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Remodeling a home is tricky business. On one hand, there are few activities which are more intimate than redesigning the space that you live in; we don’t tend to think about it in that way, but the reality is that our use of space, and the way that we occupy and decorate the space says a lot about us. On the other hand, there are certain cold realities that have to be faced by the average family recreating their space; principal among them… budget. Part of the difficulty in taking on a remodeling project is trying to balance those two facets of the job – on one hand, we have the imperative of design and the pent up wants and desires from the months or years of planning leading up to the final decision to begin construction, and on the other hand we have the reality of our financial limitations.

There are only really three ways to overcome budget constraints; artful substitutions of materials to achieve substantially the same effect, cutting back on labor costs or deus ex machina– hitting the lottery, an unexpected inheritance or a huge gift borne of unrequited love from a long-pining ex. Logically, we do as much as we can in the design phase, making material substitutions and simplifying complex and labor-intensive elements to save labor costs, and shifting priorities to try to get the most bang for the buck by eliminating the “nice to haves” to keep the “must haves”. Often though, we get to the point where the outlay of dollars exceeds the inflow of the things that have long been dreamed of, and the client reaches out to achieve the improbable by going to the modern day fountain of deus ex machina, Craigslist.

Contracting, at least here in Houston, is intensely competitive and margins are thinning as the big-box stores like Home Depot, Lowes and Olshan’s step into the fray. Like most retailers, contractors have had to deal with shrinking margins, consumer demand that has scaled back with the weak economy, and major incursions by the big conglomerates into our space. When we price a job, it’s usually with the understanding that at least two other contractors are bidding. In most cases, we’re bidding somewhat low in order to get the job, knowing that if we get the job and can save the client a few dollars and “wow” them with the quality of our work, there will be either follow-on jobs or the opportunity to garner some referrals.

From a client’s perspective, the average client is of course trying to maximize their bang for the buck and talking to their friends and relatives to try to get design ideas and leads for cheap, quality craftsmen. Human nature being what it is, they are going to hear some great advice, some cutting edge design ideas and a whole lot of chaff. As mentioned before, home remodeling is an intensely personal experience, and like car buying is prime turf for nostalgia and a little embellishment to make for a better story. The reality is that good work costs money, and there is a world of difference between the wages earned by skilled craftsmen and unskilled laborers. When I present a bid for granite, for example, for most of the clients in my market, I am going to quote slab granite and not prefab lengths. I’m going to include the costs of the bullnose or square overhang, the costs of decking for the bullnose and the costs of all cuts, holes for faucets and cut-outs for undermount sinks. Most conscientious contractors will do the same, so that they don’t have to come back to the client after the sale with add-on costs, and most consumers in our market will be sophisticated enough to calculate the per square foot cost for comparison. Simple fact is that granite and the installation of granite, though not beyond the cost of our average client, is far from cheap. Unlike electrical bids and plumbing, the installation and pricing of granite is also fairly straight forward, easy to understand, and doesn’t present the same risks as electrical work. It’s also a lot more fun to talk about, and nearly everybody who has remodeled has not only an opinion, but a great story that goes along with it.

So what happens after a dinner party when our client hears the great stories, the great deals, the truckload of Italian marble that was stranded on I-45? They go home and look at their contractor’s bid and the small square sample of granite there; not much of a story, is it? And at a per square foot price nearly fifteen dollars more expensive than Susie’s. That’s where Craigslist comes in – on any average day, you can get ads like these:

GRANITE FOR $5.95 A SQUARE FOOT!
$5.00 A SQUARE FOOT TO INSTALL THE GRANITE!
PRICE INCLUDES FABRICATION, TEAROUT, DECKING, AND INSTALLATION OF NEW GRANITE!
WE HAVE SEVERAL COLORS TO CHOSE FROM! ALL DELUXE GRANITE!

Hard to beat real granite for $10.95 a square foot installed. But what is the likelihood of getting the work done for that price all in? Not likely. Economically, it doesn’t make sense to sell granite that commands anywhere from $18.00 to $35.00 per square foot installed for less than a half of retail price, even if you could, even if the granite were free. If a furniture store or a car dealership were offering to sell for less than cost, most sophisticated consumers would scoff, so why not on ads for granite or hardwood floors? It should be clear that the aim of the ad is not to sell granite for $10.95 a foot, but to get you to call so that they can get an appointment to sell you some granite. Surprisingly, though, the Craigslist ad is proof enough for a great number of people that the market rate for granite is $10.95 per square foot, or that the market price for installed real hardwood floors is $3 per square foot. And there is where many hearts are broken.

As a general contractor, I know the market price of materials, services and trades that go into putting together a successful bid and completing a job with smiles and handshakes at the end. My preferred subs have a track record with me and know that although I can be tough, I’m a great referral source. They have more invested and more at stake in their relationship with me than they have at stake with any individual client. They also know to provide a solid, no-nonsense bid to me that they can stand behind and deliver on.

What can a client that relies on a Craigslist ad bank on? They can pretty much bank on the fact that they are going to have to do their homework. The beauty of Craigslist is that it gives many, many tradesmen who would otherwise have no exposure a way to get their names out there. Some are very, very good at what the do and very, very bad at creating an effective ad. What can you do to help seperate the wheat from the chaff?

Get a baseline quote. Get a quote from your contractor or a recommendation from a trusted friend or advisor or check out a well known name in the yellow pages, and call that person for a quote. If you got the number from a friend, ask if you can see the work in person. Ask every question you want, and ask them what questions you should be asking. Keep their name and number handy in case new questions pop up. That quote is your base quote. Since these people are your known and trusted source, any other quote that you take should be lower in order to compensate you for the risk you are taking on an unknown entity.

Get more than one quote. Don’t make a career out of getting quotes, or else you are not going to remember one vendor from another and all the meetings will blend together. Get at least three quotes, all written. You’re soon going to know where the market price really is – that alone is worth the effort. Compare the final quote given after all the measurements were taken to the price that was advertised on Craigslist. If the difference is more than 25%, you’re dealing with somebody who has no compunction about stretching the truth in order to get a job.

Listen to what they are saying. Ask questions and ask them to walk you through their process. Ask about any options that they recommend and ask them about the differences between materials that they show you. Honestly, it’s pretty easy for anybody to memorize a pitch, so keep that in mind, but the more familiar they are with their work, the better. Ask them whether they will do the installation, and if not, ask them to tell you a little bit about your installer. Where are they from, how long have they been in the business, how did they meet? Basically, many of the people who advertise on Craigslist are themselves contractors and have no idea who the people are who do their installations. Nothing wrong with contractors, but any good contractor should know their subs and should know them well.

Be safe. Remember that Craigslist is an anonymous service and that you don’t know the people you are inviting into your home. Your safety should be paramount – don’t meet them alone, make sure that you take precautions, and if possible, arrange to call somebody when your appointment arrives and have them call you right back. In front of your appointment, let the caller know who you are meeting, and give the caller the phone number of the person you’re meeting with as a “referral”.