If you're going to do any home remodeling and you know little or nothing about it, hire an architect or interior designer. Even if you know something about it and have watched the relevant episodes on HGTV, hire one anyway. But, at the very least, hire a good contractor. What's a good contractor? You'll need to look at their work and check their references, but start with someone with a listing in the Yellow Pages, a permanent office, and at least one employee who sits there preferrably keeping the books and does not swing a hammer.
The rest of you will get the name of some contractor or carpenter about whom some friend of a friend raves, he'll show up in an unmarked pickup truck, and together you'll sketch on the back of a napkin or deposit slip "exactly" what you want. Wrong! But, you're going to do it anyway because his price is so reasonable and he seems so nice, so here are a few tips to make what is likely to be an unpleasant experience a bit less onerous.
1. Pay for everything directly, and nothing in advance.
Pay the vendors, material suppliers, fabricators, even casual laborers directly. You'll know how your money was spent, everybody will be paid in a timely manner, and liens will be avoided. Make a contract with the contractor for his supervisory time, overhead, and profit with a schedule of payments tied to partial completion events. If you use an attorney, don't say so and have it translated from legalese into the common vernacular and make sure it fits on one side of the paper. Do not pay him until something is actually done, never in advance.
Small-time contractors who have no office, no employees, not even a magnetic sign for the pickup, are notoriously bad managers of money. If you make a downpayment for "materials" at the beginning of the job, chances are next time he comes over he'll be driving a brand new pickup. If he's got more than one job going at the same time, he probably has no idea how much he's spent on each. The funds he receives from each customer get hopelessly co-mingled, and at some point in your job he's going to run out of money even though you've paid him according to the agreement. Even he doesn't know where the money went, and unless you want his new pickup, a big-screen tv, or a bass boat, you'll never see your money again and will have to get someone else to finish the job.
2. Buy customized materials from a one-stop shop.
Buy from vendors who are able and agree to make site measurements, fabricate, and install the materials and/or equipment they sell. Countertops, cabinets, window coverings, and many other items must be fabricated to fit. If your agreement with the vendor is to "furnish and install" and it doesn't fit, they'll need to make it right or do it over at their expense. Do not buy materials from one source and have it fabricated by another, no matter how good the price. People who violate this rule may get caught in a squeeze play of finger pointing, and end up paying for everyone's mistakes.
3. Have everything delivered directly to the jobsite.
Don't let the contractor ship to his place of business or it may never make it to yours. As a corollary, don't let the contractor or his assistant routinely run over to Home Depot to pick up this or that; a trip for a box of screws 3 miles away never takes less than 3 hours. Go yourself if you have to. Large orders from Lowe's or Home Depot can always be delivered for a modest, flat fee. Violate this rule and your contractor's home may get a new coat of paint...or more.
4. Buy from reliable vendors.
Avoid "I can get it for you wholesale" one-time deals. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. And if anything goes wrong, the discount will go up in smoke. Deal with people who are here today, and will be here tomorrow. They have a reputation to protect.
5. Make an agreement that is unilaterally easy to dissolve.
Workers and contractors get bored with jobs and their owners. They stop showing up or fail to keep the subcontractors performing or begin making careless mistakes. It's much better to part company without tears.
6. Don't change your mind, if you don't have to.
Everyone understands it's a rare remodeling or renovation job that doesn't produce surprises and require changes of plan. However, fickle and arbitrary changes can be corrosive. The owner thinks, "I'm paying for this," and assumes the right of peremptory selection. The workers are not coin-operated robots. No one likes to labor over something, feel the pride of craftsmanship, and then tear it out. Workers begin to despise people who do that to them repeatedly, and look for ways to cheat them.
7. Document everything.
Keep track of what was proposed, and what was actually accomplished. This is one of the reasons why you hire an architect or interior designer. They know how to document the work and the changes thereto to keep everyone honest. If you don't, it will be your word against...
8. It's not smart to bring in sidewalk superintendants.
Don't bring your best friend or mother-in-law or some other maven to tour the job while the workers are working. And, if you do, tell them to shut up. Few can avoid the temptation to score points by showing off their "knowledge" and criticizing the work in progress. Someone will always have got it done better or faster or cheaper...elsewhere. Imagine what it does for job morale. Even if you conduct tours after hours, take the comments with a grain of salt. A 30-second peek does not reveal all the problems that are being solved in the work, even for an experienced observer.
9. Forget the schedule.
Small-time contractors and handymen rarely have a developed sense of urgency...unless it's to go to the ballgame or fishing. Take a deep, cleansing breath and save your sanity.
10. Remodeling does not guarantee happiness.
Unhappy people sometimes harbor the illusion that if they had what happy people have, they'd be happy too. Fabulous kitchens do not turn out fabulous food without cooks.
11. Nothing's perfect.
Most don't believe it, at least not what you pay for. If you meet the price, they should be able to deliver the goods. It ain't necessarily so. Craftsmen can only do the best they can, and no better. Look at their work before you hire them, because that's what you're going to get. A lousy carpenter you hired at a bargain price will not be able to duplicate those fine cabinetmaking details you've seen in Architectural Digest, even if he signs a contract agreeing to do so. He will, in the end, only blame his tools.
12. Be nice.
Do not treat a vendor, the contractor, or his workers like errant children. It does not make them do better work.