Brian Gawthrop has waited over six months to remodel his home.
The Washington state-based certified financial planner and his wife have a long enough wish list to keep a contractor busy: a kitchen remodel, new flooring, a new deck and many other upgrades.
They did a cash-out refinance last summer, which lowered their mortgage rate and gave them money to use toward home improvements. They planned to start soon after receiving the cash, but by mid-December Gawthrop still hadn’t found the right contractor.
Contractors say pandemic-prompted home remodels have kept their schedules full, while labor and material shortages have extended project timelines. That means the next contractor you call may be more selective about the projects they accept, and your quote may be higher than you expected.
Here’s how to stand out in a crowd of homeowners vying for a contractor’s attention.
Get a referral
A contractor may be more likely to call you back if an existing customer refers you. You can try a friend, family member or neighbor who’s had work done recently.
Mike Williams, owner of Maryland Professional Contractors, says when he has dozens of voicemails, referrals get the first calls back.
Williams says he enjoys working with new customers, but the referral network supports his business.
“That base supports about seven full-time employees right now,” he says. “I know that was there before this boom, so I’m pretty sure after the boom we’ll have that referral base.”
You might also use your real estate agent. Williams says about half of his referrals come from agents.
Be patient — and nice
For Williams, summer is the busy season and demand starts to drop in the fall; last year, however, he stayed busy through the end of the year. Renovation timelines could be delayed by backlogged city permit requests, a shortage of subcontractors and backordered materials.
Christina Starmer, building contractor at CenterBeam Construction in Jacksonville, Florida, says she returns every customer’s call, but acknowledges that not all contractors do.
“I think it’s really important to be extremely kind to the customers and call them back, but the customers right now are just extremely frustrated because they can’t get anyone to pick up the phone,” she says.
Frustrating as it is, don’t let anger get the best of you. Starmer says renovations are hard work, and a little empathy goes a long way.
If someone is unkind early on, Starmer assumes they’ll be unkind to her staff as well, and usually moves on to a new client.
Know what you want
Research finishes, like cabinets and countertops, before calling a contractor because they can make a big difference in the project’s cost, says Jonathan Larkin , sales manager of St. Paul, Minnesota-based JoNick Construction.
“It’s much easier to write up a bid if somebody has some solid ideas of what they really want,” he says.
If you don’t have the details ironed out, Larkin recommends setting a budget ahead of time. Giving a number may feel like relinquishing leverage, but he says a reputable contractor will use your budget to help you assess options, not overcharge you.
Your budget may need to be higher than before the pandemic, he says. Wood prices skyrocketed last spring and still haven’t fallen to their pre-pandemic levels. Other materials, like shingles and siding, are also more expensive than they were in 2019, Starmer says.
Larkin recommends getting an itemized estimate in case you need to find opportunities to cut costs.
Protect your finances
Gawthrop says his wife wants to start their renovations sooner than later, but he wants to stay budget-conscious. In this market, he says price seems largely at the discretion of contractors.
“It kind of feels like the wild west,” he says.
But you can maintain control of your finances. For example, ask to build a pricing buffer into the contract. Larkin says if material costs increase or decrease by more than 12% between the time he makes a bid and when the project starts, he’ll correct the bid. This helps protect him and his customers from volatile materials prices, he says.
If you’re not paying for the renovation in cash, compare financing options. For example, home equity financing typically comes with single-digit rates and repayment terms of 10 or more years, while personal loans can have rates between 6% and 36% but shorter terms of one to seven years.
Weigh each type of financing to find one that works best for you.