The Contractor Site Visit

Dec 1, 2023

You’ve scheduled your first site visit with a contractor to look at your remodel project. The contractor coming to do the estimate is late for the appointment. As he meanders up the stairs to your house, it’s apparent he isn’t happy to be there. He has a little chew in his mouth that he spits into a paper cup. He doesn’t take many notes and didn’t bring the plans because “architects don’t know anything, am I right?” Professional is not a word that you would use to describe this contractor. Is this the person you want to hire for your six-figure remodel?

Another perspective: the contractor is on time with a notebook and plans. He walks into your messy home, and you’re too distracted with the kids and your phone to answer his questions thoroughly. After a clunky conversation, he leaves with a few rough notes and a strong feeling that this is not the type of customer that will be easy to work with during construction.

These two scenarios play out every day in an endless array of various storylines, but the spirit is the same—one party is left feeling troubled about moving forward. I’ve entered hundreds if not thousands of other people’s homes. The first site visit is much more important than it seems, and you, the homeowner, can do a few simple things to maximize the initial walkthrough experience with the right contractor.

Contractors are generally the most responsive during the sales process, so that is an ideal time to compare their email responsiveness, expectation setting, deliverables, etc. It’s amazing how often the homeowner feels like giving up before they even select a contractor.

In construction, the bar for communication is unfortunately set pretty low compared to other professional industries. A contractor who is a good emailer is a great sign early on, as so much in our Industry relies on this form of communication. It’s also nice for both parties to have paper trails. However, I’ve seen terrible contractors with great sales skills; they’re excellent at the initial sales process, but fail the homeowner during the job. Judging a contractor in the initial sales process is important, but there is more to do before deciding who to hire.

One hard-to-describe goal is to see if you ‘jive’ with your contractor. You don’t need to become best friends, but identify whether you can communicate about basic ideas in a natural way.

The following are some simple tips for preparing for an initial site visit with potential contractors:

  • Have a plan. If it’s a bathroom, draw out some ideas and have pictures. It can be helpful to create a ‘mood board.’ Contractors are not designers (or at least not good ones), so don’t make them be—they need direction to be successful. If you’re particular, hire a designer. If it’s a kitchen or other larger remodel, a designer and/or architect is a necessity. You almost certainly will need a permit, so an architect is required anyway.

  • Everyone is busy. Schedule appointments during business hours when you can truly focus on the task at hand. There are contractors that may come on weekends, but I’d argue that you want a contractor that values family time and work-life balance. Established contractors won’t come on weekends or late evening, and the remodeling work will only be done during business hours, so get used to working around it.

  • If possible, find someone to watch your kids during the initial walkthrough. Interruptions mean greater chances of missing scope details.

  • Do not schedule contractors back-to-back, even if it is most convenient for you. They will see each other, and contractors will have a negative reaction to this.

  • Keep pets away, in the yard, with a neighbor, etc. I’m an animal lover, but some homeowners are blind to how distracting their pets can be. There are also many people with allergies.

  • Put your phone away.

  • Sit down after the walkthrough and ask about the contractor’s process. Remodeling your home should not be about finding the lowest possible price. If it is, you will not have a great construction experience. Is there a project manager? Is there a dedicated crew for this job, or will they be working multiple jobs simultaneously? How much work is subcontracted out as opposed to in-house? How many of these projects do they have going on at once? Do we meet weekly? Ask the contractor to walk you through their entire process from accepted bid proposal to start date to end date. There are other opportunities to ask questions, so this doesn’t need to be a grilling, but you want a general idea of how they operate. I think the most important question is whether your project has a dedicated crew. Cheap contractors will have the same crew on multiple jobs, leaving you for days or weeks without anyone on site. This can be infuriating.

  • Clean up. A dirty house isn’t just gross, it shows that you will be a challenging customer. If you don’t care enough to clean your house before having a contractor walk through, how can we expect you to care about the details of your project? It doesn’t have to be spotless, but do a good once over before they arrive.

  • A contractor’s biggest pet peeve is having their time wasted. I wish homeowners knew how often we can tell when people have no intention of hiring them. If you are getting 3+ bids, treat each one the same and keep an open mind until you’ve given everyone a chance. Do not move forward without a permit, ask the contractor to do so, or allow the contractor to talk you into it. It’s a huge red flag. There is literally not one upside to doing work requiring a permit without a permit. You will risk having no legal recourse if something goes wrong, and home insurance will not cover unpermitted work if something bad happens.

  • Wait to ask about references until you’ve selected your contractor in good faith. Most construction companies are happy to share references but are protective of their clients'; time and don’t want to inundate them with phone calls and emails. I’ve never understood the importance of this anyway, since no contractor would share a reference from a bad experience.

  • Wait until you’ve picked your contractor, then ask for references as a final check if it’s that important to you.

  • Ask about who purchases finishes. Many contractors prefer to handle all selections for warranty purposes. If you provide something and it doesn’t work, or it leaks, this can turn into finger pointing. The markup a contractor applies is usually a wash from paying retail. Markup pays for the contractor’s cost of procuring the item, getting it onsite, and yes, warrantying. If you are set on providing fixtures/finishes, go out of your way to organize this upfront so there are no surprises later.

One last helpful tip: projects do not turn out well if they have little to no homeowner input. The more you, the homeowner, put in, the more you get out. Be engaged with your project! Help with selections, ask questions, email and follow up. A good contractor will have an organized process and weekly meetings to keep things on track; understanding what is going on with your project is an important part of the process.

© 2023 Estimating Department