10 Tests for You And Your Contractor’s First Meeting

Sophie Wheeler
June 2, 2018
last modified: June 2, 2018

Lots of people on here seem to have issues weeding out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to selecting a designer or contractor for work on your job. They may have never done a remodeling project, and not know how to select a Pro, or they may care more about the price than the result. But here is 10 first meeting tests that your future Pro should pass to be the one to select to do the job.

And the same can be said for those on the other side, the Pro’s. There’s a constant barrage of questions about how to deal with wacky customers who don’t pay, or who have unrealistic expectations, or tell you to go pee at the 7/11 down the street. The answer, as is it on the Customer side, is to Fire Them in Advance. Don’t take jobs from customers that don’t pass these tests. If you do decide to, despite their failing score, make the money worthwhile.

This is information that each side needs to know about the other. Both the Customer and the Pro need each other. And they want to make an equitable exchange of services for money. But, each also needs to understand when their behavior sends the other running screaming.

Consider this Aunt Sophie's Guide on How to Act Like an Adult When Considering Entering A Business Relationship. Its not Match dot Com’s questionnaire, but it hopefully sparks some self reflection in both sides.


10 Tests to See if Your Potential Customer, or Your Potential Contractor, are a Good Match.

Pro Test #1. Will the customer set an initial appointment from M-F, 9-5. 4:30 is fine. 8:30 is fine. But if they are rigid and inflexible with their time, even scheduling 2 weeks out, they won’t be able to be flexible with anything on a project. Renovations demand flexibility.

Customer Test #1 is the professional willing to meet as the first or last appointment of the day so you can go in late or get off a bit early to be there. Do they offer to meet on a Saturday if your job is that demanding? Are they willing to go the extra mile when asked, with a good reason?

Pro Test#2 Are they punctual with keeping their appointment? Or are you left standing on the doorstep with no one home? And no phone call? Instant disqualification. Scheduling mixups should never happen in the case of shared electronic calendars and invitations to meetings from them.

Customer#2 is exactly the same. Punctuality and a phone call if traffic or other things interfere is just common courtesy. Be courteous and respectful of everyone’s time, no matter who you are.

Pro Test #3. Do they demand that you take off your clean street shoes? Not muddy work boots. Yes, really. Either the price just doubled if you stay, or you leave immediately. Do they seem nervous and caution you against brushing walls or knickknacks? Do they treat humans as less important than objects? If their home is a museum that needs ropes around the traffic path, then they have to expect to pay for that. Or not. If even money is not enough for the hassle, tell them you are not comfortable being the one doing their job and move on.

Customer#3, if they have come from a job site where they have soiled foot ware, do they automatically remove that? Does the designer wear shoes that would damage your floors? AKA spike heels? Do they park their work vehicles at the street or in your driveway? Walk on your grass? Bring a drink with them? Are they clods with no care for the value you place on your surroundings? Or do they treat your property with care and respect?

Pro Test #4. Do they invite you to go over their ideas? Do they have a Houzz Ideabook? Magazine clippings? A doodle sketch? Paperwork from a bank for a loan? Have they done any homework at all before your meeting? If you are their first attempt at research, then it’s a waste of time to try to get them over sticker shock and fantasy TV expectations. That’s a ballpark estimate for an immediate yes/no qualifier right there, after about a 10 minute pro forma conversation. . Or a higher price for the time it will take to educate them.

Customer #4 Can the pro show you, or talk about project’s with a similar scope that they have done in the past. Do they have a portfolio to show you? Houzz portfolio presence? Website? Reviews? What shows you that they are a good fit for what you want? 12 decks and a pergola isn't a kitchen contractor. Expect them to talk about similar jobs, or similar features that you’ve requested.

Pro Test #5 . Does the customer offer you a seat at the kitchen table to discuss the show and tell of the above? Offer something to drink? Treat you like a human being and a guest in their home? Or are you the hired help and expected to awkwardly stand around and try to view their computer screen while balancing a note pad, tape measure, tote bag, and your own tablet?

Customer #5 Does the Pro say “thank you” for your hospitality? Do they ask for 4 1/2 teaspoons of sugar and a precise 3 1/2 of cream in their coffee? Do they sit on your obviously spindly antique chair if they are heavy? If they accept your hospitality, do they make it involved and burdensome, or risky, to you? If they reject your hospitality, do they do so graciously. No, contractors don’t take a Miss Manners course, so don’t expect them to sit to a proper tea and know which fork to use. Cut them some slack. But expect basic courtesy from both directions.

Pro Test#6. Is the customer willing to discuss an estimated budget range for their project? Pay a retainer for work? Have they done any research at all on project costs beyond TV renotainment shows? “You tell me!” Is NOT an acceptable answer for a question about their research into the budget. Thats more aggressive than passive aggressive, but it’s a deal breaker. That’s a turn around and leave answer. If the Scope discussed in the conversation is at odds with the budget, or the neighborhood, there is no need to spend more time past a ballpark estimate, or even give them a worked up quote. Certainly no design work. . But, you should explain that. Yes, that usually makes them mad. But, eventually, after they hire the hack, or do more research, they may appreciate the honesty. If they don’t, the heck with em. If, price is the only thing they care about, and you don’t deal with flipper mentality, Let em go. Find that out early. Do not waste time creating an quote or doing any design work only to find a fundamental incompatibility. Get a retainer. It’s an immediate qualifier.

Customer #6 Is the contractor willing to discuss a basic cost range estimate for your project? “How much have you got to spend?” is not an acceptable answer to your question. Does he tell you that past projects with your desired work in your neighborhood ranged from H—L, while projects with a bit lesser scope (subtract 1,3,&7 ideas) or in a lesser costly neighborhood came in at C-F. Does he give a hint as to elements of your project that would make for a higher than average quote? “If you took this wall down rather than that one, we could save a pretty good amount. How important is it that that is the wall to come down?” You are both trying to find common ground for an exchange of funds for results. That means a realistic and frank conversation on the front end about priorities and budget. And remember that estimates are not quotes. A lot of work goes into giving you a contractible number. Don’t ask for that “just” to get more information. Be prepared to pay a retainer to get that much work. If you are not prepared to pay a Oro for the work they do, you are not prepared to do a job. Communication and goal alignment for you both is the goal.

Pro Test #7 Does the customer ask questions outside of just the scope work itself? Do they want to know you, and how you became a contractor, for instance? Do they want to know about your experience and past challenging projects? Do they want to know if you cook, and you specialize in renovating kitchens? Renovations are long, and you spend a lot of time together. If you’re expected to be a toaster oven who just makes toast, it’ll be even longer. No small talk, is not a complete deal breaker, but the fact that they see you as a toaster, and not a person, sure can be.

Customer #7. Does the Pro ask questions about the reasons behind some of your wants? Do they notice the photo with the prize fish displayed prominently and ask about that? Do they ask about your garden? Or sports team? You want them to treat you as more than just a check to be picked up. You want to connect with them on a couple of minimal levels beyond just if they can hammer a nail straight. Just like you do with your workmates. Cordial and professional social lubrication. Communication and goal alignment, again.

Pro Test #8 Does the customer have an unreasonable deadline included for expecting a quote, or for a project completion date? If they want a quote tomorrow? Nope. If they want to discuss a kitchen redo to be ready before Thanksgiving, and it’s May, that may be fine. If it’s October? Nope. They need to have a realistic time expectations, not a TV one.

Customer #8 Does the Pro give you a very preliminary job time estimate? Quote preparation time estimate? Deadlines are important to set, so you both can be on the same page for expectations. As in “product lead times are 6-8 weeks, and the work itself may take another 6-8”. Or do they offer an unrealistic timeline, such as “7 days to a new kitchen” type of salesmanship that cannot possibly be fulfilled? Do they explain why giving you a quote takes 14 days? Do they keep in touch with you, and you know that it’s because they couldn’t get their plumber in to take a look, that they will pass that 14 day time that they gave you? Communication and goal alignment, again.

Pro Test #9 How many other Pro’s has the customer talked to? 1-2 is sensible. 8-9 is them either looking for an unrealistic price, or something else unreasonable. What did the other Pro’s find out that you don’t know yet? That’s when you RUN. Or, you up your price to take care of the hazard pay. Some of the best customers are those at their wits end from dealing with flakey hacks, and if you act professional, the’ll throw money at you. It’s a judgement call. Unrealistic tightwad? Run. Somehow found a dozen flakes? Proceed with caution. WHY did they find nothing but flakes?

Customer Test #9. Well, there simply isn’t any conceivable circumstances in which a well prepared homeowner needs to interview 9-10 actual Pros before hiring one. So, this will go to the 2-3 that you did interview. Is each licensed and insured, and you’ve verified that with the contractor board and their insurance company? No point in not getting that out of the way up front first thing as a screening tool. What is this Pro’s strengths? Their weaknesses? How does that compare to others you talked to? Is someone with great communication, great organization, and a higher price worth hiring more than the late, sloppy, cheaper guy? (YES!) You are looking for someone who you can marry for 4 months, so who is going to work best for your personality? Who challenges your ideas in order for a better outcome for you? Who references doing work to industry standards, such as TCNA for tile, or NWFA for wood? Are they members of any trade organizations? Do they take continuing education classes? Are they good, but want to be better? These are all things that need to be thought about in that hour’s initial contact, and for the weeks following, as a quote is developed. Follow up with emailed questions if you forgot to ask them during the in person.

Pro Test#10. What kind of experiences have they had with a past renovation, or past contractor? “Nightmare” stories are rarely just the contractor at fault. Sometimes, is is. But. If every person they have had in their home is a complaint, they will not be satisfied, and they will complain about you too. If the AC repairman “cheated” them, and the mow and blow guy is “careless”, and the guy who put in the piped in outdoor grill “just stopped answering phone calls”, RUN AWAY. If they had a “mostly positive” experience with their deck build, and acknowkedged that maybe they owned part of the communication issues that happened, that’s the customer you want. Unhappy people won’t be happy with your work either.

Customer #10. When you mention that you have talked with Contractor B or D, do they immediately get defensive and start badmouthing them? Or do they acknowledge them as a competitor, and then try to highlight their positives in comparison. “We have 50 years of experience with zero BBB complaints ever. Please do check out everyone you are considering with that BBB Record and business longevity in mind.” Is far different than “Greenacres Construction has a bunch of complaints that never got resolved. It’s all over the BBB. Look at it if you don’t believe me” And this is where you have to perk up your antenna and read between the lines to do your due diligence. You also want to ask abou how miscommunications , or change orders went with past clients. Everyone has those clients that make them want to pull their hair out. But no Professional really gives any details beyond a rough, non identifying sketch.

An appointmenet between a Pro and a Customer to discuss a project is a job interview that goes both ways. If a homeowner think that just because they have money, that they are king, then that’s not a job that most Pros will want to take without additional compensation to make it worthwhile to endure. And a Pro that thinks that just because he has a license and insurance, gives him reign to be late, sloppy, and disrespectful, needs to be fired on the front end before he is hired. It won’t get better if you do hire him.

Renovations are partnerships. They are two way streets on everything.

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