Penthouse Plunge: Finding a General Contractor is Harder Than it Looks

I’ve never used the same general contractor twice. That says something right there. So every time I do a renovation, I have to start from scratch. The usual reason I don’t repeat contractors comes down to communication. I say things that don’t happen. They do things without asking that aren’t on the blueprints. They ignore installation instructions so an item won’t install properly (so I get the right part and do it myself over the weekend only to be met with wide-eyed stares). They try to install a shower drain a foot off the ground (literally) because they don’t have the right drain – which I source and have FedEx-ed.  They cut an active water line that floods the place and send me a Jimmy John’s sandwich as a “sorry.” And once they just ghosted for a month and I had to sue to recoup my deposit.

Those who read this column know that clarity isn’t typically one of my faults nor is suffering fools.

So given my track record, how do I find a contractor?

Ask Your Building

First, high-rises and multi-family residential complexes typically keep a list of contractors who have been successful in the building. It’s a good place to start if for no other reason than the track record. Also, they know the building to an extent – they’ve opened walls and seen where things lead. All good.

Architects may also have a list because some homeowners use architects almost as project managers, working very closely with contractors. You can also try friends who have completed a successful renovation (borrowing their hard work and experience). In the horse and buggy days, I’d suggest the Yellow Pages, but that’s fairly pointless these days.

If you haven’t gotten enough contractor phone numbers, you might visit buildings in the area and ask to see their list. This is especially useful in multi-family situations because many contractors seem to do a brisk business concentrating on a few buildings. So a hot contractor on Turtle Creek may be unknown a mile away.

Casper Isn’t The Only Ghost

Conventional wisdom says you should get three quotes. But that doesn’t mean call three contractors and you’re done. You may have to call a dozen or more contractors to get those three bids. Some will never call you back. Some will show up once, twice, three times only to fall off a cliff and never respond to you again (there should be a Tinder for contractors). Some will string you along for so long – “I’m working on it” – that you forget you even called them.

Construction is booming and contractors are busy. They also believe you’re not a repeat customer (and they don’t need you anyway), so ditching you has no consequences. Some are just really bad communicators and lack the social grace to just say “no.”

You may also have to contend the other way contractors say “no.” Instead of ghosting or not calling, they provide a quote (usually verbally) that’s so completely out of whack Louis XIV would think it crazy. They’re the worst. For the inexperienced, you suddenly think your mental budget is all wrong when it may not be.

Sometimes you’ll swear this is your Caller ID

What Happened This Time?

Every time you renovate, these things will happen in some form. I called three contractors given to me by The Claridge – I got one actual quote. I contacted another who was recommended by a friend – after three meetings and a “have quote ready” text, I got ghosted. I called another who gave me a price 4 times that of the other (didn’t want the job). I called another who never called back. I met another and, after three weeks, got “still interested, been busy” – and that was three weeks ago.

Hell, getting a third quote? I couldn’t get a second one.

Met another contractor and was told there were too many moving parts to the deal he didn’t know how to bid it without overbidding it. Instead sent me a price list of what different trades cost per hour – as though that was a help. We exchanged a few notes about “putting a box around it” – my go-to phrase for this contractor. I said that if demolition workers cost $50/hour and it took 10 guys a month, that’s $80,000. He responded that it would be four guys a month. And so it went, back and forth on different labor and materials rates until I had something of a quote.

That was the one I picked. And he’s so busy, he can’t handle the extra business that might come from naming him.

Quality Over Cost

Now, of course, there are more than price considerations. There is quality to be concerned with. The first quote I got sounded OK, but it seemed at every turn the quality of his work was called into question by unconnected, random people – architects, other builders, someone maybe interested in buying the “A” unit, and most notably, an example of his work that I could see for myself.

The guy I did pick, walked me through three units he was simultaneously working on in a nearby building. I also knew he was up for multiple other jobs at The Claridge.

That’s something else to consider. In a multifamily complex, if there are multiple renovations happening at the same time, using one of those contractors might lessen a quote simply because workers aren’t traipsing across town between jobs, they’re simply taking an elevator.

As it is, there are something like seven renovations either already begun or soon to begin at The Claridge. Some are existing owners, but many are new owners like me who purchased with the intent to renovate (more on them in another column).

How To Pick?

I do not believe there’s a foolproof way to efficiently get multiple quotes when labor is tight and construction is booming. That said, here are a few guidelines.

  1. In multifamily complexes, ask your building as well as neighboring buildings. Otherwise you’re looking for recommendations from friends or co-workers.
  2. If you’re in a high-rise, realize some contractors just won’t work there, period.
  3. Perhaps one in three will actually give you a quote. So plan on calling 10 general contractors at least.
  4. Don’t call three and wait. Immediately find and call 10. The worst that happens is that you get four or five quotes – boo-hoo.
  5. Make sure you tell each contractor you meet the exact same thing. Map out the scope of work on paper.
  6. Have blueprints, don’t just say, “I want a wall kinda here.”
  7. For every contractor that ghosts you, have a tequila shooter and call another. Be relentless.
  8. Sometimes they will make suggestions or notice things that won’t work or would work better another way. They’re professionals, take advice where you can get it.
  9. Tour properties to see their work
  10. Get references from their last few jobs – see them if you can – and make sure any reference is VERY recent. Otherwise, anyone can get three customers they didn’t tick-off if they go back far enough. You want to know the quality of work they’re doing NOW.
  11. When finally evaluating, balance cost against quality … and pray.

I know on this phase of a renovation I’m not a lot of help given my abysmal track record. But I hope this gives you a place to begin and comfort in knowing that all the terrible communication you experience happens to us all.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

2 Comment

  • I think all of your points are excellent, but especially #10. Make sure the references are RECENT. Someone I know well (or thought I knew) was once good, but in recent years has gone off the rails and does very shoddy work, promises to refund money that never comes, etc. It makes me very leery about recommending anyone, as those referrals are a reflection of me. Just amazing how you can feel grateful when someone simply shows up.

  • Ah, the hazards of renovating during a housing building boom. More projects than they have time for. Good news you have someone who has worked in the building. They know the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the building, which is a big plus. Drawings and a clear vision are a big plus also. Thanks for taking us on this journey.