Avoid our mistakes: a brownstoner's advice on picking a contractor

By Angela Tiffin  | December 16, 2014 - 11:59AM

Longtime New Yorkers Angela Tiffin and Andrew Nichols bought their first brownstone in South Park Slope in May 2012, and have spent two years renovating—first, their own duplex apartment and in recent months, a third-floor rental unit—much of it with their own hands. You can read more about the project at their blog, Brownstone Cyclone.

Before starting our renovation we considered ourselves savvy consumers. We knew how to research online, we’d renovated a small kitchen and bathroom in our apartment, and we'd watched hours of HGTV and the DIY network. The reality? When it came time to choose a contractor, we made rookie mistakes—and paid for them with time and money.  Here, what we learned:

Don’t rush the bidding process 

When you're paying down a mortgage at New York prices—and rent, to boot—you're going to feel pressured to get the project started. We'd originally planned to give the contractors four weeks to put together their bids, but then our architect was two weeks late with the plans. 

Our first mistake was forcing the contractors to finish their bids in a mere two weeks, which we did because we needed to pour the foundation before the ground froze that winter. (Delaying this to the spring would have been a financial disaster.) As a result, we started out with five bidders, but three weren't able to complete their proposals in time, leaving us with only two options.

Our second mistake was that we didn't have time to properly vet the contractors (more on that below). The one we picked—let's call them Company X—was about $30,000 cheaper than the other, but they wound up not having a good handle on the work, which led to misunderstandings and costly changes to the project down the road.

Check relevant references 

Maybe you're thinking this is a no brainer. But it was exactly where we went wrong. For a reference, Company X connected us with the owner of a neighborhood brownstone, which we visited. But we were so distracted by the house's period details that we forgot to ask the owner what the firm had actually done, and how reliable they'd been. We learned later that only a “restoration specialist,” not the firm itself, had worked on it—and that was when he was with a different company. We based our decision partly on the fact that this guy had restoration experience, but once we started our renovation, he showed up only when an invoice was due.

Our second reference was our architect, who'd worked with the contractor a few times. But it turned out that he mainly did exterior work with the company, and we were hiring them for extensive interior and structural work. Then, when the job got underway, a subcontractor—who hadn't worked with either the architect or the brownstone owners—did most of the work on our house (more on that below).  

To make a long story short: Get references for the specific type of job you need done, and check that the person with the expertise and the glowing reviews is the person who's going to handle your project. 

Call out inconsistent numbers

The contractor we chose had a very low plumbing bid, about 30 percent lower than the competition. We brought it to their attention, but they insisted that they could stick to their number.

Then, during the renovation, they hired a cut rate plumber that we later had to fire, and the replacement plumber had to redo some of the work. We didn't pay extra for this, but it meant that the contractor was probably cutting corners somewhere else to make up for their loss, as well as nickel and diming us for any change they had to make.

The lesson here? Get all your bids broken down by the same line items. That will make it easier to compare the prices between different bidders, and suss out any too-good-to-be-true numbers. And if you want to negotiate taking something out of the scope later it will be easy because it's already itemized.

Ask who will do the work 

It’s commonplace for companies to subcontract out specialties that require separate building permits like plumbing and electrical, but the bulk of the construction should be done by the company you're hiring. Otherwise, you're effectively paying a middleman to manage the project. (And you did check references for the contractor, right?) If they have great references and a track record of effectively managing projects, then you may decide that this is well worth the cost.

In our case, Company X essentially farmed out our entire project out and minimally supervised them. This caused major communication problems because when we had a problem, we'd speak with Company X’s point person, but he often wasn't familiar with what was going on. 

To avoid this, ask your general contractor exactly what work they plan to outsource before you hire them.

Hire local

Find out where the workers live. One of our foremen (we had three who either quit or were fired) lived two hours north of the city and didn't have a car. He had to take a train and then the subway from project to project–a time-consuming endeavor that meant he was never at our house before 2 p.m. (and he was the best of the three!).

Also, our project took place during Hurricane Sandy and several of the worst snowstorms the city has seen in years. Weeks passed where it was nearly impossible for workers to get to our home—which was an even bigger problem when something went wrong.  During a heavy rainstorm we discovered a leak in the roof that dripped onto our newly installed kitchen cabinets and waited hours for someone from the company to arrive to solve the problem simply because they had no local guys on the job.

Get into the nitty gritty 

 In New York, housing is close together, so your neighbors will inevitably be affected by your renovation, and will most likely be the first to call the DOB with complaints. For that reason, you want to hash out a plan before you hire your contractor about how they'll manage logistics.

Ask, how will they handle debris? If you're renovating a house, will they build a proper construction fence to protect your neighbor’s property? Our contractor propped up old doors between the properties and after a strong wind, one of them fell, crushing a table and barbecue in our neighbors' yard. “Someone” also called the DOB and our contractor was fined because the building code required a construction fence.

A propped-up door is not a construction fence. Ask your contractor how they'll handle logistics.

Also, what will they do for a restroom? Will they use a port-a-potty?  Trust us when we tell you to ask this, especially if a point will come during a gut reno when the facilities won't work. We had a third-floor bathroom that functioned until they turned the water off in the house. We found feces in a plastic bag and, yes, we ultimately fired the subcontractor for this and other mistakes. 

Enforce deadlines

You need a contractor who will agree to a clause that says he'll face financial penalties if he doesn't finish the job on time. In exchange, they'll probably ask for a bonus for early completion.  Agree to this because you are not at risk here. They will never finish early. 


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NYC Renovation Qs: What should I ask when checking my contractor's references?

NYC Renovation Chronicles: A pre-renovation checklist for your contractor

NYC Renovation Chronicles: 5 contractors to avoid

NYC Renovation Chronicles: 7 tips for finding a great contractor


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