Long-distance remodeling is fun,” said no one ever. And yet, whether because of a new job or a longed-for second home, a whole lot of people find themselves in possession of fixer-uppers a time zone away. Send in the contractor.
Unless you’re planning to set up camp on site until the work is done, that contractor will be charged with making daily decisions and managing problems while keeping an eye on the budget. So it’s crucial that you connect with someone you trust.
Jean Brownhill, founder of Sweeten, a free service that matches homeowners with general contractors, says that although finding your dream date for a reno sounds daunting, it’s really a matter of following a few steps and trusting your instincts. Her New York City-based company is gradually expanding into larger metropolitan markets across the country, and the sweeten.com website offers advice that’s just as applicable for a mountain chalet as it is in a Hamptons beach cottage.
According to Brownhilll, going into a remodel project with peace of mind isn’t an impossible task.
Begin by doing your homework.
“Start with a trusted source, such as a friend or realtor, but do not stop there. Make sure the contractors you’re considering are licensed and insured — contact your local department of buildings to learn how to check — and that they specialize in the type of project and budget range you’re looking for.”
Next, ask your candidates for a few clients you can speak with.
“You’d be amazed how many people don’t check references,” says Brownhill. “Call them to determine how the process went in terms of timeline and budget, how the general contractor handled any bumps, and how the work is standing up over time.”
Also find out how the contractor dealt with communication. It’s good to know upfront whether a prospective contractor dependably sends photo updates, or if you’ll have to be proactive.
Once you’ve narrowed the field, schedule face-to-face meetings with at least three candidates.
In addition to getting their bids and going over the specifics of your plan, pay attention to each contractor’s communication skills and how comfortable you feel. Can you imagine working with this person for many months to come?
“Be certain this is a person you’d want in your home, and that you ‘click’ in communication styles,” advises Brownhill. “Think of a personality type you’ve had success with in the past at high-stakes moments — in your office, for example, or planning your wedding.”
And while you’re there, ask to check out their work. Some general contractors allow prospective clients to stop by a project in process.
How you supervise the project will depend in part on its size. Brownhill says that large renovations — those over $150,000 — often involve a nearby architect or designer who can help keep close tabs when you aren’t around.
For projects below that level, if your communication system is solid, it’s not necessary to have someone visit the site. Brownhill says your contract should “state the frequency and mode of communication, so that expectations are clear upfront. However, do not make your communication demands so steep that they interfere with your contractor doing the job, or dissuade him from accepting it in the first place.”
Sweeten recommends that you request once-a-week “field reports”: The general contractor shoots a video on his phone, walking through the site and narrating, then sends it to you via Dropbox or another digital file sharing service. The next day, have a scheduled 15-minute phone call to discuss the progress.