Last week I went through another round of getting bids for patching a weak spot in our foundation called "honeycomb". We're happy to be able to fix this before we put our walls up again. After getting contractor bids for the 15th + time in the last several months, I am now writing down my tips for giving and getting bids for work on your house.
WHO TO CALL
Homeowner: The phone book should be the last place that you get a list of possible contractors. It is still a good source, but not as good as getting a recommendation from someone who has recently hired the same type of professional that you are looking for. Ask your neighbors and local friends. Ask the professionals you are already hiring for a reference or talk to perfect strangers at the specialty store who might have contacts in the industry you need. Getting your name in the phone book/online yellow pages is expensive, and professionals have to have a higher mark-up to pay for this advertising. ALSO, we have been much happier with owner/operator businesses. They charge less and they do consistent work because their name is on the line. This is their bread and butter. The companies with a 20 year old secretary who schedules "the techincian" have a bunch of employees who may or may not be interested in giving you a good experience.
Professional: Remember that previous clients are your best advertisement. Leave business cards and contact information with the people you help so that when they recommend your work, they can pass along your phone number easily.
Homeowner: Call as many professionals in the field as you can to get at least three appointments for an in-home bid. Don't shy away from telling each professional when you are having the other appointments so that they know they have competition. You owe them this courtesy. Give extra consideration to people willing to spend time with you on the phone. This means they have been helping customers like you for a long time.
Professional: Find out on the phone as much as you can: what exactly is the problem (I know they give superfluous info but let them talk), how much the homeowner wants to spend (This way you won't scare them away by recommending over-the-top expensive solutions and you won't underwhelm them with a band-aid solution.), who else they are talking to, how quickly they want the work done, and if they need references to any other professionals with subsequent problems (huge brownie point scoring here). If possible, educate and guestimate over the phone as well as you can. Don't give the "I really need to see it before I can give you a price" answer. If you really feel that way, tell the homeowner two different scenarios where the solution was easy and cheap and another that was difficult and expensive. You are telling them that you trust them to understand what you are saying and giving them some reference as to how your industry works.
Homeowner: By the time you get to your last bid appointment, you will have learned a lot about your home's problems and the potential solutions. You will be thinking more clearly and pragmatically. For this reason, consider scheduling your favorite professional that you met on the phone last. You will be setting yourself up to work with them with more certainty.
Professional: See if you can come last out of the three bids. That way you can match what the other two companies have offered if you want to. The homeowner will be in a more educated and pragmatic frame of mind. You will get the work more likely this way.
MEETING WITH THE HOMEOWNER/PROFESSIONAL
Homeowner: Respect each professional's expertise and ask them lots of questions about what they think and how often they have solved this problem for other people. Find out what they're schedule is like and if they can do the work as quickly as you need them to. Try not to get carried away with the professional's scare tactics if they use them. "You know, this copper pipe is only half inch. You're going to want to change it all out for something that is bigger in diameter or else you're going to have low water pressure every where in the house." The truth is, another plumber might point out that copper pipe is long lasting and that you won't notice the slight pressure difference much at all, and now you have saved thousands of dollars not changing out something that wasn't broken!
Professional: Adopt a cheery "can do" attitude. The homeowner usually won't know what it takes to solve their problem in different ways. When I ask a professional "Could we put the washer and dryer in this room easily?" and they respond "No. The plumbing is too far away . . ." Then all I hear is "NO." But if you always answer "Yes. We could do that. We would have to completely move the plumbing stack 12 feet by drilling into your foundation. Another solution that would cost less . . ." (Actually, we moved our washer and dryer really easily to a different room!) Provide lots and lots of helpful information for free and give references to them for other professionals if needed. Try to match the homeowner's philosophy about the severity of the problem and the expense to fix it. If the homeowner isn't grasping a serious problem, give them examples from your own previous clients about the risk they are taking by not fixing the problem the way you think it needs to be done. Avoid scaring them or being dramatic. Just use everyday examples. Also, avoid a lot of jargon that the homeowner has a hard time remembering or understanding. Use everyday words that make understanding and repeating the information to a spouse or friends. Be friendly and helpful. This goes a long way.
Homeowner: Be open about how much money you want to spend and how much other companies want to charge. This saves everyone time and stress and most likely will save you money.
Professional: Find out how much money they want to spend and take this as a change to explain the benefits of what they will get from you when they spend that money. Also give the homeowner a strong dose of "You are really smart to be doing this." because hiring this work to be done on their home is stressful.
Homeowner: Contact your professional of choice right away to set up a time for the work to be done. Call the other professionals that you won't be using and tell them why and thank them for the time that they have spent with them.
Professional: Call the homeowner a few days after you give them the bid. It might be hard to hear, but ask them why they decided to go with someone else if this is the case.
Good luck!! This is the most stressful part of hiring contractors, so hang in there and enjoy the education along the way :)