1. Go ugly early.
Would you agree that most estimate appointments are very pleasant? That's correct, because contractors are trying hard to win your business (and so they should). I am not saying contractors tend to "over promise under deliver", it's merely their way of showing you they are capable of taking your project at a reasonable rate. This is your opportunity to tell them ALL you want, including some worst-case scenarios.
When it comes to renovation contract, especially with those contractors that you've never worked with before, make sure you itemize everything. For example, my recent bathroom reno contract says "all plumbing, rough in waste and supplies for vanity including the installation of vanity faucets. Home owner to provide faucets.", to me, that reads as if all I need to give my contractor were the faucets, and the price I paid him was inclusive of all rough-in materials. But I was wrong (and I caved in because I wanted the project done within a week). I ended up paying this contractor another $300 to cover PVC pipes among other tiny little things.
2. It's a matter of opinion (and expectation).
I've learnt from my most recent main bath renovation that those contractors recommended to you may not meet your own expectation. Homestars type of rating system may give you some reassurance for mid-large companies but a lot more independent contractors are never registered there. Therefore, always try to manage your expectation and share it with your contractor early on. Just to be fair, if contractors know from the very beginning I am such a nitpicking perfectionist, they might just be scared away (ha!).
3. (Almost) no contractor would treat your house like their own home.
I didn't think I could still keep you awake reading all this without sharing a picture. Do you see anything wrong with this shower control lever?
How about the giant gap between the wall plate and the lever? I don't know if any contractor would install a shower system like this in their own home unless they have no sense of aesthetics. To minimize the gap, all a contractor needs to do is to install the shower valve more recessed into the wall (and we have more than ample space for them to do so).
So far I can only confidently endorse two companies that, by my standards, treat my house like their own home: Lusso Glass, who installed our front door with wrought-iron insert:
And Expert Crown Moulding, who installed most of wainscoting and crown moulding for us. They were extremely carefully when laddering up against any wall or staircase, and cleaned up after they were done. I was able to work while they were working because they were also extremely quiet and gentle.
4. Trust, but verify.
I trust the workmanship of most of the contractors, but when in doubt, I research on my own and speak up.
The toilet in our main bathroom started to leak immediately after the contractor left. He was so certain that nothing was wrong with his installation and it was the toilet that was defective. See the tiny little nut (circled area) above the toilet bowl deck for connecting to the bolt of the tank? Well, I noticed that he actually put the nut underneath the bowl together with washer and mounting nut. The rubber washer would never be airtight because there is always going to be a tiny gap between the tank and the bowl (and hence the leak).
Had I completely taken my contractor's words, I would have gone through the ordeal of ripping the toilet apart, sending it back to the store (or manufacturer) for a replacement and having it installed again.
So trust, but verify.
5. It's your project and house, be there.
This is by far the most difficult thing for us because our jobs require constant travelling. However, I always try to be home at the end of a day to check the progress. That way I can correct certain or make any adjustments before contractors move past the point of no turn (e.g. patch up the drywall).
6. Know when to move on.
We had solid oak floors installed throughout our first floor. The reality is that a new house like ours takes years to settle. The possible shifting of sub-floor coupled with humidity changes had made our floor slightly squeak at certain high-traffic areas. Another reason could be the wood was never properly dried to withstand Canadian weather. As the wood continued to dry after it's installed, it shrank which then snapped free from the nails. I called the flooring company within the warranty period for repair and they blamed it on us for not turning up the humidity high enough during winter months. I could debate with them forever and at the end they might show up, but I decided to cut my losses and bring in a squeaky floor repair expert Silent Floor Solutions. Within a matter of hours the floor was fixed and the squeakiness was completely gone. I was also able to save my own sanity by knowing when to move on.
That's about all for now. Do you have any tips or interesting experience working with contractors that you could share?