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How to Choose a Contractor

Woman Looking at Question Mark on Wall


Do you need a contractor?

Technically, no. Homeowners can pull a permit for work on properties that they own. The bigger the project, the better off you will be with a contractor as part of the team.   Sure, you can do the contractor’s job yourself — plan the project, hire subcontractors, supervise them, and make sure it all goes according to plan. It isn’t easy to do, which is why they get paid the big bucks. 

It’s not unusual for a contractor to charge 15% of the total cost of your project — 7½% for project coordination, and 7½% for overhead — in addition to the costs of work. For a $200,000 project, you’ll add $30,000 for the contractor.

What will you get for that money?

Someone with knowledge, experience, and connections. Contractors have existing relationships with the subcontractors, which can be very valuable. If problems arise, a contractor may get better treatment than you would. An electrician might not be very concerned about disappointing you, but if the electrician wants the contractor to hire her for future work, she’s more likely to show up when she’s supposed to.

Most projects require complex sequencing. You might start with a foundation, then rough carpentry, electrical, and plumbing, and then it all has to be inspected before you can move on to the next phases. If you don’t time that right, your project can get delayed and that could cost you extra money as well as time.

For all that can go wrong in a building project, if you have a contractor, you have an experienced person there in your corner to back you up.

Where should you look for potential contractors?

Start by asking people you know. Maybe a friend, or friend of a friend, has talked about their renovation project. Ask if they were happy with their contractor. 

Advice from an architect (me):

  1. Look at the website of the contractor.  What do they say is important to them? What vibe do you get from their marketing materials?  How large is their company? Do they even have a website? Many contractors I’ve encountered are proud of the fact that they don’t have a card, don’t have their name on their trucks and don’t have a website.  Of course, this means that you will only be able to get their number from someone who knows them. 
  2. Call up the company and talk to the person who answers the phone.  Was that enjoyable? Did you feel like they were interested in talking with you? 
  3. If you can get the contractor on the phone, talk to him about your project and ask him what his process is.  Does he seem interested in your project? Are you enjoying your conversation? If the answer is yes, send him a PDF of the drawings of your project and ask him to contact you for a site visit if he is interested.  Do you really like him? Have you noticed any red flags (things that make your heart sink or make your stomach feel a little wrong. The biggest one for me at this point is being grumpy and resistant to meeting in person.)
  4. If you have an architect on the project, the architect should be there for the walkthrough of the project to talk to the contractor about potential challenges and to help you evaluate the contractor.  What is his demeanor and attitude during the walkthrough? I recently interviewed a contractor who kept sighing and saying how much work the project was going to be. That was pretty obvious. 
  5. Call the references and ask about the bad times.  How did the contractor handle conflicts, mistakes, misunderstandings, and changes? 
  6. Don’t ask contractors that you don’t like to give you estimates for your project.  They may not give you a good, comparable price if they don’t want the project, you’ll be wasting your time and theirs.  

Advice from a contractor (Allen Carpanella of MBA Building Group, Reading MA):

  1. Slow down and plan out everything before contacting a contractor. 
  2. Take a team approach, get your architect working with the contractor for the best result.
  3. Ask for referrals from a similar-sized project and actually call them.
  4. Visit past projects in person with the contractor.  Ask questions about his process. Look at the overall quality, keeping in mind that projects might be a few years old. While walking through with the contractor, he or she will describe challenges that they met on the project and how they solved them. Ask them about problems on the project and how they solved them.
  5. Ask them what insurances they have.  
  6. Decide how much hand holding you are going to need during the project, contractors vary in how much management they offer. 
  7. Be realistic about your budget, and tell the contractor what it is. Do not get excited by a low number once the estimates come in.  If you hire someone for a low price who ends up losing money on the job, he could walk away leaving you to find someone else to finish the job.  This is going to cost you more in the end, not to mention the frustration and aggravation. 
  8. Have a full set of documents ready for pricing.  The set should be 90-95% of the way there. The documents should include floor plans, elevations, structural drawings, demo plans, specifications detailing finishes, 
  9. Hire someone you trust. 


Ask candidates about their subcontractors, at least the ones they use most often. Who do they use and why? Some contractors have carpenters, electricians and/or plumbers on staff, which makes them more reliable and easier for the contractor to schedule and properly sequence into the flow of the project.


The contractor is a person you will be in a deeply personal relationship with for many months.  The relationship will include money issues, promises kept and broken, misunderstandings, and many expectations to manage. In the end, hopefully, there is love. If you aren’t feeling the love from the beginning, walk away. 


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Kitchen designs

A potential client recently asked me to send her photos of kitchens that I have designed.   I could do that, but I don’t think the photos tell much of a story about me and my design process.  I generally leave all finishes and cabinetry choices up to my clients rather than choose those details for them.   I create the spaces in which their kitchens exist, and I definitely have advice about how I think the kitchen should be laid out, and what kind of cabinetry goes where.  I’ve been thinking about this recently.  Why don’t I choose everything?  I guess I attract a do-it-yourselfer kind of client who tends to know what they want better than I do- they know where they want their spices and how much recycling they would have and what kind of doors they like and how much they are willing to pay for custom features, etc.  To me it makes sense to cut out the middle woman (me) and save money on my fee by doing it themselves.  I help people decide how much of the wall their tile will cover, or what size tiles to place where,  but to me which tile they choose is completely up to their taste.  Sure, I could help them and sometimes do, but generally there is help at the tile store for people trying to coordinate the backsplash with the stove wall with the floor tile.  They may see something that they fall in love with when they are there at the store which they would miss if they left it up to me.  I don’t mind.  I have gone tile shopping on occasion and I enjoy that process, but to be honest that does add to their overall soft costs and I am happy enough to save them that money.

Then how do I communicate my kitchen designs to someone who is contemplating hiring me to design their kitchen space?  I decided to use before and after drawings to illustrate my points.

I work in Massachusetts, where somehow people lived for many years with these kitchens that are full of doors and circulation paths, with no room to the sides of the stove and even the refrigerator in another room.  My clients have gotten tired of living that way and call me for help.

Kitchen A is a great example of the very small kitchen that could barely function with one person it it, had very limited counter space and a bathroom that opened directly onto it.  If nothing else, that bathroom had to change. That is the one thing I just will not allow in my design, a kitchen with a bathroom opening directly into it.  We once rented a house with a toilet in the kitchen with a partition around it.  No.  I had that removed.

Back to kitchen A- the solution there was to expand the kitchen into the adjoining transitional space and push the kitchen out a few feet into the back yard.  We were trying to open up the kitchen to the back yard and to a deck while allowing some space for lounging in the kitchen, an island with stools, and a connection to the eating area in the dining room.  The half bath moved to the other side of the kitchen but with the door in what felt like a small hallway or transition space, rather than opening directly onto the kitchen.  To the right of the refrigerator (“R”) would be a large pull out pantry area for food.  There were upper cabinets to the right of the stove for dishes, easily accessible to the dishwasher.

In no particular order, here is a list of kitchen considerations that are illustrated in kitchen A’s before/proposed drawings.  I answer all of these questions with each of my kitchen designs:

  1. Consider the connection to the exterior from the kitchen.  What should that relationship be?  Is it a main entry to the house?  Casual entry? How much of a visual connection is desired? Will the entry be used frequently in the winter?  How important is an air block?
  2. Where can the first floor half bath go that will not open up onto the kitchen?
  3. Where will the dishes be stored, and where is that in relation to the dishwasher?
  4. If the dishwasher or oven doors are open, can people still circulate in the space?  The oven door isn’t likely to be left wide open, so the dishwasher door is more important to me.
  5. Where will the dry goods be stored?
  6. Where will the not used very often items be stored?
  7. Are there at least 14’ of working space on the countertops and island?

(more to follow in subsequent examples)

Kitchen B

The owners of kitchen B were looking for a large eat in kitchen with a family room combined.  Their existing kitchen was mostly circulation and difficult to work in with more than two people.  When an addition is built for a new kitchen, what happens to the old kitchen? In this case we filled the area with a relocated half bath and a larger mudroom.  The kitchen had limited upper cabinets and a pull out floor to ceiling pantry in two locations.  Additional kitchen storage (for seasonal and infrequently used items like the deep fryer or apple corer, etc) was at the bottom of the basement stairs.

The dashed line between the kitchen and the family room indicated a beam in the ceiling which is anchored on either side by half walls with built in shelves.  The two spaces are open to each other with a fireplace and bookcases built into the wall opposite the kitchen.  The kitchen has a wall of windows facing the garden, and the booth at the end of the family room is also surrounded by windows.

The dots indicate circulation patterns.  The original kitchen was hampered by a door to the dining room, to the mudroom, and to the basement stairs. The proposed kitchen would keep people passing through out of the production area.  The living room was opened up with pocket doors to the family room allowing for circulation around the core of the house or the possibility of closing of the living room for separate functions.

8.  How will the new kitchen improve circulation in the house?  How can circulation be directed away from the working areas in the kitchen?

Kitchen C

The owners of kitchen C decided to expand the rear of their house 5’ across the entire width.  They did not want to eat up too much of their backyard with their addition.  While some of the decision for this move was to benefit the second floor, the main concern was the expansion of the kitchen. The extra space allows for an increased mudroom and a direct path into the kitchen from the side door to the driveway.  The stove and the sink are separated out and each has a working area on either side.

9.  Allow for at least 9” on either side of the stove (absolute minimum).

10.  Where will hand washed dishes dry?

Kitchen D

In designing kitchen D I had to stay within the footprint of the existing house while enlarging the kitchen and making the exiting space in the family room area more functional.  The solution was to steal some room from the bathrooms on the left to gain an additional 2’ and to add a booth to the family room area to allow for casual dining for a family of 5.

11.  What is the relationship between the kitchen table and the dining room table?  Are they too similar and therefore redundant?

We solved this problem by choosing a booth which is the opposite of a formal dining table. There is some seating at the island as well for keeping the cooks company.

Kitchen E

Kitchen E is similar to kitchen B in that they wanted an addition of a kitchen and family room area.  Their kitchen was also replaced with a mudroom with a short hall between the dining room and new kitchen with countertop and cabinets along the hall, almost like a butler’s pantry. The addition was also an attempt to improve the circulation of the house.

12. Is there a possibility to open up one wall with windows while filling another wall with upper cabinets?

Kitchen F

The owners of kitchen F were closed off from the outdoors in their small circulation filled kitchen located in the center of the house.  They, too, wanted a kitchen/dining room/family room that focused on the rear yard.  They opted for no upper cabinets in the main space, a beautiful blue stove and a large pantry with countertops and upper cabinets.  While people would need to cut through the kitchen space to get to get back, their impact on the people working in the kitchen would be minimal.

Those are a few examples of recent kitchens that I have worked with clients to improve in small or completely new ways.  Most kitchens deal with the same group of issues, as described above: Sharing the space with other cooks and guests, view to the outside, access to the outside and to the dining room, counter space, circulation, eating area, combination of living spaces and gracious living.  Kitchens are no longer hidden away spaces where one person toils alone, they are now the hub of the home where family and friends come together.