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How To Hire A Contractor (and When We Do)

January 25, 2016  —  Written by Julia Marcum 

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To hire help or not? Can I afford to hire someone? When is it worth it as a DIYer? These are all really good questions that we ask ourselves before we start any large project (which we’re coming up on again in our basement). It’s also one that we’ve gotten a lot over the past year as we have hired out aspects of our laundry room, kitchen, windows and even portions of the wood tile floors we laid. We finally decided to write out our thoughts on the matter fully instead of giving quick answers in the comments and on social media.

How to find a contractor.

Of course, we can only answer how we found our contractors. We have hired 3 different ones in the past year for various projects and they were all found through different outlets. We hired a guy on Craigslist to help us lay the new underlayment for the tile floors a couple years ago. This was our first time hiring anyone and we only did because I was pregnant with Faye at the time and the scope of the project multiplied when we found the wrong kind of subfloor under all the tile Chris just demo’d up. It was worth it for us to bring in more help to get us to a point where Chris could start laying the floors because we were living in our basement during the process. We found the guy through Craigslist after searching for “tile flooring work.” He was not a contractor, but a handyman. He charged $40/hr which added up incredibly quickly. In retrospect, it was a mistake to hire him not because he didn’t do a great job. (He did!) But because we probably overpaid for the job he did.

How To Hire A Contractor (and When We Do) | Chris Loves Julia

The takeaway: Now, we always hire out jobs for a set price instead of by the hour. If a project gets underway and something comes up and has to be added, it’s better to renegotiate than always be watching the clock and watching your money go out the window if someone isn’t working as quickly as you expected. 

Francisco, a man we’ve worked with on a few projects in the past year (including installing new windows and demo in the kitchen and laundry room) we actually found through a community Facebook page. We brought in a few big wig contractors to give us an estimate on installing our living room window last year and many of them could not fit in a small project like ours or didn’t show up or couldn’t give us a concrete estimate on how much it would be. Out of pure frustration, I posted a photo of our wall, with the dimensions of the window and details of the project on Facebook, and asked if anyone knew an experienced contractor or handyman that could install the window. Immediately, I got a few responses, one was from Francisco’s wife. She said that he just left a big contracting company to do freelance and he could come today and give us an estimate that afternoon. He did and installed the window the next day. And has been our go-to guy ever since.

How To Hire A Contractor (and When We Do) | Chris Loves Julia

The last person we worked with this year specializes in electrical work. Chris is pretty good with wiring and rewiring our lights around here, but there have been a couple quirky things in our home (like when the exterior lights stopped working after we installed new lights in the laundry room–weird!) that Spencer (our electrician) has been able to figure out. He was a referral from a family friend, which is hands-down, the easiest way to find someone to hire. If your friends or family love someone, they’ll tell you. We tell all of our friends and family about Francisco.

No matter who you work with, ask to see pictures of their work and even ask what their specialty is. Francisco pretty much does everything, but he has been honest with us that drywall finishing work isn’t his specialty, which is also nice to know!

Can I afford to hire help?

When we were demo’ing all the old tile out of our house, all 1500 sq. ft!, Chris was busting it up and piling it up and then we were hauling it all out. It was grueling. We thought, maybe we could hire some neighborhood boys to haul it? We put $50 on the line and three kids came, practically running. If you ever have labor-intensive, but otherwise mindless projects, don’t underestimate the eager teens. They did a great job and were cheap.

For the other, larger, projects the goal is always to get the best quality service for the best price, right? Something to look at first is the scope of the project. Is this something that can be done by a handyman rather than a contractor? Sometimes handymen are cheaper. No matter who you hire, tell them you are getting multiple bids so they will give you their best price. See if they offer winter discounts! For many contractors, work is slower in the winter months, and they may cut you a deal if you ask about it. And again, almost always a set price is better than hourly in the long run.

Lastly, don’t feel like you have to hire out a complete project, which will obviously be more money than hiring out a small aspect of a project. A complete bathroom renovation might cost you $$$, but maybe you just want someone to come in and frame, or tile, or run plumbing. Pick out pieces that scare you (or bore you, haha) and you may just be able to afford someone else to do it.

Why bring in help?

First, it is worth mentioning we really have only used a contractor/handyman a handful of times. There is great satisfaction that comes from doing projects ourselves. So when is it worth it for us?

1. When it deals with something that could compromise our home. Windows are a great example of this. Cutting multiple holes in our home scares me even when someone else is doing it! It’s definitely worth it to us to call someone in for the job. While we are comfortable doing most electrical work, that’s not something to mess around with if you aren’t familiar. Anything HVAC absolutely needs to be hired by a licensed HVAC technician, especially when dealing with gas lines. We brought in a specialist when we ran gas lines for our stoves and are currently working with someone on our furnace.

2. When the project impacts life so drastically, and you just want to hurry it up. The best example of this was our kitchen renovation. The smartest decision we made in that renovation was hiring out part of the demo. Just having Francisco tear out the wall dividing the kitchen and laundry room, and re-frame the new pantry/closet/recessed fridge (and also move around plumbing, etc.) only took him a week and a half. Since we were living without a kitchen and Chris works a normal job during the days, hiring out the initial demo so the kitchen renovation could go faster was a no-brainer. It also allowed us to be fully rested and ready to go when it was time to put cabinets together and make the kitchen a kitchen.

3. When you know an expert. While our white concrete countertops were a DIY that anyone could do, it was beneficial to have our concrete expert friend, Preston, here helping us and answering our questions and essentially holding our hand.

How To Hire A Contractor (and When We Do) | Chris Loves Julia

4. When you need an extra hand. We generally do our projects at night after the girls are asleep so we can have all hands on deck. But there have been instances, where Chris will work side-by-side with Francisco to pound out a project during his lunch break–especially if its something loud like demo that can’t really be done at night. There’s no shame in needing an extra hand. Check with your contractor to see if they would be okay with you working with them beforehand. Chris has worked with every one of ours, but I’m not sure if all contractors would be okay with it?

In the end, prices and scenarios range drastically from place to place and person to person, but if you’re thinking about your next big project and are feeling overwhelmed, I hope this helps a little. Feel free to leave your own thoughts on working with hired help in the comments!

What do you think?

  1. Evelina says:

    We basically have to hire contractors for everything we do because we aren’t handy at all :( but paying per project as opposed to by the hour is so important! Then they are more motivated to do the job well and quickly!

  2. Mara says:

    Great tips! My question is, how long of a lunch break does Chris get? I only ask because I’ve seen you mention that he does a lot in this timeframe, like grocery shopping. Now he’s demoing. It’s like multiplicity! :)

  3. Susie says:

    Great post, Julia!

    One thing we experienced when doing a full backyard redo is if you can manage multiple specialists, it will often come in cheaper than using one GC to get a job done. Managing everyone’s time can get hairy, but when it works, you save a ton.

    I have also gotten recommendations from one specialist on another since they cross paths so often. An electrician might have a great reco for an HVAC person, etc.

    And of course, always, always, get multiple bids. Even when you like the person or have worked with them before.

  4. Sarah says:

    This has nothing to do with contractors, but Chris- do you use a cruet? And if so which? I’m looking for a good one and there are so many on the market I don’t know what works. Thanks in advance!

    • Chris says:

      Oh goodness, this is actually one of those small things that I’ve spent so much time on. The short answer, no, I don’t have anything right now. When we did the kitchen, we had one that I loved at first. But as I used it, the oil eventually caused the spout to pop out all the time – wouldn’t stay in longer than a few seconds. I’m back on the hunt for a good one, but right now I just buy olive oil in a glass bottle and I scrape off the label (and windex away any remaining glue etc).

      If you find a good one, I’d love to know where you get it from. One important thing is to find one that is easily washable (i.e., doesn’t have a spout that’s too small) – each time it empties, you should wash it instead of just adding more oil because oil can go rancid over time and old oil may spoil the new stuff when you add it. If I find something as well, I’ll be sure to come back and share. :)

  5. I as JUST looking into hiring someone to expand our closet doors, so we can actually reach & use more than 60% of our bedroom closet… I’d need some electrical moved, and the door opening expanded, and trim fixed and new closet doors put on. I want to DIY it but I’m a little nervous. However, knowing how fast labor cost can add up DIY is pretty tempting! Your tips gave me some perspective, especially about not hiring out the entire job; maybe I can actually take care of the closet doors myself, if the rest was already done!

  6. katie says:

    well timed! we’ve always done our own projects (even things outside of our comfort zone!) but have been seriously thinking about hiring out a batch of projects to a contractor – just to get started. we would probably do all of the finish work still, but am kind of liking the idea of letting someone else take care of the initial big push. it will be much easier to finish once it’s halfway done, right???

  7. Man, this is so helpful! We’re searching for our first house this year, and it will definitely be some sort of fixer upper, and just thinking of how and when to hire out help has got me overwhelmed. Thanks for sharing!

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