5 Rules for a Happy Contractor-Client Relationship

Have you ever noticed that most stories about home renovations gone-wrong blame the contractor? THE HANDY MANIAC HAS.

“There are TWO SIDES to every story!” is a common HM refrain. And I do have to admit, most articles focus on how to micromanage your contractor who is sure to overcharge you and take forever. Seldom do these articles suggest that the person whose home is being renovated possibly could have anything to do with this.  But having shared a dinner table with HM for his two plus decades in the business, and having renovated our own home, I once again have to admit that he has a point.

Here are several things that you can do as the client to make sure your job runs smoothly.


Here is a favorite HM schtick: “When owners start talking about their ideas, I tell them to just figure on paying a dollar a word.” What he means is that HM considers it his job to get things done efficiently within the budget he has been given. But people get excited when they see the work and fall into the “while you’re at it…” trap. “While you’re at it, we were thinking we should move this wall 2 inches.”  “While you’re at it, we’d like to put recessed lighting in the dining room.” “While you’re at it, let’s just replace the hardware on the kitchen cabinets.” Those things can be done, but they will cost money.  And people seem to forget that.  When a job first starts, HM estimates how much it will cost to do the job that’s being discussed. And then people get that figure in their heads. And forget that they have added all of the other “little tweaks.”

And don’t think we were immune from this trap. I have a little piece of notebook paper that is the “estimate” for what it would cost to renovate our fixer-upper. Suffice to say we came in about 3 times over budget. Some of that was because we discovered the place was about to collapse and needed a lot more infrastructure work than we aniticpated. But we also discovered we really liked oil-rubbed bronze fixtures. And, hey, how often are you going to renovate your house? There was a lot of stress involved in making all of those choices, the extra costs weren't incurred frivolously. Costs and benefits were weighed. And today we are happy with all of the choices we made -- with the exception of one extra fancy wood door. We got carried away and didn't think through how the rooms would be used. Which is one good rule of thumb: Always try to think of how you will ACTUALLLY USE the space, not just how it will look.


Clients need to pick paint colors, buy fixtures, choose tiles, vanities, doorknobs... YOU HAVE HOMEWORK. When your contractor tells you to pick your tile, you need to do it promptly or you will leave him with nothing to do. Which means he has to take other jobs, which means he leaves your job for awhile.  Or it means the job slows down.  To keep a job running on schedule, you need to hold up your side of the “to do” list.

As we neared the end of our renovation, HM asked me what kind of door knobs I wanted. I shrugged, saying I didn’t care. I was spent. I couldn’t make another decision. He grabbed me by the shoulders and said DON’T GIVE UP NOW. IT’S THE HOME STRETCH. And since I am a sucker for an overcoming adversity story, I sucked it up and went to Home Depot.


Buying an antique sink at a flea market for $20 may seem like a cost saver, but it will take a lot more in labor and additional parts to make that 100-year-old sink connect to your modern plumbing. If it’s an aesthetic choice, fine. But understand it’s not a money saver. This goes for antique lighting fixtures, reclaimed hardwood floors and school-house doors.

As soon as we closed on our house, I started collecting old light fixtures from flea markets. HM was not pleased. But now he proudly shows off the results – like this one in our living room – AS IF IT WAS HIS IDEA.

As soon as we closed on our house, I started collecting old light fixtures from flea markets. HM was not pleased. But now he proudly shows off the results – like this one in our living room – AS IF IT WAS HIS IDEA.


When the bill arrives at a restaurant, what do you do? When you get a haircut, what do you do? When you buy a new outfit, what do you do? You PAY THE BILL right then. So why would you not pay someone who is in your home more than 40 hours a week? Most contractors do a lot of shopping for you. They buy your materials and pay people to come work in your home. This goes on their credit cards. Are they supposed to float you a loan? Do they care if your money is tied up in poor performing stock? They have bills to pay. Bills for YOUR home. You may think that contractors are rich, but very few are. I can show you the bank statements to prove it. Holding onto a last payment to be sure to squeeze some last bit of work out of a contractor is some bit of advice that may be appropriate for Donald Trump, but it doesn’t build good faith for the little guy. And it can make a contractor walk away from a job because at a certain point it isn’t worth it. This is how a lot of the disaster stories end, but maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can’t speak for all contractors, but I can speak for HM: If you really want to keep him working, set up a regular payment schedule. Pay before he gives you a bill. Unless you have hired a large contractor with a big back office, many are bad about staying on top of billing (probably because they are so exhausted at the end of the day). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t running out of money.  Nothing motivates HM more than someone who pays regularly. It builds a lot of good faith and a sense of responsibility.


This one goes both ways. Clients should communicate about their expectations about timeline and money. You may think you know how much a job is costing, but it is good to ask for regular bills or updates to keep track. And if you have firm deadlines these should be communicated. The more you talk to each other, the less surprises there will be. A renovation job is very emotional. It has its ups and downs. And a good contractor will be emotionally invested in it as well as a homeowner. HM doesn’t want a job to drag on forever any more than a homeowner does.

If you follow these guidelines, you won’t necessarily get everything on your wish list for the budget you have on the date you want. Remember the old two out of three rule: Fast, Cheap, Right. You can have two of the three, but not all three.  But chances are, you will still be on good terms with your contractor at the end, and you will have work you are pleased with.