Q&A: Kevin Brasler on how to set yourself up for success with home contractors

Sep 05, 2019

Kevin Brasler is the executive editor of Consumers' Checkbook, a non-profit consumer advocacy group. He directs the editorial and publishing operations. Kevin can answer your questions on the best methods to find good plumbers, painters, remodelers and roofers, He knows the strategies for getting the best price and what to do if it's a disaster.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Welcome this morning to Kevin Brasler, executive editor of Consumer's Checkbook.  He's a great person to ask questions of about how to set yourself up for success with home contractors. How to get a reasonable price? How to have a positive experience? Let's chat about plumbers, electricians and remodelers.

Hi everyone! Thanks so much to The Post and Jura for hosting. I’m also here with Jennifer Barger, our editorial director, who is fabulous and knows many things.

We are in the process of looking to replace 11 windows in our 1950s rambler. I replaced my windows in Old Town 10 years ago so am familiar with the process, cost, and benefit. My question is how to handle extremely aggressive sales tactics during and after as one sales man for a company highly rated (everywhere but yelp) that left me shaking with anger and my husband ordering him out of the house. The salesman took the tactic of offering us better and better deals if we only signed right then for a product we did not need (triple paned - our house couldn't bear the weight in my opinion) and far above our budget. He also kept telling us to just take the loan to afford it then and there (10 years at 10% - no way) and bashed the company I had used before. At the end, he swerved into being rather mean implying I was dumb for not listening to my husband and taking this great deal before he stormed out of our house yelling, "you should have taken this deal, <insert my name>!" Clearly we are not going to go with them but I am wondering how best to respond. Contact the company? Provide reviews on the various sites? Second question - how do we just flat out ask for the price of the windows and work vs. sitting through yet another hour long sales pitch?

This is disappointing. We find many local window installation companies—especially those that advertise heavily on TV and radio—use high-pressure sales tactics and perform inferior installations. But there are also several good outfits. We’ve set up a link that supplies free access to our ratings to participants of this chat; go to www.checkbook.org/homefront/free . (Our advice is always free, but to access our ratings we require a small subscription fee. (We don’t accept advertising or referral fees from businesses, and are supported solely by consumers.)

What has been your experience with Big Box retailers installations? Do you have recourse with them if you are not satisfied with the installer? Is their standard decent?

In general, the ratings we get from customers of large national chains’ for home repairs and installations are pretty poor. Often, these companies subcontract out work to local businesses—and homeowners often don’t get a say in which ones do the work.

How tacky would a solid-color Lucite Kitchen backsplash look? In a kitchen remodel, I don't want the backsplash to clash with a marbley granite countertop. Is white subway tile passe my only choice? At work I noticed a mirror-like solid color (cranberry, no pattern) lucite backsplash that I think would work for me in another color. But is it tacky?

I wouldn't say it'd be tacky...people are doing this as a cheaper alternative to a glass backsplash. But Lucite is an acrylic, and therefore prone to scratches and smudges. So I think glass might be a better choice, or at least an easier one to keep up. And subway tiles aren't going anywhere...if you want them to look fresh try installing them vertically instead of horizontally.

What is the difference between the major makers of storm windows? They are so expensive. If you start with one company, do all your windows have to match if can only afford to do four a year? How important are they for resale?

I don't think there are big differences. Definitely talk to multiple window installation companies and get bids from each. You'll find big differences from company to company.

If you're worried about appearances, start with the ones that face the street. I don't otherwise think they matter too much for resale value.

I need some basic electrical work done. Things like installing a programmable thermostat, new smoke detectors, ceiling fans and a video doorbell. At what point should I consider using an electrician versus a handyman?

I think a good handyman can handle all the tasks you describe. On the other hand, my handyman costs nearly as much per hour as my electrician. And an electrician will work faster. In general, I’d say if the job requires running new wiring I’m hiring an electrician.

After many projects over many years, I put everything in writing. With email it is a simple thing to confirm all conversations and requests, regardless how minor it seems at the time. For example: If the painters says, " yes, we'll include that while we are at it.", make a note of it in a email, thanking him, so you don't see additional charges at the end.

Yes, completely agree. I trust my handyman, painter, and plumber—we've known them for many years and sometimes we give them our house keys so they can work while we’re on vacation. But why not put in writing what they’d do and how much they’ll charge to do it? It only takes a few extra minutes and eliminates a lot of misunderstandings.

We've just finished a full house renovation. Our contract has come back and said that there are outstanding bills from his subs. We've paid what was agreed to in the contract. The process has been a nightmare. We're about a year behind schedule, had already agreed to $80k in change orders, and now he's asking for more. What happens if we just say "no"? If he sues us, we will counterclaim and he will be hosed. Just yesterday we saw that one of his additional expenses was for inspections, but he failed over half of them and so each new inspection was nearly $400. I digress - but any immediate thoughts?

I hate to say it, but I think you should consult with a real estate attorney. I'm worried if you just say "no" you'll end up with the subcontractors slapping on a mechanic's lien.

I recently moved and I’ve been thinking of getting a home warranty. Are there any policies you recommend/should I steer clear of certain companies?

We really don’t like these policies. They usually come with much fine print that allow them to reject claims for common problems. And, worst of all, you don’t get to choose who does the work—and we find many warranty companies don’t recruit the best companies. Go here for all our advice on this: https://www.checkbook.org/washington-area/

I bought and renovated a condo in 2018-it was the worst experience of my life. My first contractor lied about what could be done---telling me that i could not install a walk in shower in my second floor condo because it would have to be bolstered from below and we could not access another unit and then ran off leaving the unit half done (I had a toilet in the dining room) with my money and some of the items i'd purchased for the renovation. He threatened to call my employer and demanded more money, which I was not prepared to give given the status of the work done. Contractor #2 was earnest but inexperienced and did a subpar job in installing floors and left somethings undone---despite my calls and emails i never heard back--once they get their money they are gone. both were recommended by friends who had them do work in their own homes. My advice (dont do it!) but if you do, make very clear what is needed, check constantly on their progress and dont let them bully you into anything.

It really is amazing that companies like these continue to operate. I agree with you: The best course is to meet with remodeling contractors every day during the job. And if things go wrong, refuse to pay until you're happy. It's critical to get a contract that lets you pay as work is done. Good contractors have credit and can buy supplies and materials without requiring their customers to pay a lot of money up front.

Sorry, here's a direct link to our home warranties advice:

https://www.checkbook.org/washington-area/home-warranties/

I need some tree work done at my house. How should I go about finding a good, reputable contractor?

There are so many shady tree care services out there. DON’T hire someone going door-to-door after a storm—we hear every year from homeowners who are victimized by con artists operating that way. And never pay in advance. A very small deposit is okay (10% is reasonable, especially if the company has to bring in a crane or something), but reputable companies collect when they’ve completed the work and when you’re happy. Checkbook evaluates local tree care services. We’ve set up a link that supplies free access to our ratings to participants of this chat; go to www.checkbook.org/homefront/free . (Our advice is always free, but to access our ratings we require a small subscription fee. (We don’t accept advertising or referral fees from businesses, and are supported solely by consumers.)

Your house can look more polished if you add in some new pillows on your sofa. I interviewed a few top designers about how details matter on pillows and where they buy some of their off-the-rack accessories. Read my story here.

It’s never happened, but I think if I ever walked into a home where there were so many pillows on the sofa, my first thought might be: my, what fancy pillow racks! Or maybe "my! what a clever way to display a pillow collection!" I think there’s such a thing of overdoing it with the pillows, and each of the photos which accompanied today’s article illustrates well that point. One of the pillow racks has eight pillows! What does one do with the pillows when someone wants to actually sit on the sofa? Because of their rounded contours, pillows don’t stack readily. And their bulk quickly adds up in cubic footage required for out-of-sight storage. Does one ask guests to help in carting them off to another room so the sofa can be used as a sofa?

Well that is an interesting question. Is it okay to take a pillow off the sofa when you sit down and is okay to put it on the floor next to or in back of the sofa. What do you all think?

I am thinking of converting my old 1-car garage into a first floor bedroom. I'm concerned about it being dark and cold. Any advice about pros/cons of such a conversion and ways to avoid problems?

I’d consult with several contractors before doing this. Big questions to ask: How will they run electricity to it? How will they insulate it? What type of flooring can you have? A mini-split ductless HVAC system is a good option for heat and cooling; can they easily install one? What will it look like from outside (many of these conversions look like obvious conversions)? Can you easily add windows for light? Is it nearly as cost effective to just put on an addition somewhere else? Question for you: Will you miss the garage?

Sorry that I have more questions than answers on this one...

Totally ok to move to the back of the sofa....

Our first opinion on this.

Our basement flooded during that big storm in July. We contacted a basement waterproofer who proposed a $20,000 drainage system. He’s been calling constantly and lowered his price twice. Any thoughts on this?

Oh PLEASE don't hire one of these companies until you're sure you need what they sell. Most are happy to charge you lots of money to put in a drainage system and sump pump that manages water when it enters your home, but doesn't really solve the problem. And many basement waterproofers use high-pressure sales tactics.

Fact is, most basement moisture problems can be solved by cleaning out gutters, extending gutter downspouts, and doing a bit of regrading work. If you do all that and still have a problem, then you likely need to hire a drainage contractor to move around dirt outside. The drainage systems offered by basement waterproofing contractors are last resorts.

Hi! We bought a flipped house with many common flipper woes. We've identified and fixed most of them over the last five years that we've owned the house. They vaulted the ceiling in the living room, attaching drywall directly to the roof plywood. I want to "undo" this move, putting in new beams and a new ceiling. What kind of a contractor do I call for this kind of work?

Probably should talk to a general contractor. If you want advice from a specialist, talk to carpenters who do framing and beam work.

We have a small leak in one corner of our basement that trickle in during big storms. It never floors or anything but I fear it is something we should fix. Who do you call for that? I don't want to be given a $15k plan for waterproofing my basement.

Yeah, see my answer to the previous question on waterproofing. Since the moisture appears when it rains, it's definitely a drainage issue (as are most basement water problems). Start by checking your gutters and making sure downspouts outside that corner splash a few feet away from the house. If that doesn't do it, talk to landscapers about regrading that area so that water flows away from your house, not toward it.

what is the remedy for issues with contractors? those who leave the job undone or leave the job unprofessionally done? My experience has been to wtihhold payment as you suggest until they perform appropriately but that hasn't been successful. And when issues arise after the work is done, i've never been able to get the contractor to come back to fix.

The most effective remedy usually is to withhold payment. Unfortunately, it's just so difficult to get good work from bad contractors. Often, homeowners must punt and find a new one to finish the work.

Sure, move them to the floor while you sit. It will give the dogs something to play with. I'm in the camp of practical vs looks like a magazine picture.

okay!

We had some water damage in our place, and after resolving the issue on the outside, are now looking to fix the inside, which involves replacing drywall around several windows. So far I've had two highly recommended contractors come out, and the second one offered a quote that is almost half of what the first guy offered. While it may seem obvious to go with the second, I'm sort of at a loss as to how to know if either the first contractor is trying to hose us or if the second one isn't being up front about how much it will actually cost. At the moment, I'm asking for a quote from a third company to see where that price lands. . .

To rate local services for price, our undercover shoppers collect tens of thousands each year for carefully specified jobs. I've been with Checkbook for 25 years, and am still amazed at the massive differences in prices offered by companies for the exact same work. As you did, we often find that some companies charge more than double their competitors' prices. And there's no explanation for it: Good companies are just as likely to quote low prices as bad ones. It's why we constantly preach that the only way to make sure you're getting a reasonable price is to shop around. Our price ratings will help you identify companies that should offer low prices to contact.

Our bathroom fans dont seem effective at removing the steam and moisture from showers anymore. I suspect something might be plugging up the duct work. What kind of contractor do I need to check it out?

Yeah, if it used to work well then you might have a blockage. I once had a squirrel nesting in mine. Good times! But it could be the fan motor; they sometimes get worn out and don't work well. (Plus, new ones are so quiet!). I'd start with a handyman service.

When I get a new throw pillow, my husband's first question is "am I allowed to use this?". By the way, we put our's on the floor and/or on the back of the sofa.

Your husband is very savvy!

Could you clarify - you don't think storm windows are important for resale - or you don't think having matching storm windows is important for resale.

I don't think having matching ones is important and I don't think having them is important. Also: If you're not selling soon, I wouldn't worry too much about resale value. Too many contractors urge their customers to make decisions based on "instant equity" and resale value. If you remodel a bathroom, you'll improve resale value -- but only for a few years; then it won't be new anymore.

After I inherited some money, I hired a small GC to do major renovations to both bathrooms, my kitchen, and replace all the windows. Homeowners don't need a specialty window-replacement company, my GC installed Andersen windows. The windows are wonderful. On the hottest days of the summer, I put my hand on the window pane and the window sill and they are both cool, not hot. I'm sure they are saving me money on my air conditioning.

Agree. Window installation work is straightforward and general contractors can handle the work.

In terms of energy savings, yes, more efficient windows will lower utility bills -- but usually not so much to pay for the upgrade. On the other hand, a lot of homeowners -- myself included -- get new windows for other reasons (fewer drafts, better appearance) and want to reduce energy usage no matter the net costs.

Hi there. My family lives in a small, 1950s brick home. One of the main-level bedrooms was turned into a dining room before we bought the house, leaving us with two bedrooms on that level. A couple of years ago, my husband and I decided to move to the bedroom (and attached bathroom) in the basement. But it's so gross. I hate it so much (tiny, tiling falling off walls, old vanity, not much circulation), so we thought we'd get some estimates on what can be done. We had three contractors come out for an estimate: the first said he doesn't do design, the second estimated $25K, and the third was $15K before vanity, toilet, tile. This sounds insane to us! How do people pay for these types of remodeling jobs?

I always hesitate to tell people to throw a lot of money at basement projects: there are often basic structural issues...low ceilings, moisture that can be hard to diagnose and solve, issues like you mention (circulation!).

Our general advice is always to do what you are doing...get three quotes in writing, and consult our ratings of remodeling outfits to find ones that do good work.

I also think many designers often use too many pillows, putting appearance over practicalities of the homeowner. But I also believe it depends on how often the sofa is used. For a sofa used every day, having to remove pillows to sit down is a big pain and then they go on the floor, so I think designers need to go with less pillows even if it doesn't look as nice. The practicalities override the appearance. But for a sofa used less frequently, then more pillows to achieve the desired appearance seem like less of a concern.

Thanks for your thoughts.

My neighbor didn't check with the state regulatory agency for contractors, I did. Guess whose renovation went well?

Yes, it's important to check on licensure and also on insurance. Contractors should carry general liability AND worker's compensation coverage. On the licensure side, if something goes wrong, authorities are more likely to help you if you bother to hire a licensed outfit.

Finding a contractor: ask your friends and neighbors for contractors' names, and ask the contractors for references in addition to (or before!) their quotes. And call the references.

Yes. It's also important to get a solid contract. But no contract can milk good work out of a bad contractor. The ratings we collect and report are a way for you to learn about the experiences of thousands of your neighbors and friends.

My bathroom needs renovated (functionally fine, but hello 1980s!) and I admit I've been putting it off. This is my first owned home and I've never had to worry about contractors before. Is there a checklist for newbies like me of things to ask and watch out for? Do I need to be home while the bathroom is being renovated? Is it true that contractors aren't really interested in small jobs like mine (it's a small bathroom and the footprint is not changing) and that will limit who will be willing to take it on? I have friend whose experience with a recommended contractor has been a nightmare and that's not helping my anxiety, so any advice for a first-timer is very welcome.

We specialize in first timers. There's a lot to answer here; start by checking out our advice on how to get a great remodel.

If you have a second bathroom, you for sure can stay home during the remodel.

Some contractors do take on smaller projects like yours....and in your case you might be able to do this with a tiling contractor and a plumber. Are you replacing a tub with a shower? Are you moving pipes? Then maybe you need a contractor.

Thanks Kevin that was a really useful chat. Next week tun in for Brett Tutor, carpenter extraordinaire on Trading Spaces, who will be appearing at the Capital Home Show on September 20-22 at the Dulles Expo Center. Until then...

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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Kevin Brasler
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