Planning and Organizing a Home Improvement Project

The reason so many home improvement projects end up being such a miserable experience is that so much effort is expended up front – budgeting, selecting materials, selecting and negotiating with the contractor – that there's no energy left to plan for surviving the experience itself.  But investing a little time establishing some ground rules and some reasonable expectations can help you and your family cope with having strangers in your house, not to mention numerous other disruptions, for a period of weeks, if not months.  The first step is one that may be crucial to how well the project proceeds, and that is selecting the contractor.

Selecting the contractor. Here are some do's and don't pertaining to the all-important process of selecting a contractor.  

  • Consider at least three contractors.  Make sure each contractor is currently registered with the state.  Referrals are helpful, but always ask for and check references.  Find out if  a contractor has a complaint or judgment history by checking with the Better Business Bureau.  Agencies in your state may also maintain records on complaints.  Never agree to give a job to someone unsolicited who simply arrives at your door.  Be wary of pricing that seems too good to be true.
  • Before you sign a contract, get a detailed, written estimate that includes price quotes for all special materials, installations and labor. Ask for proof that the contractor carries insurance to cover your project.  Make sure that the contractor applies for and obtain a building permit if one is required.
  • Review the contract carefully.  It should include the contractor's registration number, a street address (not a post office box), dates work is to begin and be substantially completed, the total amount agreed to be paid and a payment schedule, a list of specifications and materials to be used, and provisions for changes or "extras."  Don't hire a contractor who won't agree to a written contract, no matter how small the project.
  • Payment schedule.  Don't pay a substantial portion of the total cost up front.  Many state laws limit the percentage of the project that can be collected up front.  
  • Understand consumer protection laws.  Check your own state laws to see what protections exist for consumers versus contractors, including contract cancellation periods, and dispute arbitration. 

Once the contractor has been selected and all of the paperwork is completed to your satisfaction, it's time to prepare for the onslaught.

Coping with the project.  The more time you devote at the outset to establishing ground rules for your family and the workers, the better able you will be to cope with the inevitable disruptions in daily routine.

  • Find out what the workers' schedules will be – arrival and departure times.
  • Determine who will have keys to your home.
  • Remind family members to stay away from the work area, particularly when workers are present.  If you have youngsters, constantly remind them of same.
  • Secure valuables in the house and remove not so valuable items from the work area.  
  • Making coffee and soft drinks available to the workers throughout the day will be appreciated.
  • Establish a plan for communicating with the contractor at regular intervals.  Make all of your phone numbers available to the contractor and vice versa.
  • Resolve any concerns that you have with the contractor immediately.  Don't let concerns fester.
  • Try your darndest to stick with your original plan.  Changes have a way of mounting up to the point where your $40,000 kitchen project rivals the cost of the kitchen on the Queen Mary.

Don't be at all surprised if you rue the day you decided to undertake the project every day the project is in process.  But if you heed the above guidance, six months after completion, you'll look back on it as merely a minor inconvenience.