It could be the restorative power of sunshine after a long, gloomy winter. Or maybe seeing buildings grow skyward under bustling cranes. Whatever the inspiration, it seems many folks caught the renovation bug this summer. But whether it's the kitchen, patio, or basement, everyone also seems to have the same problem - finding a contractor.
Seattle's growth spurt is changing more than just the skyline. The building frenzy has created a veritable vortex pulling in every construction worker it can and leaving few professionals available to all the rest of us. The pros who aren't building offices and apartments are busy with whole-home remodels or large additions. Case in point: My friend wants to finish her basement. She has cash in hand. She isn't demanding or unreasonable. So why won't anyone take the job? To sum up one bidder's response, "this job may cost $20,000. We just put a $5,000 toilet in a house. We don't want to get tied-up with small jobs."
So... What to do when you can't find someone to do it for you? It might be time to do it yourself.
I already hear you crying out the reasons you can't. "I'm not handy! I've never done it before! I wouldn't know where to begin!"
Calm down. The library and I are here to help. No, I'm not a contractor. Nor have I worked in any construction-related trade. But I have (with my admittedly awesome can-do-anything husband) DIY'd some major projects. I'm here to share the resources and lessons I've gleaned along the way.
- Avoid sticker shock.
Things cost more than you think. The 2018 National Construction Estimator, opens a new window is helpful for figuring out what you can realistically afford. It includes an area modification chart to better estimate costs in specific regions. For giggles, I calculated the predicted cost of my recent patio remodel, and it was on par with what I paid.
- Be your own general contractor.
So you can't find someone to take on your job. No worries! With a little help, you can do it yourself. You don't have to become a skilled craftsman either - you just have to know how to hire one. The first thirty-six pages of Don't Sweat It, Hire It, opens a new window sums up everything I learned the hard way. Don't make my mistakes. Read. Learn. The book also delves into working with subcontractors from a variety of trades. And despite being written in 2007, the advice holds up. Except about using the phone book. I can't remember the last time I got a phone book...
- Sometimes the internet lies.
, opens a new windowI know, it's hard to believe. Why would your friend the internet mislead you?! Whether free or paid, reviews aren't always credible. To get more accurate information you're going to have to dig in. ReferenceUSA (Data Axle) is a good place to start your research. It lists basic information (sales volume, number of employees, managers/owners, etc.) and is free to use with your library card. Continue your search at the state's Labor & Industries site, opens a new window where you can verify your contractor, tradesman, or hired business has an active license. And it never hurts to check for complaints filed with the Western Washington Better Business Bureau, opens a new window.
- Get the right tools.
SkyWest Tool Library, opens a new window just started up in Skyway, and the South King Tool Library, opens a new window is opening in Auburn. If you end up needing to buy a tool, you can check reviews from Consumer Reports, opens a new window (for free!) with your library card."But I can't find anyone to tile my floors!" Then you may need to learn some skills after all. The first thing you'll need is a how-to guide. Your library has lots of books and videos to help you there. But you may also need specialty tools. Some hardware stores rent tools, but you can also borrow them from your local tool library. There are a number of tool libraries in Seattle, and a few others spotted around King County. The
- Check the work.
Whether you do the work yourself or hire someone, make sure the work's done right. "But I don't know anything about plumbing! That's why I hired a plumber! How am I supposed to know if its right?!" Start with the Code Check series, opens a new window. These spiral bound cheat-sheets give simple, illustrated facts about the International Residential Code (IRC), which is the residential building code used in Washington state. If you're new to remodeling, you might be asking "what are these codes of which you speak?" Basically, the building code is the rule book for construction. It specifies how far your toilet must be from the wall, the distance between wall studs, and pretty much everything else. "But Code Check books use the 2012 IRC, and Washington uses the 2015 IRC!" Yup. The state kindly provides a PDF of all the updates made to the 2012 IRC, opens a new window, though. Just check the PDF for the IRC code numbers referenced in the Code Check books for any changes. If the work done by your pro doesn't look like it does in Code Check, opens a new window, be sure you discuss it. You don't want to find out it's wrong from the inspector.
- Understand what you're looking at.
If you want more detail, get a more thorough book, like Codes for Homeowners, opens a new window. It's current with 2015-2017 codes, has extensive photos and explanations, and is pretty easy to understand.
Before I leave you to courageously face your DIY challenge, I have a few last thoughts to share:
Seriously, follow the general advice in Don't Sweat It, Hire It. Don't be afraid to ask for your professional's license number. Put a finish date in your contract. Get 3 bids, even if you feel like the first estimator and you really connected. He's a salesman. He's smooth. It's his job to make you want to hire him.
Write into your contract that any costs over budget need your pre-approval. Projects often run into problems, and problems can get costly. You'll want to know how much your costs are growing so you can find ways to stay on budget.
And finally, pay with a credit card. You might be able to save X% by paying cash, but credit cards have recourse. Cash won't do anything on your behalf when no one shows up after paying the deposit. With a credit card, you can always dispute the charge.
Cheers and happy renovating!