Why You’ve Never Had a Good Contractor

Obviously this statement doesn’t apply to everyone, but I’ve heard it a few times lately from clients.

And I’ve been thinking about why.

And since that’s what I do best – figure out the answer to the question why – I’ve come up with a theory. Here it is:

Since I’m a decorator and not a renovator, I’m not consistently managing trades.

Why You've Never had a Good Contractor


My experience in managing trades happened when I partnered up with an interior designer a few years ago. We managed our clients’ renovations together and at the start of every day she would talk to each trade and let them know exactly what she expected them to accomplish that day. She would also tell them how she wanted the job done and, if necessary, she would draw them a picture. No matter how small the job was, she made sure the trades knew exactly how the finished job should look.

As you know, I managed my renovation last spring and certainly went through my fair share of telling someone to install or paint or build or dig, etc, etc, and having them doing it differently to the way I wanted it done. Just because I had not covered every possible permutation of how to do a task, I ended up having jobs done differently than I intended.

Here’s a great example: during our landscape renovation project this past summer, (see all the before’s and after’s here)  I had a handyman in the backyard working on our fence. I was going out, so I told him that a truckload of topsoil was arriving and could he please ask the driver to dump it beside the driveway. Our front yard at the time was just plain dirt because it had been completely torn out.

When I got back home, where do you suppose the load of topsoil was?

In the front yard, beside the driveway like I asked?

Why You've Never had a good Contractor

No, it was on the ROAD beside the driveway, now in the way of our neighbours’ cars.

Suddenly, this made moving the soil from the road an emergency instead of something that was to happen the following week.

If you have ever managed a renovation, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So back to you, the homeowner, who is not a designer. You have a plan and lots of great ideas.  But because there are so many different ways of doing anything, if you don’t have the exact, detailed plan with every nut and bolt laid out as it should be and your contractor is (probably) not a designer either, then you end up with a case of the blind leading the blind.

The contractor builds something a particular way and you look at it to see if it’s what you wanted. He may have done a beautiful job, but because it wasn’t designed properly, you look at it certain it’s wrong but because you don’t know what to say to make it right, you let it go. But if you continue to do that throughout the whole renovation, you might end up with a house that isn’t as beautiful as it could have been.

Even designers who manage projects constantly and who know exactly what they are doing, have to fix stuff and get stuff re-done. It happens all the time.

Why You've Never Had a Good Contractor

Via Shortsister

Last week I spoke to a high-end interior designer who told me about a million dollar project she had completed where she spent $40,000 fixing things. It goes that way sometimes.

So many things can go sideways. The junior designer makes a mistake ordering the lighting, or the tile gets installed wrong and you didn’t see it until too late, or some material gets shipped but wasn’t received until it was too late to return it. . .

Not to mention we are all dealing with human beings, so it’s simply not reality to expect that everything on a renovation is going to go smoothly, without any delays, problems, errors, etc.

A good designer has to be able to imagine every detail of the end result as well as design and order all kinds of custom millwork and furniture to get a beautiful finished project.

So if you don’t have a designer and you hate the tile floor that’s just been installed, do yourself a favour and just take it out.

And know you aren’t the only one in the world who’s just made a mistake.

What’s the worst mistake your contractor ever made (to your eye)?

Related posts:

Danger: Your Designer has Left the Building

Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage Your Expensive Renovation

Is Hiring a Designer a Luxury or Necessity?

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leave aREPLY

  1. Hi Maria,
    It’s no wonder contractors have a bad reputation. I won’t add my experiences to the list but lets just say that if we can’t do it ourselves, it won’t be happening.

  2. Well this was certainly a hot topic. I’ve had my share as well. It just shows you how valuable great tradespeople are. Those that take pride in their work, ask the right questions, follow the blueprints, and in my case get to know my ‘likes’. I think being on site is critical for some details, like hanging lights for example… And lastly, I want them to call me immediately if they have any questions. Great topic Maria!

  3. Any time you’re not starting from scratch, there are so many points where it couldn’t be known a decision would be required before the project was started. DIY is a constant stream of thinking and making decisions about how to do things. It’s a constant battle against circumstance, prior neglect and/or sloppiness and/or cheapness. If I have to interrupt the main project and carry out a new project to make some detail right, sometimes doing that three layers deep, that’s just what it takes. Even if something isn’t done 100 percent the way I want it to be, I know exactly what compromises were made and why. I know I can live with them, and I know what to expect in the future as a result. Every contractor I’ve ever seen will simply carry forward with the job as quickly as possible. If there’s something that makes it less than good, he’ll figure out how to work around it, or simply accept a poor result, because that’s not his problem. It is all my problem, because I have to live with it.

  4. I happen to be a homeowner, designer and DIY-er, but primarily a stay-at-home mom for this season in my life. That could either be really great or a series of Sybil moments, haha.
    I can cut wood better than I sew curtains but I do both when needed. So I understand, to a certain degree, the complexities of the vision to the finished result. But constant communication is the key.
    I just helped a good friend recover from what you just described happening between her and the contractors she hired to remodel. She only gave verbal instructions and ended up with weeks worth of little accomplished, much money spent and a change of the original vision and plans.
    Sketching on graph paper and using pictures helps convey ideas. Men are visual so make sure they “see” what the homeowner or designer “sees”.

  5. A contractor was supposed to remove a tall window from our bedroom and replace it with a door. He removes the window then realizes he doesn’t have the skill to properly deal with the brick during the door installation. So he puts plastic over the opening and does not return for over 2 weeks. Anyone could have walked into our home at any time. Our phone calls and emails go unanswered until … some detective work helps us track down his parents. Amazing: Mom got her adult son to return to the abandoned job. Yay for mothers everywhere!

  6. Guess we all have our stories.
    The bottom line, personalities will clash but the job is what is important, that and communication – so so important!!
    We will move into our home in 2 weeks. It is meticulous, well done and so far just lovely.
    It’s been a wild ride and one we still most likely wouldn’t do again. I know – never say never.
    But we won’t have to worry, most likely staying here!
    Good luck to all with your projects!

    Dianne, it will be my turn to be here for you in a few months! LOL! …I’ll be here! Good Luck!

  7. Did a 4 year reno to interior and exteior of our home. Still have new backyard fence and exterior painting to go. This is a giant house with over 6300 sq ft. We did it in 3 phases and the 2 general design/build firms were horrible! They came with great rep’s but it was a battle. It didn’t matter if I showed them what I wanted and begged for it. The only one that “got it” was the kitchen designer. This was a $2 mil.+ remodel. I am suffering PTSD from it all. I’m not kidding. Maybe just a bit. Our house is older but not old enough to be “cool old” just @ 24 years old. Just in time for us to tear out all the ugly orangey oak. Even the doors and the moldings. The only ones we left were the crowns as they are white and built up. I wish I had taken the wainscot off in the LR and DR. We didn’t. We will re-do it someday, maybe? They did not get it. They just didn’t get it. I have a huge formal staircase rising from the large foyer. They wanted to do wrought iron. I knew they were not smart enough to do cool wrought iron like in some old, trad houses. I wanted walnut steps with white risers and white spindles and a dark hand rail. Was that too much to ask? They insisted on not doing full width walnut on the stairs. The carpet is inlaid. OH dear. Thank goodness I didn’t let them do inlaid carpet in the hallways. I am NOT kidding. That is what the original design/build firm wanted to do. The only thing I really like about the stair case carpet is that it is wool. It’s patterned. I have to have carpeted stairs. There are a lot of them and they are kind of steep. Wider at the bottom. We have a back stair case that is totally carpeted. Different carpet. Don’t get me started on the interior designer. She cost us huge $ in that she really messed up our master bath. Tried to put too much into it. My husband and I had to re-design the bath. With the second general, we had to correct all his errors, too. Sheesh. Just how much would one have to pay to get exactly what they wanted? We will never get out of this house all the $ we have put into it. Oh well. It’s more how we wanted it now than it was. Doubly hard because we built our previous house from the foundation up with the best contractor in the world. Different part of the country and much different style of house. Due to all the overruns and such I have not had a budget for decor on this house. So I make do. This summer I am paring down and selilng as much as I can. I give up on the contractors. We did have some outstanding subs. The problem is that the surrounding houses are all complete custom (as was this one) on acre to 2 acre lots, and the contractors drive up and immediately their bids go up 20%. Arrgh. Did I get my $2-3 mil. worth. No. Is my house more pleasant, yes. For what price? My sanity?

  8. While this is not a design “mistake” per se, my (no fired) contractor’s biggest mistake was not securing and posting my remodeling/building permit prior to starting work. As someone who has never hired a contractor or done any large renovations, I failed to realize until after a week of work that the permit was not in place. His (our) contract’s very first line item said, “All proper fees and permits will be secured prior to job starting and all licences, bonds, and insurance will be in place.” Didn’t happen. Do your homework carefully when hiring, and DON’T let him/her pull so much as a single nail until you’ve verified permits, they are posted, and you’ve seen true copies of all the other pertinent documents. Also, we paid this gentle FAR too much money upfront. He wanted 1/3 down at signing with another 1/3 the first day of demo. I should have realized when he asked if he could bump up the work schedule by a full two weeks, he was just trying to get his second full payment faster. We hired him to redo several areas of our home (kitchen, master bath, deck, laundry, exterior areas, etc.), so it was in excess of $200 K. Rather than just paying him some money for each separate area, he requested the percentages on the entire scope–far too much. In the end of the first week (when they pulled the permit because of my inquiry), I discovered he had lied to our Building Department on the scope of work, was using an unlicensed plumber/electrician, falsified my husband’s signature on an entirely different contract he submitted to our town’s department, and listed large, union sub-contractors when they were not doing any of the work. This is just the short list. Now, we have a lawyer involved, a torn up house with a bit of the work started, and headaches. Hoping to get back at least $120 K out of $130 K paid so far, but we then have our legal fees. Moral of the story: the design issues matter greatly, but don’t make sure the contract is fair and that the contractor isn’t trying to pull that beautiful wool over your eyes.

  9. Maria, I’m sorry. I copied and pasted my reply so I could correct my too many typos. I inadvertently copied and pasted more than just my comments. If you are able to edit the replies, please delete the excess so my comment doesn’t “junk up” your site! Great work, by the way! I’m learning so much from you. Thank you!