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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Emery


Of all the things I do as a designer, what I love most is the process of renovation and the team effort it takes to complete a project. The possibility for transformation, sense of wellbeing and the feeling of renewal you get when the process is successfully completed is well worth the investment. Knowing how to find the right contractor is critical. I learned this the hard way, having made some mistakes early on in my career.  My husband and I were new to town when we decided to do a kitchen renovation in our house upstate. I knew some great contractors in and around NYC, but none of them would travel that far. Our well-meaning neighbors, who had recently finished their own renovation, gave us a whole folder of contacts they had used. We were thrilled, and when it came to narrowing down contractors to make a final decision, we weighed their referral heavily. We had seen their house and it was beautiful. So we figured if the contractor met their very high standards, he would most certainly meet ours.  Wrong!

Mistakes we made (so you don’t have to):

1) Different lifestyle, stage of life, and budget. The only thing we had in common with our neighbors was a love of our picturesque New England town.  They were a retired couple with grown children and a “money is no object” budget.  They moved out of town during the construction, giving the contractor carte blanche and didn’t come back until months later when he was done and the dust had cleared.  We were a much younger couple with small children and a limited budget.  As well-meaning as they were, we didn't consider how different they were from us when we eagerly took their referral.

2) Lack of due diligence. We were relying so heavily on our neighbor's referral, that we got lazy and didn't check his other references.  We heard what we wanted to hear and therefore didn't question him as deeply as we should have. In hindsight, this was so clear when he proudly said he was known for his “slash and burn” style and we took it as an indication of his speed and efficiency, rather than asking him to explain what he meant by that.  What it really meant is that he was predisposed to scrap some original features in our 200 yr. old house and replace them with new, as that is generally easier than restoring.  But it wasn’t the kind of speed and efficiency we were looking for and it became a constant battle to retain the old world charm for which we bought the house in the first place.

3) Method of billing (how good a fit it is for you and your job?). Our contractor billed on a “time and materials” basis, which meant that every week we got a bill with a spread sheet itemizing all the hours each worker spent on the job.  Again, we were swayed by our neighbors convincing us that this way you only pay for exactly the work that is done, nothing more, nothing less.  But not being there ourselves during the week, we had no real way of knowing if they were being honest about it.  We probably wouldn’t have questioned it if we felt he had our best interests at heart, but, alas…

4) Bad Chemistry. When you find yourself continually dreading dealing with someone, as I did, it is not a good fit! Our contractor had a very laissez faire style, to put it nicely, which at first seemed easy going.  Over time, it started to feel like he really didn’t care.  When we arrived one weekend to find the hand rail and balusters off our staircase without warning when he knew we were due to arrive with our toddler in tow, it was a little disturbing. At the end of the job, he disappeared leaving the brown paper and blue painter's tape, used as protection, down on the floor.  When I tracked him down to confirm they were finished, he blithely told me to go ahead and rip it up.  I knew that the blue tape is used specifically because it is not supposed to pull finishes off.  What I didn’t know at the time is that it has an expiration date beyond which the finish is no longer safe. Our tape had been down for much longer than the limit, so when we pulled, the finish came off our freshly stained floors.  If he had taken care of it himself, we could have avoided the damage.  But he just wanted to be done. Luckily, the renovation ultimately turned out beautifully and the bad memories fade somewhat with time.  But it was a lot of unnecessary agony along the way and I still cringe every time I hear the contractor’s name or run into him in our very small town. Did I mention his name was "Blade"?  This went from seeming like a cool name to a not so cool one in warp speed!

How apropos is it then that my primary contractor in NYC is named "Hercules"! We are a team and he always comes through for me when dealing with the many challenging situations we encounter. Like me, the most important thing for him is that the client is happy, and he goes out of his way to ensure that.  No grumbling, no attitude, no problem. And, that's the way it should be! Actually, I have had great experiences with lots of contractors. Stay tuned for the next installment on how to find the right one for you.

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