Category Archives: Contractor Vs Handy Man – How to choose

Contractor Hiring & Contract Tips

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Welcome Home!  Everyone should feel safe and welcome in their house.  Your domicile should be your oasis where you can enjoy the beauty and unwind.  Whether it’s just you, a couple or a big family, the home environment affects you even when you are not there. Things which need doing or knowing you are returning to a cluttered space or one that doesn’t suit you, has deep psychic effects.  People do run the gammut as to what they value.  My brother, for example, only truly cared that a place was neat enough to get around, clean enough not to get sick and that the roof didn’t leak.  He was the least materialistic individual I ever knew.  His sister, however, is very materialistic as well as spiritually minded.  I love my creature comforts.   Great Architecture is art.  And if you’ve read so far, then I make the assumption it is for you too.   It matters not whether it is a sprawling manse or a little jewel box, any home can be stunning.  We go around once, so we may as well enjoy, right?

After a recent remodel I felt the need to put this together to help others.  I have been through numerous handymen, contractors, repairs and remodels, between rental property and our homes and hope that my story and information herein helps you.  Feel free to kindly comment and share out because we are all in this together.  🙂

My day job is a project manager and documentation specialist.  I have seen various forms of proposals and contracts from contractors and handymen but I have found them to be far from encompassing.  There can be a lot of wiggle room about what a word or sentence means and things as simple and obvious as ‘Make the patio level’ left out can mean, as it did with one of my contractors, that its ok to slope a patio where my SPA was to go.  And yet this very same individual did an absolutely stunning (and level) atrium patio area for me a year prior!  That contract also did not state the obvious, that the patio be level.  Does anyone like floors where marbles roll to one side, doors swing closed on their own and chairs and tables katty wampus their way to and frow as you try to sit?  Level should be obvious no?

Many times we simply assume that what is obvious will take place or when we are discussing an 80″ half wall between two rooms, and we see verbiage in the contract about that wall, that we are good.  But we can be wrong there.  So create your own contracts and have anybody you hire sign them.  Don’t be afraid to spell every detail out.  If you are talking of a half wall, explain in great detail exactly where it is and what will take place. Even though heads are nodding in agreement, once you hand over the cash, an egregious individual, or perhaps someone exceedingly forgetful or cash-strapped, can begin taking advantage of you.

Not everybody who works for themselves does it well.  In fact, a lot of folks who work for themselves do so because nobody else would hire them or retain them very long.  Reasons can run  from being surly and not playing well with others, not take direction well, not being emotionally stable, not being fully transparent in their pricing or scope of work, failing on showing up to work timely to training issues, doing a sub-par job or having a criminal or sexual deviation on their record.  Your contractor could be a registered sex offender and yes I have encountered that one personally.

Remodeling is always stressful as much as it is exciting looking forward to the transformation.  I try to buoy myself by remaining focused on the happy outcome but still, you are perhaps losing a driveway,  lawn, kitchen, bedroom, foyer, a bathroom or even an entire house while the work goes on.  Your contractor should be sensitive to this.  The stress can be far worse when trying someone new.  Even if they are really smashing, there’s the business of building the relationship, learning to understand each other and figuring out if you can work well together or ever work again on another project.   This is your home and it is not about giving entitlements to your contractor when it comes down to the respect of your time, your home or the scope of work. You want someone you can have a good working relationship with.   Be careful of the goal being to get all the work done by the person giving you the cheapest quote.  Interview at least 3 people before deciding.  The goal is getting the job done the best and the swiftest by someone that can manage the work well and get along with you, making the experience the least stressful as feasible.  Every contractor you hire owes you this.

I am currently in contractor hell.  The man has a good crew, nice, personable, work well together but I was promised the crew would work full days, starting at 8:30 am, Monday through Friday.  In 3 weeks time, the crew logged less than 38 hours including trips to the dump.  The entire project, which is gutting one bathroom, rebuilding the closet, vaulting the ceiling, creating a half wall between the master bath and bedroom and a much simpler new toilet, counter, sink, faucet and wall sconces for the 2nd bath were all targeted to be completed within 4 weeks.  He was so snippy, slow and callous, I ended up firing him.  Upset when I documented our conversations, blatantly shouting ‘I will NOT be managed’ when I voiced concerns we were way behind because his folks weren’t putting in full work days.  This was the first contractor I have ever fired in over 300k worth of remodeling I have done so far!   I wear the same tiny rotation of clothes, cannot find a bleeding thing, clothes and other personal items are packed in boxes piled in our den as I wait.,…and wait…while his people worked 2 or 3 hours here, 4 hours there, or just didn’t show up at all.  This individual was too busy chasing money, taking my money and working other jobs.

In hindsight, I should have asked for my deposit back and sent them packing on day one.  But he came highly recommended by my nextdoor neighbor so I thought well, he’s just wrapping up a job and then I will have his full attention.   When he went off the rails 3 times,  lied about what was in writing in the contract, then expected me to pay again for what I had already paid for, I knew I had to let him go.

After going off on me (in writing) 3 times the man still had this job.  I just needed him to wrap these bathroom projects up and get out of our lives.  As a friend put it I was in ‘Salvage Mode’ where I had paid the man, didn’t feel like taking him to court, didn’t want to delay the work, didn’t want to delay the project and add any costs in hiring somebody new, I just bloody well wanted it done and him gone.  But when he canceled our work on a Monday because he couldn’t pay the terrazzo guy doing our floor after I had already paid him to pour the terrazzo, then brought him over on a Tuesday,  got him started on the work at hand before telling me I needed to pay the floor guy directly, and would not back down on this demand when I reminded him his final payment is due upon completion of all remaining work,  and not a minute before, that was it for me.  I am a professional and I expect that from the people I hire.

The contractor  I hired prior poured a patio for dining, entertaining and to  hold a SPA.  It was a $2500.00 job.  He sloped it so that the entire patio is on a V slope with a hump in the middle, preventing me from putting my spa on it.  I asked for a big, level patio, even with the existing concrete path we had, showed him where the SPA would sit and the rest would be entertaining.  Because the patio humps up in the middle, folks delivering the SPA and the maker both cautioned me (after providing pictures and measurements) that this would void the warranty and warp the frame of my SPA.  Having already scheduled the airlift in place, it now sits tucked under the eaves of the house not working.  Ego.  Ego and shortsightedness. This same man did the best job ever on our kitchen remodel, our atrium floor, landscaping work, ok roof, brilliant copper gutters and numerous jobs at our old home and rental.  His ego prevented him from hearing me or even listening to his own knowledge and common sense.  In discussions later, me very upset I couldn’t place my SPA on the patio I paid him for, the contractor actually argued with me that the word ‘level’ wasn’t in our contract and also that because I am a Project Manager in telecommunications, that somehow all of this points the fault finger back in my direction.  This is why he didn’t get the bathroom remodels.  His solution was to charge me for materials to fix what he did wrong the first time.  I said no to that.

Shortsightedness or Job too small – Folks, some people are going to do a lot of remodeling in their life and others won’t.  But contractors live and die by word of mouth.  There is social media, Nextdoor app, Angie’s List and ways to spread the good news when someone is stellar and share the horror stories as well.  Regardless of how small a job may be, it can lead to larger projects.  I had a contractor hired when we first moved into our MCM home.  I wanted the patio releveled, a new cabinet to house our new double oven and the kitchen countertops done.  He ditched the job to take on ‘a larger project to make more money.’  Not only did I never hire him back again, but between the kitchen, patio and a surprise ‘we need a brand new roof’,  we ended up topping out around  70k.   We ended up doing cabinet refacing in the whole kitchen and this guy was just too shortsighted to see the big picture.  So we ended up hiring the same contractor that did our roof, kitchen and patio for our Xeriscaping project the following year.   Repeat business is great for the homeowner and the contractor.  It is far less stressful when you’ve located someone you can trust and work well with.

The problem with firing a contractor after work has begun is that nobody really wants to take that on.  Even if the work was done right, as my 2nd contractor believes the rough in plumbing was for my situation, you are probably going to be out even more money.  (I will definitely be!)  Because they didn’t get the entire job, they pad their quote to finish it all up.  They may think you are a challenge to work with so they add money to compensate.  Or they flat think you are now desperate.  I was referred by a dear friend to this really nice young man who showed up all happy and fun, clearly knows his business, but in reality, he was just a vulture seeing a way to bilk me for as much as possible.  He wanted 20k to finish where the highest quote we received was 12k and the remainder was around 6-8k.  Folks, my entire bathroom remodel, beginning to end, and quoted by 3 different contractors at the time, was only 15k start to finish, 2 bathrooms, one a total gut job.  This 15k was for labor and materials which included quartz countertops, mirrors, skylight and all other building materials to create new walls and one closet.  This chirpy cheerful dude that gleefully sent me a quote for 20k, did so after 8k of the work had already been accomplished.  Inarguably the hardest part of the job, had already been completed.  There was cutting into the concrete foundation, re-routing and laying new plumbing, (the rough-in plumbing) new rebar and cement to cover and fill up these new trenches where the new pipe was rerouted.  Then terrazzo was poured in place, ground and polished.  This was the really hard part already done! I have personally floated plaster before and while it is work, it sure beats grinding a floor!   20K was more than the original quote from 3 other contractors start to finish!  With my new contractor, I am stuck paying another month and one-half salary which I am nonplussed about.  But I need the work done and he is a structural engineer and I feel confident he will do me right.  And I can actually see his house from my house.  I feel confident I have the right guy for the job.

So, with this latest experience inspiring me, here are some helpful tips for you to avoid my pitfalls and hopefully have a much smoother remodel experience.

First, there is lingo and just having a basic understanding of how construction works.  While it’s not necessary, you will do yourself some good to speak the language and appear more knowledgeable and less gullible.  Understanding & Negotiating Construction Contracts by Kit Werremeyer  (click on the title to take a look at the book) is well written and will help you gain skills.

In addition to this book, here are my hard-won tips:

  • Of course, you will get references but do a background check before you hire.  You want to have a scope of this persons integrity and character.
  • Record conversations.  This may seem a bit paranoid but you would be surprised how much gets lost that you will now have a record of.
  • Get everything in writing; the time the crew will show up and how many folks are in the crew, what days they will work and how many weeks the job will require.
  • Have each page of the contract signed by both parties and adjust any wording that at the time may appear obvious but potentially mean something else, spell it out better.
  • I am very used to working with a contractor that takes just one job at a time and puts his full focus there.  If you choose to work for someone who had multiple jobs running, know that you will be paying for this guy to run multiple crews.  Also, know that your work may get done slower.  Outline and document what the expectations are for the daily/weekly work hours that will be done on your project.  I personally will never hire anyone that works multiple jobs and crews again, what a nightmare!
  • Get some background and the names of the crew members.  They will be in your home, you should feel comfortable with them being there.
  • Get the percentage of time the contractor will be there on site managing his crew in writing.  Contractors typically take 15-20% of the job as their income.  They are working for you.
  • The contact should contain contingencies for terminating the contract as well as what the ramifications and deductions may be for breaching the contract terms, such as when the timelines are not met or something agreed to doesn’t take place.
  • Folks love to tell themselves they work for themselves but they don’t.  While you are paying them, you are their employer and they work, the duration of the project, for you.  If something they are not doing is not working for you, speak up.
  • Bad Ethics don’t change.  It doesn’t matter who recommended somebody.  If they lie about showing up every day at 9 am, what else will they be fabricating that you won’t find out about until later?
  • Love the Contractor and the crew.  This is a package unit, and you need to respect from all parties.  You will be dealing with the crew (hopefully) daily but you should also be dealing with the contractor several times a week as well.  Nobody should be absentee here or not extend common courtesy.
  • IF you end up, as I did, having to fire someone, don’t get desperate.  Create a list of all the work left to do.  Ask neighbors, get out on, talk to people and come up with a plan.  Start getting new quotes.  For me, I explained the rough in plumbing had been done, the floor was installed and asked how much for all the rest, providing them the list.   Don’t feel pressured or stuck.  Breath.  Get the right guy.   Great luck!

Additional Help:


When (And Why) To Hire A Contractor VS A Handy Man

Welcome Home!
Welcome Home! This is a shot of our kitchen after a sensitive remodel.  We added quartz counters in the same colour of the original formica, which matches the terrazzo floors. My husband is a chef, so we replaced the tiny double gas wall oven with a HUGE American Range double oven.  This meant building out a new cabinet space for it. All original hardware was reused.  The light featured is original to the home and is one of three George Nelson lamps.


Hi everyone!  We’ve all been here before where we want to save money but also want the job done right.  Whether its a small thing like clearing debris or renovating a bathroom, every task matters, but the skill level necessary can be quite different.

Many folks get confused between what a handy man does and what value a contractor has so here is the primary difference:  A Handy Man typically is an individual working for himself who generally does all of the work himself.  He may, on a larger job, hire a buddy to help him accomplish the work.  When that happens, you are relying on how good his buddy is or isn’t.  Typically a handy man is doing work part time or perhaps just starting out or may just be comfortable with smaller jobs here and there and they don’t really seek out larger projects and generally are not up to the task of a large one either, even if they state that they can do it.  They cost less than a contractor for sure and for the tiny stuff, that is where I go first!  But I warn you, you cannot just let a handy man go and do work unsupervised!  They are not at that skill level.  Therefore, YOU become the Project Manager or Contractor, overseeing all the work.  And it is this reason that they are cheaper.

A contractor is essentially a Project Manager.  You should come to the table with a fairly clear idea of what you want. Check out this software for some ideas.  But the contractor should know how to do all work involved, enough to hire the right people for the various tasks at hand as well as be experienced enough to comfortably get in there and get their hands dirty along with their crew.  I encountered a contractor once, which we used for some large projects, where all they did was oversee, never actually touching the work themselves.  That contractor used a 85-95% of his time flitting from one project to the next rather than paying full attention to what was going on at my house.  There was Scope Creep, where the project took significantly longer (and therefore cost more) to complete.  Also, the work done was not at the best level.  Mistakes got made that were never addressed.  Sad because most of us really don’t have the money to do things twice.  We don’t hire him any longer.  Its sad, really, but alot of folks who cannot ‘work for a boss’ become their own boss when, if they are honest with themselves, they already know that they are not equipped to do it adequately.  When you hire a contractor, you are paying a salary and that makes you actually the boss.  A smart contractor (and handy man) recognizes this and tried to stay present and get the job done to the best of their abilities.

To drive this point home, I conduct interviews along with asking for quotes.  I want to get references and I also want to gain a level of understanding on what this person knows and how willing they appear to be to do the work.  We had a handy man once who’s work was stunning, but the man was plain lazy.  We had to light a fire to get him to finish any project he started.  He actually bailed on the very last project we hired him for,  claiming somehow that painted columns he had repaired, were not his responsibility to touch up and repaint, even though that was included in the original bid and he had bought all the paint to do it.  I was upset; he would not budge.  A year later, I let him know, by way of a mutual friend, that we were doing a major renovation and that we were hiring someone else since he never completed his last job on the columns.  Through his friend, he stupidly stated he would finish the columns if I gave him the other job.  I explained to his friend that where I work, if I did not complete a project assignment, I would be let go.  I absolutely would NOT get another project to work on!  You can lead a man to books, but you cannot make him think and the good lord knows nobody can fix stupid.  The man did great work, when he showed up.  We’d hired him for many years and a smart man would have understood that not completing a job would mean severing ties.  Sometimes great people think they are irreplaceable.  I have to explain to them that they are only as great as their last work.  I hold myself accountable with the work I do and my employer absolutely does.  Why should this be any different for people I hire with my hard earned cash?

So When do I hire a Handy Man vs a Contractor?  If I am having a hole dug to plant a tree, a doorknob installed,  getting ceiling fans or light switches installed, or maybe a small bit of Sheetrock done in an inconspicuous place or perhaps patch painting said Sheetrock, I may hire my Handy Man for those kind of tasks.  For any important painting or Sheetrock, such as a focus wall,  something that will be noticeable and seen every day, or a large undertaking like counter-tops or kitchen/bath remodel, large landscape project – all of that goes to an experienced contractor (landscape designer/company).  And wherever possible, I start with a small job to see how they do before I engage them in a larger scope of work.  We moved last year and a contractor I love and work well with was busy on other work.  So we initially hired another individual.  We provided 2 months notice for our remodel so that our contractor could  block that time out with his people.   We wanted all or at least the bulk of the remodel finished prior to moving in.  First, our contractor was  a bit slow on the draw to come out, to measure etc.  I had kitchen countertops I wanted along with cabinetry work done for a new double wall oven going in.  We thought at the time we only needed a roof patch and the Atrium floor was uneven, with cheap broken tile.  The Atrium is a focal point as the entire home wraps around it with 3 sliders opening up to it.  The Atrium had to pop and had to be done right away.

God Does You Favors Sometimes – This worked out very well but at the time was quite upsetting.  This contractor I’ll call Ed, said he got another much larger project so that he was going to take that work on instead.  While he could do me the favor of still getting my counters done, it was clear to me that he would not be focused solely on my job.  Plus I had really, for the sake of cohesiveness, wanted to work with ONE contractor to manage ALL the work needed.  Right in the midst of my meltdown, my favorite contractor, Francesco, had stopped by.  I explained my upset, no Atrium work would be done and this way cool ‘Knife Edge’ I wanted on my counter-tops,  Ed’s stone guy said ‘just isn’t done’ with no further explanation as to why not.  My explanation that I had just seen Knife Edge done in a design store kitchen, so maybe they should go see that and report back to me met with a blank stare.   So I was not happy.  I’m not a contractor but I really hate feeling like the village idiot when I come up with an idea and that idea gets dismissed as stupid.

Francesco,  had just wrapped up one project and the other had been pushed out leaving cycles to do the work I needed.  We discussed atrium cement, how it would need to be a lot bigger in scope than what Ed said.  Our Atrium ceiling has a big hole I call the moon roof in the center of it.  The cement would need to be ground level yes but also ground down in order to make it even with the threshold once new tile was applied.  A french drain should also be added.  All this to remedy a corner of our Atrium from turning into a pool during heavy rains. Honestly I want a pool and my husband has assured me I would be found dead in it if that were to ever happen.  But I sure don’t want a pool in our Atrium!

Later, Ed showed up and when I noted all the cement grinding needed to match the threshold from the Atrium into 3 sliders going into our house, he said ‘I never thought of that.’  His quote to do the Atrium work was a full 5k less than what we paid Francesco but where I had heartburn at the job going from 5k to $10,500, it was a blessing hearing those words from Ed which confirmed the additional money was well spent.  Rather than having a botch job where it would never be right until it was redone, it is done now to last a lifetime.

As a Project Manager, I understand that a contractor is essentially a PM who oversees all work done on the project.  As a PM, I also understand the intrinsic value to hiring one(a good one).  While you pay extra for this individual, a good contractor is a worthwhile investment.  For example, I once had a contractor and the job he did was beautiful.  One of his workers, who was great on the project, gave me his card as he did a lot of smaller jobs on the side.  I hired him just once directly.  The work was poor quality.  The work was actually night and day from his level of efforts when working for the man rather than himself directly.  I wonder if he wonders why I never called him back for more work.

Things to ask in your interview – Beyond overseeing the overall project, will they be doing any of the work themselves?  What is their level of experience?  How long have they worked for themselves?  Do they enjoy the work and what part of it do they like best?  Are they insured? Who are their references?  And of primary importance, will they be wrapping up or initiating new business while they are working for you?  You want someone that will be dedicated to your job rather than flitting from one project to the next as this translates to scope creep and errors made.  He cannot watch over his people at your project if he is elsewhere.

Scope – This should freaking go without saying, but it seems I have had to point it out on so many occasions that now I just as a habit do so.  We discuss the scope of the work and as I noted earlier, I try to start them on a small project first.  I explain that to me, regardless of the size of the project, it’s a big deal for me. i am paying for it and its something that I will be seeing often and something that should last where i am not having to repeat steps more than necessary.  I am connected with my neighborhood, with my neighbors, I am a business woman and I know people.  I love to share out great reviews on folks who have done exemplary work for me!  I am also part of a neighborhood board that posts companies and individuals  and shams to avoid.   I explain that I always maintain my property well and I have expensive taste, so something is always going on.  This means that if we work well together, there is going to be an ongoing relationship and more work, more projects.  The smart people get it.

Cost – Again, hiring a contractor to PM your project is going to cost you more.  That stated, a good one is well worth it.  The contractor I use, I have used repeatedly.  He is a bit more expensive than everyone else, but the job is done right, flawless and he is ready to address any issues.  As one of my good friends put it, he signs his work.  He takes great pride in what he does.  For our landscaping project, currently underway, he has hand picked every boulder going in.  Rather than just order gravel to be delivered, he drove around looking at the gravel first because he wanted the sizing and colour to be a certain way. He hand picked each plant and tree.  He is also great with advice and ideas, very creative, a cross between a designer and a contractor and the best of them encompass this ethos.

After spending years undoing and redoing someone else’s shoddy workmanship, discovered later, much of it ‘no warranty’ I have found a great contractor and now always use that person.  I do the very same for good handymen, Carpet/ductwork/floor guys etc.  Anybody who does me right, I retain that info and I am happy to pass that to my neighbors to generate business for them.

Don’t be cheap.  If you have found someone that does great work, pay the little bit extra to get it done right.  Life is full of enough drama without adding more to it.  Please post comments are ask any questions you may have and all the very best in your next remodel project!