Your game plan for a home renovation project

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Most HGTV shows give us the idea that home remodeling projects take place in 30 minutes and only include just one token problem right before a commercial break (“Chip, there’s mold behind the molding!”).

But in the non-reality-TV real world, many major renovations — from additions to kitchen and bath redos to finishing unfinished spaces — involve multiple hiccups and take too long, testing your patience, your family relationships and your wallet.

The potential star or villain in this chaos is a general contractor. The right one can create a hit show of sorts, bringing in plumbers, electricians and other professionals to work with your architect or designer, if you have one. Most important, the right remodeling company develops a rapport with you, gathering your opinions and instructions, and responding to them; communicating openly about problems and solutions; and guiding you toward better ideas and cost-saving solutions whenever necessary.

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Below are some basic strategies for hiring a contractor who can successfully complete your project. Through a special arrangement, Washington Post readers can access Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of general contractors for free through Feb. 10 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Remodeling. At Checkbook.org, you also can review our articles and advice on finding and working with remodeling companies and other home improvement contractors.

Start by asking and answering basic questions.

What do you want to accomplish? More living space? An extra bedroom and bathroom? An update for tired old rooms? A new layout to correct dysfunctional floor plans? Will you use the remodeled or new space enough to justify the cost? Will you raise your home’s market value? Should that even matter to you?

The key is developing a wish list and then weighing it against what you’ll probably pay to fulfill it. Will you really derive $25,000 of enjoyment from that remodeled bathroom? How often will you use a $50,000 home theater in the basement?

These considerations are especially important if you’re considering a major renovation or addition. For example, if it costs $200,000 to add a great room downstairs and a new bedroom and bath upstairs, are you better off building them or using that money to trade up to a bigger house? Identifying goals and thinking through available options will force some decisions — and help you set a budget cap.

Get design help and put together a serious plan.

Architects, house designers, and kitchen and bath designers can convert your wish list into a detailed plan with a rough budget. In general, you’ll benefit the most from hiring an architect or house designer if you need a lot of design work — for a big or complicated addition, or to tie in significant changes to more than one room. Architects have the most education and training, but the difference between a qualified designer and an architect often comes down to the latter’s knowledge of engineering, which, for most home improvement projects, is not an essential qualification.

Both architects and house designers charge by the hour or use a fixed price (preferable), depending on the level of service, or bill a percentage of the final construction price if they’re supervising and directing the entire affair.

Kitchen and bath designers specialize in layout and planning for those frequently remodeled spaces. You’ll find kitchen and bath specialists working for architects, design-build firms, manufacturers’ showrooms, free-standing studios, retail chains, independent stores and general contractors. Fees paid for the work of kitchen and bath designers employed by another business, like a design-build firm or a store, are often rolled into the price for the remodeling job or items purchased from the store.

Vet potential contractors.

Hiring a contractor who can turn ideas into reality — as painlessly as possible and at a fair price — is the most important step. As you make a list of prospective contractors, collect references for past customers and pros they work with — among them: Does the company do the kind of work you have in mind? Does it follow plans? Does it get the work done when promised? Does it help you find low-cost solutions?

Does it stick to agreed-upon prices? Does it solve problems promptly? Do workers communicate effectively? Does it limit disruption to your daily life as much as possible? Are the results as professional and attractive as you would expect? Is it flexible enough to make changes at a reasonable cost if you change your mind?

Interview candidates carefully.

Meet with at least three (but preferably four or five) candidates, and go over your plan in detail, while asking pointed questions about their experience and credentials as well as potential problems — from your perspective and the contractor’s. Yours will be a close relationship, so imagine what it would be like to work with this person for weeks or even months. Afterward, check out key credentials, including references, licensure, insurance, past lawsuits and complaint history.

Get several proposals and bids.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers asked contractors to bid on two different projects. The first job: expanding and remodeling a kitchen, enlarging and remodeling an existing family room addition and reconfiguring parts of the first floor to create a center hall. The other job: remodeling a master bathroom.

Company-to-company price differences were striking. For the kitchen remodel, quotes ranged from $74,000 to $169,500 — a difference of nearly $100,000. For the kitchen and great-room expansion and remodel, quotes ranged from $113,000 to $205,000 — a difference of $92,000.

The lesson? Get several bids. Also, don’t assume that there’s any relationship between price and quality. Many contractors do great work at low prices.

In addition to ensuring a low price, collecting multiple bids will minimize surprises. If Company A proposes to install a header and Company B does not, ask Company B why not. If it tells you it’s probably not needed, ask the company to add it to its proposal as an option and avoid a possible surprise cost increase later. Another benefit of detailed pricing is that it makes it easier to calculate your savings if you scale back the job.

Carefully evaluate proposals.

Look for detailed pricing, reasonable payment schedules, descriptions of warranties and flexible terms that accommodate inevitable changes.

Contractors also often use allowances for kitchen cabinets, appliances, countertops and other products you’ll choose later. A proposal may include, for example, three allowance amounts for cabinets depending on whether you decide on a premium, standard or budget line. Before accepting a proposal, do what you can to nail down all these details so you establish a fixed cost for all parts of the job.

For items you can buy on your own, check prices with retailers to make sure you can’t do significantly better, especially for appliances, cabinets and fixtures. When calculating budgets and bids for customers, most remodelers mark up the prices they pay their retail and wholesale sources, sometimes by a lot.

Pick a winner; then get a formal contract. A good contract includes a detailed description of the work, who will do the work, price and payment terms, quality standards, warranties and guarantees, how changes to the scope of work will be handled, and start and completion dates. It should require that the contractor secure all permits and approvals and require the contractor supply you with applicable lien releases prior to each payment you make. And it should make clear that you get to say when the job is over.

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A contract best protects you against lousy work if it minimizes the down payment and maximizes the final payment. The more money you can withhold until the end of the job, the more leverage you’ll have to make sure the job is done well and according to your agreement.

There’s much you can do to help your project run smoothly. Resign yourself to some unpleasantness. Parts of your home will be in disarray, your stuff may sit in storage, and your privacy will suffer intrusions. To prevent mistakes and avoid misunderstandings, communicate with your project manager every day and ask for daily schedules.

Make sure you’re available for questions and deal promptly with surprises: No contractor can foresee every problem; when a questionable extra pops up, look for a middle ground that both you and the contractor can live with.

Don’t take advantage. When you’re forking over a lot of money, asking a worker to toss some of your old stuff in the dumpster or unstop a gutter while he’s up on a ladder may not seem like a big deal. These favors rightly drive some contractors crazy.

If work isn’t done to your satisfaction, don’t pay until the contractor makes it right.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor at Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates (everything from auto repair shops to doctors to roofers). You can access Checkbook’s ratings of Washington-area general contractors free of charge until Feb. 10 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Remodeling.

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