customers to be “worst clients.”  A challenging situation for me though is when a couple is not “on the same page”.  If they both plan to be part of the decision making process, it is important that they communicate with each other before making a decision.  I encourage them both to be present at construction meetings, if possible.  This will ultimately save them time, energy and money. 

My philosophy is service, service, service – which begins during the estimate process.  At our initial meeting, I bring a package to the client with my certifications and license information.   We sit down and spend anywhere from 30-60 minutes going over the project.  This enables me to get to know them and have an accurate picture of their needs, desires and budget.  I then go back to my office and work on a ballpark estimate from demo to completion.  The reason for this is that a lot of times we don’t have all the details such as foundation, electrical, etc.  I try to anticipate that information based on my 20+ years of experience. 

I work to make my estimates and bids ‘real-world’ using worst-case scenario numbers so that I’m not unrealistically low.  I’m proud to say that my estimates are usually within 5% of the final bid.  I will then present the estimate and go over the breakdown.

If clients feel comfortable with the estimate and consider me to be one of the top 3 that they plan to get final bids from,  I’ll take them on a tour where I can show them 2 or 3 homes that are similar in theirs to scope, finish and design and explain how it relates to their project.

When a client comes back to me with their final construction documents, I make 6 copies of the plans to give to my subcontractors to get hard bids from for their work.  I then create a cost breakdown for the project with about 80 different points/line items, some of which have subcategories.  This typically takes from 2-3 weeks as I will go over the numbers with a fine tooth comb many times, making sure I have included everything and arrived at a realistic number for the clients.  From there, I can prepare a final Contract to be presented.  We will go over the full scope of the contract in detail which includes a draw schedule, lien rights, etc.  This can take a few hours to present to the client. 

My goal is for my clients to feel comfortable with me and my team.  I urge clients to ask questions  I want them to feel confident with our abilities, comfortable with our contract and to trust that we are doing the job right.  I’ll do everything in my power to help make that happen.


Thank you, Jim, for your insight into the perfect and not-so-perfect client.

If anyone has questions about the process of hiring a contractor, please feel free to contact me at MyBetterHouse@live.com  😉

oops!  I forgot to include the photo credit.    www.morguefile.com  unless otherwise noted.


How to Hire a Contractor

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Site Plan and 3Ds of house, Sheet A-1

So, you’ve got a set of construction documents for the house/addition/remodel of your dreams.  Up to now, you’ve been paying out money for a wisp, an idea.  Its really going to start happening! 

 But first you need to hire a contractor.

You’ve heard the rumors, you know a friend of a friend of a cousin who was burned by their contractor, took the money and left, put in substandard products, cut corners every which way. 

 The movie ‘Money Pit’ (1986) with Tom Hanks, Shelly Long and Alexander Godunov (I probably didn’t need to mention Alexander G but I really liked him…) is a hilarious and sad-but-true commentary of what can happen if you don’t vett your contractor very well. 

Required viewing!!!

 Its good to be wary, if that caution leads you to doing due diligence. 

 The success of any construction project hinges on a capable contractor. 

 You’ll be getting bids on your project, but the cheapest guy doesn’t always win.  We’ve had clients receive bids from 4 contractors.  3 were all within a few thousand dollars of each other, maybe within 5% of each other.  The other was waaay below that, about 15% less than the lowest of the other 3.  What would you do?  Take that bid?  Run, run away…well, maybe I’m kidding…maybe.  However do NOT sign on the dotted line without checking the bid over VERY carefully, item by item.  Have the contract read by an attorney.  Why is it so much lower?  Did that contractor miss something in the project?  What is the difference between that bid and the others?  Something is weird, what is it?

Look at the bid process as an interview.  You want to hire a contractor with whom you ’click’.    You will be married to this person for the duration of the project.  In your home at 7am, you’ll have his number on your speed dial.  You are interviewing the contractor and the contractor is interviewing you, too – subject for another post.

 (oh, while I’m thinking about it…DO NOT GO ON VACATION DURING YOUR CONSTRUCTION PROJECT!!!  …more on that in a minute…)

 Yes, price definitely has something to do with it.  Everyone is on a budget and everyone wants to get the best value possible for their money.  But, and this is a very BIG but, the value you seek is in the service delivered, not the product.

I can't imagine why anyone thought this was OK to do.


If you hire the cheapest contractor without properly checking his references and bid, you will pay for it in frustration and probably in nickel-and-diming-you-to-death change orders.

Does the contractor have referrals where you can actually see the work that was performed?  Not just a verbal reference, can you tour a house or two or three?

Here is a link to the Contractors State License Board  http://www.cslb.ca.gov  Make sure the contractor has a valid license.  This site also provides information on License Classification, Bonding, Worker’s Compensation Insurance and any complaints against them. 

10 TIPS for hiring a contractor from http://www.cslb.ca.gov

Get to know the contractor.  Is this a person you can trust with this large amount of money?  Will the job be performed quickly, efficiently and neatly?  What is his/her attitude regarding working with the City and the Architect?  You want someone who doesn’t point fingers but works to resolve any issues, with no badmouthing.  Someone who is relaxed, easygoing and has good past experience with Building Inspectors, Architects and Engineers.

On HOMETEC Architecture projects, if a client has hired a contractor we haven’t worked with before, we ask for a meeting with the contractor to go over the drawings, framing plans and details so we can get to know each other. 

Not a good fit...

 Many Architects aren’t familiar with the nitty gritty of framing a house.  But Rick is also a contractor and it’s important that our client’s contractor understand that he’s familiar with wood frame construction.   That way, if a problem arises on the job, s/he is much more likely to call us to talk about solutions.

 If a contractor refuses to call and ‘solves’ the problem on his own, its possible that the solution will ‘fail’ during City inspection.  So a small problem frequently becomes a large one.  Simple communication between us all is important.

 We actually phase our projects so that clients get estimates when they are happy with the design.  After they’ve confirmed the project is within their budget, then we move forward with construction documents.  The nice thing about this is that the client has begun developing a relationship with contractors.  It’s a sifting process, not a ‘last one standing’ contest.

Here’s a list of questions we give to every potential client:

 Questions to ask before hiring a contractor

 Q:  How long have you been in business? 

A:   Experience can relate to the size of the job he’s best qualified to build.

 Q:  What types of jobs have you done? 

A:   You want lots of experience with your type of job.

 Q:   Do you have any references? 

A:   Get them and check them out!  Ask them:  How did the job turn out?  Was it done on or near schedule?  Why not?  How were problems handled?  How were the sub-contractors on the job?

 Q:   Will this job fit into your schedule?

A:    Does that dove-tail with your timeline?  If not, can something be worked out?

 Q:   Who will be in charge of the project?  Can I meet him/her?

A:   That person might not be assigned yet, but you do want to meet and feel comfortable with the person.

 Q:   What are your quality control procedures?

A:   A 3-tiered system of quality control is common.  First is the foreman or lead carpenter who is on-site during almost all of the construction.  Next is the Project Manager who should visit your job at least once a week.  Then, the owner of the firm, who must be familiar with your project and available if you have a question or concern that needs top management attention.

 Q:  What if the product(s) I specify are not available?

A:   The full-service contractor will notify you ASAP and work with you to find an acceptable alternative with minimum delay.  We recommend that many of our clients purchase some of their own products because then they can take advantage of sales.  If you find a different flooring product you like better (cheaper? better color?) from another supplier, then YOU can take advantage of it.  But, if you’ve told the contractor that you want LG appliances, then you find a great deal on Maytag, if he’s already purchased the LGs, then too bad for you! 

 Q:  Can construction begin before all items are specified?

A:   You might get into trouble trying to begin the project too quickly.  There’s nothing worse than having to wait 6 week for a fixture or part after your bath or kitchen has already been demolished.  You are going to experience delays as a natural part of the project – get used to waiting, then rushing, then waiting, then rushing.

 Q:   How do you expect to be paid and what are your billing procedures?

A:    By law, a contractor can ask for a down payment of either $1000 or 10% of the total cost of the job, whichever is LESS.  After that, billing may be on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly schedule and should be for work already completed.  NEVER pay for more work than is already done.  Some contractors will have a ‘retention’ system, where a small percentage (5%-10%) or your current bill is held back (retained) by you as protection against unfinished or improperly done work.

 If you have a construction loan, the bank will want copies of invoices, so make sure your contractor and/or his subs are able to provide them.

 Q:  What are the risks of changing my mind on a project detail after the project has started?

A:   A contractor will provide his change order and extra policies info at this point, which should match his contract.  To keep everyone worry free, all changes and extras should be priced out in writing before the work is performed.

 Changes to a project can have a domino effect, overall.  One contractor suggested a change to the client, got them all excited about some extra feature – like changing a window to a door, moving a door or adding a balcony or enclosing a porch.  That change meant having to get a revised T24 Energy Report, structural engineering change AND going back to the City to get approval of the change!  Contractors who haven’t been involved in the design process, sitting with you and your Architect meeting after meeting, should NOT be making design changes!  I’m just sayin’…

 Q:  What do you enjoy most in a remodeling project?

A:   Listen for things like ‘satisfaction of a job well done’, ‘happy clients’, ‘love building homes’.  Run from any contractor who says ‘the money’!

 Q:  When can I expect your estimate/bid?

A:   You might want this information yesterday, but be wary of a hastily provided quote.  In the long run, you will benefit from a carefully calculated bid, which can take 1 to 4 weeks, depending on the complexity of the job.

 Q:  Can I use my own subcontractor or supply my own material?

A:   Hmmm, there’s no right answer to this, but you will get a sense of how accommodating the contractor will be.  AND, will there be any changes in his/her warranty as a result of using your own subs or materials?

 We had one client who wanted to do his own demolition of the areas being remodeled.  OK, the contractor said, with reservations.  When the contractor came back on the job, the homeowner had demolished too much!  And got upset when the contractor said it would be a change order to fix it. 

 Q:  Why should I hire you?

A:   You want someone who is confident but not arrogant.  Will you and your family’s needs be considered during construction (tarping off the construction area from the rest of the house, cleaning up the jobsite at the end of the day, conforming to local ordinances about hours of operation and green building practices)?   

 During our project, the concrete supplier violated the City’s rules about when a project can begin and how long a truck can sit with the engine running.

 Now, I can understand that the concrete has to be continually rotated in its barrel, but the truck sat outside our neighbor’s house for 30 minutes while waiting to unload.   And this is something they do all the time, deliver concrete, so they should know the rules.  They could also wait in a store parking lot – there were plenty large ones about 2 blocks away – and then show up at 7am for the delivery.

 Our neighbors were quite peeved and very vocal about it.  And I don’t blame them.

 If this happens to you, you can be cited and have to pay a fine (YOU, not the truck driver, it’s YOUR project).


Where are all those pipes going? But, you'll notice that there is 'earthquake strapping'...good.

 And now, back to the subject of “Going on vacation during your project”.  A few days are OK.  3 months is NOT OK.  One time our clients were gone for 3 months!  Anytime a product wasn’t available, they weren’t there to pick a new one.  You think this doesn’t happen?  In a previous post I wrote about choosing paint colors that were a color match and the formula changed in the middle of the project?  Well, what if you’ve specified a particular paint (because Planning wanted to know 9 months ago what color you were going to paint your house and that’s the color they approved) but now, its not on Kelly-Moore’s (or Behr’s or Dunn-Edwards or whichever) list and you have to pick a new color.

 Or, the cabinets came in and you ordered the wrong size broom closet…will you live with it (and have to buy a different microwave or lose your ‘message center’) or what?

 Or, the electrical contractor wants a walk-through with you to make sure of heights of light switches and where should the bathroom wall lights be placed and where should the pendants for the kitchen island be?  More towards this direction?  More towards that direction? 

Careful, don't startle him!

  Use your head….you are a contributing factor to the success of your project. 

And don’t forget to have fun 😉

Thanks to www.ThereIFixedIt.com and www.UglyHousePhotos.com for most of the pictures…

Don’t call me cheap! I prefer the word ‘thrifty’


Not a good example of reusing a door!

Clients who are remodeling or adding to their home frequently ask me what to do with their old doors, windows, flooring, etc, where they can be reused rather than tossed in the recycle dumpster. 

And…on the other hand sometimes clients are looking for a less expensive way to remodel and can use what someone else doesn’t need. 

Its not just old, outdated junk you’ll find, sometimes people buy the wrong thing and the store won’t allow a return or they bought too many of an item or they changed their minds…keep an open mind and you might save a bundle.  One’s man trash is another man’s treasure.

Here are a few I’ve discovered:

Craigslist:  They have ‘wanted’ and ‘for sale’ sections.   This definitely worked for us.  We had a bunch of gorgeous bamboo flooring left and sold it on Craigslist.    www.craigslist.com  I posted pictures of the bamboo planking, the end of the box with the product data and a link to the store where we bought it.

Freecycle:  Its a site where you can post stuff you want to give away.  www.freecycle.org  We used this site to give away oak desks and file cabinets. 

ReuseMarket:  I’ve never used them nor have I been to their store.   www.reusemarket.com  But, man, do they have a potload of stuff, and such variety!  From rakes to cars, clothing to windows and nails. 

If you are in Boise, ID, then this place takes donations!   www.shipinc.org  Doors, windows, cabinets.  Be careful taking out the old stuff and they’ll take it off your hands.  Saves you the cost of taking it to the dump or recycling center (where we are charged by the cubic yard). 

Here’s a picture of the lumber from the garage we were thinking of having ‘deconstructed’ – it had beautiful redwood siding in great condition.  Alas, they wanted about $5k for the privilege. 

Just remnants of the garage are left...


This one is in Australia   www.salvagebazaar.com.au so it doesn’t help our clients but it has a good site.

Habitat for Humanity:  www.habitat.org   has something called a ‘Restore’ where they accept donated goods and where you might be able to find a fancy sink, cabinet, potty,  flooring, even paint and save some bucks.   They have stores all over the U.S. and Canada  http://www.habitat.org/cd/env/restore.aspx  For our clients, the closest one is in Oakland, CA.

I just searched for ‘second-hand construction material’ and found sites in different states.  Entered ‘used construction material’ and got different sites.  ‘Recycled construction materials’ would be another one to try.

Its worth looking into.  You might be surprised at what you find 😉

Who cares about water heaters?

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Professional bathers on closed course, do not try this at home.

While the subject of  water heaters isn’t sexy or dramatic and probably won’t give you an ‘aha’ moment, water heaters have a large role to play in the game of energy and water efficiency.

We’ve had a client (thanks, Bill) who forwarded a link to Consumer Reports and their review of tankless water heaters.  It was an interesting article and explained their pros and cons and how long it would take to recoup the expenditure of installing a tankless water heater.  It is very informative and if you are thinking of installing a tankless water heater, this will help you understand what to expect.  Here is the link:


Unfortunately, the idea of you recouping the cost of installing a tankless water heater isn’t something your city or the State of California much care about.  This is the year that many cities and counties begin requiring a base level of efficiency for residential projects over a certain size (the size depends on the rules in your city/county).  This means that each facet of the project must achieve a minimum level of efficiency, aka green points, in order to be approved. 

http://www.builditgreen.org/what-is-green-building/  has info on what ‘green building’ is all about.

Although ‘green building’  is a subject for another time, basically, a project receives points for doing specific things and there is a checklist that’s used covering things like:  deconstructing the building vs demolishing it, recycling materials rather than trashing them, crawlspace moisture control, water-efficient landscaping, using recycled materials in your project, water-efficient fixtures, energy-efficient appliances, diagnostic testing of HVAC system, low or Zero-VOC paint, type of cabinets used…and on…and on…some simple and some not so much.

Using a tankless water heater adds points to the green bottom line and, if you’re like me, you hate the amount of water than goes down the drain while you’re waiting for the hot water, not to mention how I hate being last to take a shower and running out of hot water…you’d think with a husband and two boys that it wouldn’t happen but it has!

cute...no they're not mine...

A tankless water heater waits for you to turn on the hot water faucet, then it comes on and ‘flash heats’ the water.  It doesn’t continually heat water that sits in a big tank until you need it, like with an old-fashioned water heater.  The tankless water heater will keep heating the water passing through it until you turn the faucet off – imagine, virtually endless hot water! 

This becomes especially important if you have a big tub with bubbly jets.  I have a friend who said she could hardly ever use it because it was bigger than her water heater.  Bummer…

Switching over to tankless from regular isn’t for you unless you are already doing more than minor remodeling because you’ll be adding a gas line, manifold system and pex piping.  Water lines will be going directly to every faucet.

If I could add a tankless water heater right now, I would…we did add one to the spec house we did a couple years ago.  We didn’t have to, it was before Green Building had really taken off, but we knew it was an important piece of the reducing-our-carbon-footprint-puzzle, so we included it in the project.

Energy costs only go up and in California being water efficient is almost second nature – or it should be, although I still see people washing their cars in their driveways  and the water continually running from the hose.


 Bottom line:  If you are doing a remodel of the kitchen or bathroom, consider using a tankless water heater.  It might not save you a bunch of money in gas in the short term, but it will also reduce your water bill and let you use your fancy bubbly-jet bathtub with less guilt. 
More importantly, though, its better for the environment and, frankly, that’s good for all of us 😉

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