Looking for a good contractor? Try the fire department

By Jennifer Ciotta  | April 22, 2011 - 11:47AM

My fiance bought a two-bedroom co-op a couple years ago, and we were just getting around to replacing the 1960s kitchen.  As first-time renovators, we were prepared for noisy sanding, choking on white dust and "plumber’s crack" sightings galore.  We weren't prepared for how hard it was to find a good contractor.

We phoned contractors with websites that had great customer testimonials and reached out to friends of friends, producing a short-list of candidates who we expected would be professional and provide fair price estimates. 


The first contractor arrived with professionalism and a sense of humor.  He even took off his shoes upon entering the apartment.  He knew all the right things to say, promising great things for our decrepit, galley kitchen.

"This is so easy!" we said to ourselves excitedly. We never heard from him again.

The second contractor seemed like a cross between a newly sprung criminal and that creepy guy who offers candy to little girls. To top it off within the short time he was there, he said we needed $4,000 worth of electrical work to put in a multi-socket to plug in all of our appliances.  Yet we only had a coffee maker sitting on our countertop.  I let him stay for 10 minutes then escorted him out.

The third contractor was a friend of a close friend.  He and his business partner seemed like nice guys, until they wanted to charge us $5,000 to install kitchen cabinets--or as they liked to call it, for “carpentry work.”  Not to build the cabinets.  Not to deliver the cabinets.  Just to literally fasten them to the wall of our 10 x 8 square foot kitchen. 

It seemed we had made a major mistake by already buying the cabinets. They sat in our living room with a sheet over them, but still, you could tell what was in those huge boxes. The contractors no doubt realized they weren’t going to make money off of the customary mark-up they would have taken. Plus, we appeared to be in a desperate situation.  Either they thought “let’s get ‘em on obscene labor charges” or it just wasn't a big enough ticket job.

Fortunately, we had been smart enough at the outset to ask my fiance’s friend—a contractor who couldn’t do our job because he isn’t licensed in NY state—for his estimate.  He came and gave his estimate before any of the contractors came.  So we had a number to work off of: $4,500 for the to demo the entire kitchen, dispose of all items, lay down the tile floor, plumbing and electrical work, replace sheetrock, paint, and install the cabinets.

After the three contractors came and went, my fiancé came up with a brilliant idea: One of our friends was a volunteer firefighter and knew firefighters who were contractors.  Apparently, many firefighters work in construction for their second job, since they have so many hours off.  Our friend put us in touch with his friend, a firefighter-contractor.  

When he walked through the door, we had an instant feeling of sanity.  He was clean, well-spoken, understood our budgetary concerns and in the end, gave us a reasonable estimate.  We negotiated on a price ($3,600) that suited both parties, and we set a date to start renovations.  

The renovation work went swimmingly.  We were happy with the craftsmanship, the contractor's crew (firefighters, EMTs and other heroic professionals), adherence to co-op renovation rules and the overall time of 2 weeks total to complete the entire job.

It went so well that we even hired this contractor again to remodel the bathroom.  Through both projects we learned if you want the job done right, try your friendly, neighborhood firefighter. Maybe one day there'll be a 911 for renovations. 

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