A highly recommended contractor said it would take four days to replace the siding on our garage apartment. It took four months. Three months on, we had to cancel a kids’ birthday party because the backyard and driveway were piled with rotting lumber studded with rusty nails. 

I wanted to fire my contractor dozens of times, but the truth was, I felt sorry for her—initially, anyway. She was from my home state of Arkansas; she’d had a hard life; she was working in a male-dominated world. Perhaps I should have paid a bit more attention when she told me about the motorcycle accident in which she landed on her head, lost her teeth, and was clinically dead for an improbable amount of time. 

As someone who has remodeled and resold many houses over the years, I’ve worked with many contractors I’d recommend to anyone, and some I’d like to hit with a two-by-four sprouting nails. Lately, I’ve engaged a great contractor who goes by the name of Cowboy on a project to develop some live/work artist studios. Lucky for me, he has a broad range of experience, creativity, and patience. 

Here are some tips for finding your own trustworthy trail boss.

1. Recommendations are essential.

Make sure to look at past projects and determine whether they’re similar in scope to what you’re doing. My dentally challenged contractor from Arkansas could successfully pull off a one-day project without much incident. But anything longer would inevitably drag a homeowner into her tangled web of personal problems and poor life choices. 

2. You should like the contractor as a person. 

While I was pregnant with my son, we redid our kitchen using a highly recommended design-build guy my husband found. At meeting after meeting, I gritted my teeth as the architect/contractor droned on and on about how great he was. Predictably, as the project wore on, it became clear that this was overcompensation at the highest level. “We should have canned him when he told us he was just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead,” I told my husband later.

3. Do your utmost to figure out your remodeling plan in advance and stick to it.

Get a firm bid and a signed contract. If you continually change your mind about what you want, you will absolutely pay more in the long run; in addition, repeatedly doing and undoing work will exasperate even the most seasoned contractor. 

4. If you do make changes, make sure you get a change order. 

The change order should be signed by both parties and include the fee amount for the change you request. Open-ended changes can inflate your bill way beyond what you were expecting. Also, change orders work both ways. Sometimes the contractor will discover something unexpected and request more money. These instances should be rare with a good contractor, but they’re common with bad ones. (Our garage contractor said she needed more money because the garage turned out to be bigger than she thought.

5. Be on-site as often as possible.

You shouldn’t be a helicopter client, hovering over the contractor and his crew as they work, but checking in from time to time is essential. Do not assume. One time I had a tile guy working in the bathroom next to my office. I popped my head in after a couple hours to find the rectangular subway tile running vertically instead of horizontally.

6. Good, fast, and cheap...

It’s a cliché, but true: you can only get two out of three. 

7. Sanity goes both ways.

If you want your contractor to be a sane, rational person, you should be one as well. Months of hemorrhaging money, eating breakfast cereal powdered with sawdust, and doing dishes in the bathroom sink can turn the most well-adjusted person into a lunatic. Try to remain calm. Having a sense of humor—and a contractor with a sense of humor—helps. (See No. 2.)

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