How to find the best home contractors


This spring, I and my husband are pursuing some home improvement projects. After we very roughly set our budget, we set out to find the right contractors for us. Alas, as you can imagine, this process is tedious and very time consuming. We make a lot of phone calls and shoot multiple emails to briefly introduce our projects, patiently wait for their responses (some never respond, however), meet with the potential contractors individually, show our premise, and get their professional feedback and an estimate.

At this point, my husband and I are quite confused. Three contractors who look at the same thing give three different opinions and three vastly different estimates. For example, one person says, “you have to rip off what you have and start afresh.” Another says, “the foundation is good, so let’s save it and do some retouching.” Understandably, the second person’s quote is about half of the first person’s. So far, it makes sense. Now, the third person comes along and agrees with the second person. But the third person’s quote is even more than the first person’s. Why? How can I understand these differences? What do I make out of them? How do I process information about a field I am totally ignorant of? I don’t have an answer to these questions, and they will probably haunt us until the day when we pick our builder. So, in today’s post, I want to write about something else. While negotiating with different contractors is confusing and tedious, it is also fun in some regards. Fun because it helps me to understand who I am and where my values lie. Here are some of my random thoughts.

  1. As there are designer bags and non-designer bags and you pay extra for the name value of the former, there are designer contractors as well. People suggest that in order to find best home builders, we seek referrals. We did. Who is the best roofing company in the area? We asked, and people usually picked one company. And yeah, this company’s quote vastly exceeds other lesser known companies’ quotes by a huge margin. I guess that it costs money to have people say that XX is a good roofing company (advertising, marketing, etc.), and when you hire them, yes, you do pay extra for their name value. Personally, I don’t own a designer bag, because I don’t want to pay for the “Prada” part of a Prada bag. I just want to pay for the “bag” part. Similarly, I and my husband find that when people unanimously say “XX is THE company for roofing,” we almost see an imaginary red flag. I almost mutter, “it doesn’t mean anything.” I find that I have a tendency to lean towards lesser-known but smart and enthusastic start-ups.
  2. I think that construction companies with elaborate labor division charge more. For example, you can speak to a woman to schedule an appointment, talk to a salesman to show your premise and get an estimate, and have a carpenter to come and work on your steps. By contrast, there are independent contractors. They pick up the phone, schedule meetings, give an estimate, promote their service, and grab a saw and a hammer to repair your steps. I am definitely in favor of the second kind. Who matters in construction? The carpenter, the roofer, and the laborer. Yes, the phone lady and the salesperson should be paid, but I want the people who get dirty and sweat under the fierce sun with a hammer in one hand and the saw in the other to get the lion share of my money. According to my quick research, however, these people are paid the least. They make around $20 per hour only (sources:,
  3. Different contractors have different styles in giving estimates, and I like those who are willing to give itemized quotes. Some contractors suggest only a grand total. “We will do the jobs ABC, and you will owe us this much.” My immediate questions are, how much is material, and how much is labor? How much does the job A cost, and how much for B and C?” Some contractors are willing to give breakdowns upon request, but others aren’t. I am sorry to say, but I think this is a muddy part where a number of home owners are ripped off. Sometimes, material costs are set unrealistically. When I am given information on which material will be used for my project, I check its market price myself. Less than 20% of mark-up is understandable, I think, but 50% is ridiculous, I think. And if they are honest constructors, why can’t they give me breakdowns? Also, by knowing how much labor costs, I can be faithful to my earlier philosophy: that is, people who do the real work should be paid fairly.