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Should you break up with your contractor? 


Hiring a contractor to do home renovations can be a lot like dating. The hot new builder your friend set you up with was so promising at first, but only finished half the job before he stopped returning your calls. What’s worse, he owes you money. And just like that you’ve joined the ranks of people who have been disappointed by a builder.


I’m here to offer a better way – one that need not end in heartache.


Before hiring a contractor, clearly define your needs.


Every renovation project begins with a vision of the finished product. The goal is to convey that vision to the person who can make it a reality. Start by sketching it out by hand until it starts to take shape. It can be a messy mock-up – having it simply provides a starting point from which to explore the project with builders. If possible, do a few renderings in order to show the project from different views. Be sure to include details such as the ideal placement of light fixtures and/or the arrangement of tile on a bathroom wall.  


You should also make a written outline of the project with notes on aesthetics and functionality. Is there a brand of appliances you prefer? Write it down. Can’t stand the color red? Make a note of it. Even if the project is managed by an architect or designer, reviewing these details with contractors during the estimate phase can provide greater understanding. This is critical, as your choice of contractor should be based in part on his or her willingness to review any aspect of the project.


Play the field.


Once you have your ideas outlined and your sketches in hand, call as many builders as you have time to meet with. Comparing 3-4 estimates allows you to see trends in pricing and exactly what is covered. Some jobs may be considerably more expensive than you anticipated. Hearing this from three contractors rather than one makes it more believable. 


Keep in mind that estimating home renovations can be like gazing into a crystal ball – it’s impossible to know what you’re going to find until you open the walls. As exemplified by the multitude of home renovation shows currently on television, you need to account for unforeseen problems once a job is underway. Some contractors build in a buffer to pay for unexpected issues, while others will low-ball the job only to hold it hostage with extra costs once demolition has already taken place.


Take the time to ask questions when evaluating a contractor. You need to know if you can communicate with this person, so be specific in your inquiries and aware of whether he or she cares that you have clarity on the matter. If not, you need to dust off your break-up speech. In terms of happiness, finding the right builder ranks almost as high as finding the right mate. There is no better test of whether the love is real than building something together.


Commit to someone, and then support that relationship.


Once you commit to a builder, it’s time to help your builder help you. Before you start, review the plans again. Will the kitchen cabinets meet the ceiling? Is there enough lighting in the home office? These types of questions are critical to homeowner happiness with a project. On the other hand, be careful not to micromanage your contractor. This can be tough, as the line between oversight and getting in the way is thin. Once you’ve reviewed things, stand back and let your chosen one do his or her good work.


Establishing a positive relationship with a residential contractor can mean a lifetime of successful home renovation projects. The contractor you choose will know your home and value your business. You may begin the relationship with one project, and add other projects once you see that the work is good. This is attractive from the builder’s perspective because he or she is already on site. And like all independent service providers, contractors want to do repeat business with clients. They also want the glowing referrals that come from a job well done.


To recap, in order to get the most out of your renovation dollars:

  1. Define your vision
  2. Interview 3-4 contractors
  3. Make a commitment to someone
  4. Keep the lines of communication open
  5. Enjoy a happy long-term relationship


In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m married to a contractor. I’ve learned first-hand that good communication generally yields the best results. As my contractor husband frequently yet lovingly points out, “I’m not a mind-reader.”


Remember that renovating a home – whether small or large projects – can have a significant impact on its value. I’m happy to help you make the most of your renovation dollars, and to explore ways of making your home more marketable to buyers. Contact me today!


Colleen Cancio

(202) 460-0828



Updated: May 7, 2015

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 Colleen Cancio, GREEN


(202) 460-0828


Dwell Residential Brokerage DC 

Green Designation Realtor Capitol Area



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