As more single women become homeowners, it is increasingly important that they understand the language, customs, care, and feeding of the typical building contractor.
Mary Ellen Iwata, a vice president of program development for cable HGTV, bought her first home in Roland Park because it was a little house in a great location, perfect for her on-the-go lifestyle. What she didn't like were the cramped rooms and dark pine accents. After living in the house for a few years, she decided she was ready to open up the first floor's floor plan and move the kitchen—but she didn't know where to start. A couple years later, though, she's something of a battle-scarred expert.
First she found an architect to create a set of plans. Then she hired a contractor. "I did the whole thing the way that I hire people at work," she explains. "I interview them, check their references, and then hope it works out." What came next was a demolition derby of construction that lasted more than six months, leaving Iwata without a kitchen. She lived upstairs and in her small office, where she had a mini-fridge. "I ate a lot of carryout," she says, chagrined. "In retrospect, people tell you to multiply everything they [contractors] tell you by two."
After the kitchen renovation, Iwata took the lessons she learned from her first project and applied them to the next: installing a first floor powder room and renovating her office. "I think the most important thing is not to let anyone talk you into something that you're not comfortable with," she explains. In her kitchen, Iwata even asked the architect to create the layout in large, brown paper cutouts that she could lay out on the floor to visualize the finished project. "You have to ask a lot of questions up front and not be afraid to sound stupid, because it's your house and your money," she counsels. "Ask until it's really clear."
Hiring a Contractor
"The general public is terrified to remodel, particularly women living alone," confirms Kathy Wheatley, CEO of Wheatley Associates, one of the few women-owned remodeling firms in the area. Yet she finds that about 95 percent of the company's calls are from women, because women tend to make the decorating decisions, whether they are single or married.
She and other experts advise that when hiring a contractor, avoid the Yellow Pages and opt instead for references from local trade associations, friends, and family. Or get referrals from a locally owned lumberyard. Once the search is narrowed down to about three possibilities get—and check—references. Remember that this person will have access to your home, so you need to trust them and feel comfortable with their presence. When all else fails, go with your gut.
"Ask to talk to their suppliers, too, because the suppliers know who pays on time and if they've been around for a while," says Jim Lapides, communications manager for the National Association of Home Builders Remodelors Council. "The most important thing to look for is longevity. Make sure they have a brick-and-mortar location, real business cards—basically that it's an established business."
Lapides explains that because licensing can vary by state or even city, you must check with the licensing bureau in your area to verify its requirements. Touch base with the Better Business Bureau or district attorney's office to make sure the company has no complaints against it, and make sure the company carries insurance to protect you, the homeowner, against work-site damages or injuries.
After the contractor is selected, it's time for contract negotiation. "The biggest thing is to have open communication and get everything in writing," says Lapides. The contract should outline the start date of the project and an estimated finish date. Include as much detail as possible. For example, don't ask for a door to be installed; specify the make, model, and color of the door you want. Twenty percent payment up front is reasonable, says Lapides. "Make sure the contract details payment and do not give the last check until the project is complete."
Avoiding DID Syndrome
Baltimore writer Allegra Bennett learned about home renovation the hard way when she was left with a fixer-upper home after a divorce. She turned her own experience into a series of books, including How to Hire a Contractor, and a quarterly magazine, Renovating Woman. The do-it-yourself diva says that women are often plagued by Damsel in Distress (DID) syndrome, which makes them trust the first set of muscles they see when things go wrong.
"You cannot treat a contractor like you are on a date," she says. "Sometimes we don't know how to make the separation. We'll hire someone because he's cute, he sounds nice, or he doesn't look like he'll rip us off. Those reasons don't make sense for picking someone who's doing work in your house that you are going to be paying for."
As a defense mechanism, Bennett says, learn the lingo of the project you are beginning before hiring a contractor by going to a hardware store and asking questions. Whether you are remodeling a kitchen or replacing an electrical system, know what to expect, how long it may take, and what obstacles can arise during the project. If a project calls for half-inch plywood, find out what that looks like so you'll know the difference if the contractor installs quarter-inch instead.
"Educate yourself so you aren't intimidated," says Bennett. "We [women] don't want to cause trouble, so if he puts in the wrong railings, we tend to accept it. You need to say, 'That's not what we talked about and it needs to come out.'"
The Reality of Delays
One of the biggest headaches of a remodeling project is the inevitable delay. While a contractor not showing up for days on end may be a sign of a larger problem, there are acceptable reasons that a project may fall behind schedule. Weather is the most likely culprit, or inspectors who do not arrive on time. "The inability to make decisions slows the process down," says Wheatley. "Custom cabinetry can take 12 weeks to come in, so if the client hasn't chosen yet, the job will come to a standstill waiting for the cabinets."
To ensure a smooth process, it helps to look at the contractor-client relationship as a partnership, not a bomb waiting to explode. Establishing a relationship of mutual trust and respect helps. Bennett says, however, that doesn't mean you need to play hostess to the work crew.
"Look them in the eye and speak directly and firmly without being ugly," she says. And no whining either. "Otherwise, they'll short-change you, either because they think you're a push-over or a pain."
It's a Wrap
Parts of Mary Ellen Iwata's house are still works in progress. Brown paper covers the floor to protect it from workers' feet and plastic covers some of the windows. Renovating her home has forced her to reorganize her priorities, pay more attention to details, be more forceful in expressing her vision—and spend more time cleaning her home. "It's like living with a bunch of men you don't know," she quips.
While the project frayed her nerves at times, the results still made all the headaches worthwhile. "The light at the end of the tunnel is what keeps you going, and knowing that eventually it will look a certain way," she says. "You know that at the end of a rough day, you can look at what you've made with the help of all these crazy people."