How Can I Find a Contractor to Help Me in This Economy?

Some things are just plain common sense. For example, when there isn’t enough of something to go around, it becomes more valuable. This is the economics of supply and demand: low supply means shortage of available workers (and vise versa). In the real estate market, this principle is in play right now with contractors who do home improvements and remodels.

When the economy was down, hiring a great contractor was easy. With few people spending money to remodel, no project was too small for hungry pros, many of whom were bidding way below their boom-time rates.

Those days are gone. Home improvement spending is up about 30 percent from its low. A project that would have cost $50,000 in 2010 might now come in at $60,000 to $70,000.

To get the best help, you’ll need to be strategic. Contractors are in the enviable position of choosing which projects to take on.

Like I’ve said before, anytime you’re looking for professional help, start with referrals. Begin by polling friends, tradesmen and your realtor, and let the contractor know who pointed you in his direction. Using a referral will do more than just ease your mind — it will also make you a priority for the pro who wants to keep his clients and subcontractors happy.

If you want the contractor to be serious about your inquiry, you have to make it clear that you’re serious about doing the work. When you reach out, show that you’ve put careful thought into the project by expressing a clear vision of what you want and a sense of what you can spend. When contractors bid on a job, the have to spend several unpaid hours learning about the project, pricing materials, and writing up the bid.

Ask for your contractor’s opinion. When a contractor comes to see the job, don’t jump right into discussing price. First ask for his input on the plan and on any initial sketches your architect may have put together. By asking your contractor about his ideas, you’ll benefit in several ways. First, it shows you value his knowledge and don’t just see him as a nail banger. Second, you’ll get a sense of how he thinks and whether he’s a good fit for you: is he hearing you and do you think you can work well together? Third, it’s likely that he can think of ways to save you money and still accomplish your goals. If, on the other hand, he suggests lazy solutions or pricey add-ons, move on.

I generally recommend soliciting bids from a few contractors unless all your referrals come back with one name. If you’re getting multiple bids, it’s fair to let the contractors know you’re doing so. Skip any bids that are wildly high or low.

If your first choice is over your budget, let him know how much he’s over, and ask for suggestions on how he might adjust the job to lower the price with minimal impact. Remember to hold out a contingency of 10 to 20 percent, since the scope of many remodels expand over the course of the project.

Once you have an agreement, be aware that for a top contractor, at a fair price, you may to have to wait a bit. Unless you have a deadline (like your daughter is getting married and the contractor is building the backyard arch), try to be patient and flexible. In my experience, it’s worth the wait.

If there’s something you would like me to write about or if you have questions about real estate or property management, feel free to contact me at or visit our website at If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 35 years.

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