How to hire the right sub contractor.

We’ve given ourselves a 45 day deadline to complete the house.
It’s crunch time.
The home remodeling process has been a definite education.
We decided to hire out our own subs-contractors.
In so doing, we made a lot of mistakes along the way.
Mistakes that cost a lot of time and money.
I’m not totally regretful.  The education has been priceless
(although I’m afraid the gray hair I’ve grown is permanent).
Here’s a few tips worth sharing.

1. Ask around.
Inquire with your friends, family and co-workers if they have any contacts for a great plumber. They may say, “I know a great plumber, but…” The minute that “but” comes out of their mouth, move on. Any reservations are definite red flags and will come back to bite ya.

2. Interview several candidates in person.
I normally interview no less than three of each trade. Make sure all decision makers are present for the interview. Don’t go with someone just because they were highly recommended.  We did that and regret it.

3. Ask a lot of questions.
Ask about turn around time, money, how long they’ve been in the business, quiz them about the job itself. You will quickly get a sense for their skill level and knowledge. Also, make sure to ask if they are licensed, if not, you have no repercussion if they mess up.

4. Find out who will be doing the work.
Let’s say you’re interviewing a hardwood floor installer.  You may think they’re the ones who will be doing the job.  However, come Monday his crew shows up and starts working.  The person you interviewed is no where to be found.  You thought you hired him but instead he sent his crew (who are complete strangers in your house all day long).  Be clear about who will be doing the work.  Inquire about how experienced his crew is and what he will do if their work is not to your satisfaction.

5. Check their references and check their work.
No matter what kind of story they give you do not skip over this step. Ask if they can meet you at their past job sites to show you their work. Ask for before and after pictures. Make sure to get at least three references. When you call the references ask questions such as…
a. When did JOE PAINTER work for you?
b. Was he reliable…did he deliver on what he promised?
c. Were you pleased with his work?
d. Is there anything you didn’t like about the job he did?
e. Did he have a crew with him and how did they perform?
f. Did the project go over the budget originally quoted?
g. Did the job take longer than he said he would?

6. Put it in writing.
Once you agree on sub and the job, draw up a contract which includes all the terms. Put in a “no show” clause meaning if the sub doesn’t show up on the day they said then you will deduct $100.00 (for example) off their pay. You can also draw up the terms where if they don’t finish the job to your satisfaction on the date agreed upon then “X” amount will be deducted from their pay per day.

7. Think hard before hiring family members.
So you have a family member who offers to be your painter. If you’ve ever done any type of remodeling you know that RARELY does it go according to plan. You, as the customer, are emotionally and financially invested in the project. If that family member messes it up or doesn’t perform to your standards, your relationship goes out the window, and you end up resenting them for a long time. It’s just not worth it. Just decide up front to make it your policy not to hire family so not to potentially jeopardize relationships.” (R.M., I’m not referring to you…:).

8. Follow your instincts.
Life is funny. We all have a built in sense about people. It’s that little feeling in your gut that tells you right from wrong. Don’t dismiss that feeling no matter how trivial your reasoning may be. I didn’t do this with a drywaller we hired and we ended up paying for it in time and money (and we’re still searching for the heat ducts he drywalled over).

9. Babysit.
Your standards are not their standards.  After one guy botched a job in our house along with giving us a long list of broken promises I first went Jeff Lewis on him.  Then, I stood over his shoulder and watched him do the entire job over and corrected him as he went.  Oh yes, I did.  Sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do to ensure the job gets done right.

10. Never pay until the job is done.
If you give them payment and there are just a few things left to complete YOU’LL NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN!

There you go.  All my tips I learned from remodeling gone wrong.
My dad says I’ll laugh about it one day.
We’ll see.
It pays to do it right the first time!


  1. Thanks for the great tips!

  2. This is a great list. One thing I learned during our renovation was that you can’t be afraid to be a bitch (or, as you more eloquently put it, “go all Jeff Lewis on them”). I tried to be the nice homeowner who brought doughnuts and coffee and kept beer in the fridge, but all it did was make me seem like a pushover. It helped to tag team on it with my husband so we could do kind of a good cop/bad cop routine. It was helpful to be able to say, “Oh it doesn’t bother me a lot but the Mr. is really upset about it.”

  3. Great tips. Thanks for sharing. I’ve also learned the hard way thru a couple experiences on our old house. You have to be really good about communicating expectations and deadlines. And one piece of advice I have, and something I didn’t think of (and thankfully it didn’t matter), but my Mom recommended it… to pay with check not cash to have some record that you paid them so they don’t come back saying you didn’t pay them when you did. And the good cop/bad cop routine that Erin mentioned made it a lot easier for me to handle confrontational situations that would have otherwise been a nightmare. I just blamed it on my husband. 😉

    Hope you finish your house on time!

  4. I work as a designer and project manager for a remodeling and construction company. I totally understand where you are coming from because we’ve dealt with bad subs in the past. That’s why, for those who want the job done right the first time, I always recommend hiring a really good contractor. For us, we’ve sifted through all the bad subs and now we have an honest and true crew that have excellent craftsmanship. That’s not to say that all contractors have good subs. Many don’t! But also many GOOD contractors will protect their clients legally with waivers for all subs, they’ll also make sure your job is done correctly and to code.

    Before working in construction, I used to be all DIY (and I still am to a degree) but after seeing so many project go wrong for people, I would be hesitant to do it on my own. I give you major props for working through it yourself. For sure. Please let us know how your contractor experience goes. I hope it’s well!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing these tips. Our goal is to renovate a home so we will come back to this post one day!

  6. This is priceless:) coming from the wife of a construction man these steps are crucial to getting the job done well and on time! Thank you for sharing this Michelle! One day I’ll be in the market for subs and no doubt will be referring to this post for help. Good luck with your home, I love reading your blog and seeing the progress. You’re awesome!!!

  7. Really great advice, I couldn’t agree more! The other thing I would mention is to be weary of the lowest priced bidder… Last year when we were working on our yard renovation we were running low on cash and went with the least expensive bid for gates, and I regret it now. The gates we ended up with look great, but don’t function as well as we wanted them too–they don’t always latch and seem a bit misaligned.

    But I also agree with your dad–it’s painful now, but a year from now you’ll be happy to have survived the experience and grateful for the “wisdom” gained.

  8. hey girl! i love your work!

    follow my new blog, if you wish of course….


  9. hey girl! i love your work!

    follow my new blog, if you wish of course….


  10. hey girl! i love your work!

    follow my new blog, if you wish of course….


  11. hey girl! i love your work!

    follow my new blog, if you wish of course….


  12. Good tips – and having gone through this/going through this I agree with all of them. It is so hard to find great sub contractors and they are not cheap – so it’s definitely worth it to take your time and find the right ones. It will save you lots of time and money in the future.

  13. Anonymous says:

    …or you could skip the 9 steps, keep your sanity, save time and money and use!!!

  14. Anonymous says:

    One thing I wish I had done before my kitchen/bathroom renovation – write down EVERYTHING you want done and be VERY, VERY specific. Once you decide on a price and they get started they will charge you for anything and everything that is even slightly different than what you originally agreed on. So, you may think you are being very clear and communicating your vision, but they may not interpret it the same way.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Great list! But from a contractor point of view:
    1) Regarding your #6, keep in mind that sometimes a tradesperson has to walk out of a job because another tradesperson is not done with their work. You know, because if A is not done then B can’t get done.
    2) Homeowners who constantly change their mind can hold up a project too. And this will be reflected in your bill.
    3)And regarding Leah’s comment — sometimes contractors bid high so they don’t get the job. For example wiring a new condo building is much more worth their time than one house.

  16. This list is great! Very useful. I especially liked #9 – made me laugh!

  17. Great tips! Ahh, babysitting. I did a lot of that (5 exhausting hours) when we had our counters installed. Never again! Typically, my rule is that I don’t babysit. If I’ve done my reasearch (tips 1-12!) and I’m paying you to do a job (and do it right!), then I don’t have time to watch over you. I’m bit of a pain in the ass when it comes to this kind of stuff though (ha!), so contractors definitely learn with me!

  18. I love that you stood over his shoulder to make sure it was done right. you go girl-getting the job done properly!

  19. All very great tips. I love that even through it all you can still be positive and find the good/humor. Good luck with the rest of the construction! I can’t wait to see the final project!

  20. wow, thanks for all the tips. I admire you for sticking to your guns and making sure the job’s done right.. I agree, sadly, that’s sometimes the only way.

  21. We were really clear with all the subcontractors and our contractor that we were on a deadline. If they went over more than 10% of the time they said it would take they were dinged.

    Also, Don’t be afraid to be a demanding. It’s YOUR HOUSE! You are paying!!

    MOST IMPORTANT: NEVER PAY IN FULL UNTIL THE WORK IS DONE!!! All our payments were on a schedule. We learned that one from our first project and wow, that was a PAINFUL lesson on the pocketbook.

  22. This is a really great list of points & discussion; I’ve learned a few things from other comments too.

    I’ve also had contractor agreements with the following clauses:
    – that disagreements / disputes between contractor and homeowner will be settled through a licensed arbitrator with the related cost of the dispute being assigned to those who are deemed responsible by the arbitrator.
    – that I’ll receive a written release from the contractor before final pmt that he does not have & will not place any liens against the property.
    – materials specifications, if appropriate. For ex: a BM paint color in another brand of paint is not BM paint.

    Michelle, I personally know how tiresome living in temporary housing can become; I hope you are in your home, cooking, crafting, decorating, and everyone loving every minute of it in 45 days or less!


  23. Thanks for these tips. We’ve had our own experiences with contractors, some good and some bad, but the “bad” ones were hard lessons to learn. I wish we had taken the time to do our homework first!

  24. Excellent list – good learning and here’s the good news – now you know!!! I am a huge believer in being my own contractor – I do not want ‘middle men’ who might misinterpret or fail to mention my requirements to their sub – I want to choose my own subs. – Keep your list and save your details so you can refer to them in the future – just to refresh your memory of what you will need to include in your requirements. And please give yourself a break – I just know that this effort you are making will be BEAUTIFUL upon completion!!!

  25. I learned the hard way and paid off the contractor before my house was completed. It came to about $1,500 and although he was a good contractor, the credit unions here crashed and that was the end of my contractor. They say always hold back 10% until you are 100% satisfied. I didn’t then but I will if I ever need to do it again. Live and learn.

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