Hiring Help: From "How To" to "Hurrah!"
Whether you are in over your head or juggling too many tasks, hiring help can be a great idea. Projects can benefit from specialized expertise, more work can be accomplished at one time, and as a homeowner you can step back from the tasks at hand to get a wider perspective. The time and energy you save may more than offset the expense.
However, trouble ensues when the wrong help is hired. Establishing what you want to accomplish is essential, so size things up thoroughly. When looking at a specific project or problem, you might benefit from having a few people look at it and offer ideas of how they might approach a solution. Sometimes the first ideas are not the best, and as you look at issues, new priorities emerge. Are you looking for an interim fix that will carry you through until you can "do it right"? What is the scale of the project and is the cost/benefit in line with your budget and goals? Asking the right questions will help you gain insight into the true nature of what you are doing.
For example, let's say that you have three projects at hand:
You need cosmetic fixes to your guest bathroom.
The deck that is central to your summer enjoyment is rotting and requiring a lot of time and attention so that it can be used safely.
Your septic system is failing.
How do you begin to find help for these projects? You might begin by understanding the level of help that you need. Do you want to supervise or do only a portion of the work? Do you need a handyman or general laborer? What are the benefits of getting someone more skilled with the type of help you require? What is the scope of the project? Will there be permitting/inspections involved with the project? Who is going to manage the project?
A failing septic system becomes a health risk, and often requires sign-off by a licensed professional. Deck projects can fall into a grey area, but when incorrectly built could pose a major safety issue. When in doubt, inquire with your local building authority so that you are certain that you are following the correct course of action, and getting the permits and inspections that are required by law.
Get referrals: Rather than trust your job to luck, find out if friends or family have used a person or service that they would recommend. Many online resources exist to help see the consumer ratings for businesses, but this information could be less than reliable, so check it thoroughly. Look for workers or service providers that are licensed, bonded and insured as protection for both parties should an accident occur on site, or problems with the project later incur liability. Licensure ensures a level of knowledge in an area, and insurance and bonding ensures that there are financial resources available should you need to bring a lawsuit against the service provider that requires a monetary settlement or costly repairs. Yes, you might be paying more for a professional with these credentials, but in the long run, it is worth it when working on any project where money or safety is at stake.
Check those references! Yes, actually talk to people who have previously received services. Find out the details: Was the project finished in a timely manner, within budget, with quality work and materials? How was the communication? Were there surprises, and how were they handled? Was the area cleaned up to satisfaction? In the event that there was a problem after the work was complete, how was that handled? Check with the state department of licensing to see if there have been violations or lawsuits against an individual or company, and the Better Business Bureau can help determine if there have been complaints filed against the business. Look at samples of their work -- and talk to those whose projects have been shown. If you find someone great, let them know you might have more work -- and find out who they might recommend if they were not available!
Face Value: Meet with the handyman or service provider and get a feel for how things might go if you hired them. If it seems difficult to discuss the project or work prior to beginning, imagine how things might go if the work gets challenging. Even if others recommend this person or service, you are the one who will be dealing with them now, so size them up for yourself.
The Devil is in the Details: Get written estimates and contracts. Understand how payment is expected. Some short jobs are accomplished with no payment up front, other jobs require that materials are paid for as delivered, and some providers require some payment prior to the beginning of work. Arrangements that allow for payment once the job is completed, ensure that the customer has some feeling of control over the job being completed to their satisfaction. Be certain that estimates and guarantees are in writing so that there is clear communication about expectations.
Level 1: Your Local Handyman
Finding a handyman is like searching for gold. When you find a good one, it is tempting to keep it a secret -- after all, this is a resource you can depend upon for fixes all over the home. From fixing cupboard doors to replacing the grout in the bathroom (project #1), a great handyman who is available, can communicate well, is capable of a wide variety of jobs, who can trouble-shoot and think "outside the box" is worth quite a lot. The great thing about hiring a handyman is that they are paid by the hour (plus materials), and you can save up a list of smaller jobs that you would like to accomplish.
Often, local handymen who are in business for themselves are not licensed, bonded or insured -- so they charge less, but there is a level of risk in using them that you will have to judge for yourself. Some companies provide handyman services, where the business ensures that there is proper insurance and bonding, but they are usually higher in cost to the consumer.
Level 2: A Dedicated Service Provider
If you are working on project #2, the deck, and you want it done quickly, you might opt to call in a decking company. Specialization allows for a greater understanding of options, sometimes better, more specific tools that make for efficiency in work, and often allows for a tighter schedule. After all, when a company focuses on a specific project, they know how long things take, they often have materials on hand, and they know where unexpected problems might occur. While the cards sometimes seem stacked in the company's favor, the customer benefits from the expertise and experience of this specialized provider. Projects are usually bid by the job, taking the average hours into account and the specific materials needed to accomplish the job. Bids and estimates should be discussed in advance so both parties are aware of their binding nature. Understand how overruns or changes to the terms of the contract will be handled.
Level 3: Hire a Contractor/Project Manager
Some projects are just plain BIG. Say that deck project where you thought you were just going to replace a few boards reveals that the entire supporting system is rotten and a tear-down is needed. While you are at it, you decide to expand the deck, requiring some grading, and then you discover a crack in the foundation of your home that you couldn't see because of the deck. You just might decide to hire a contractor who can do it all and stand by the work.
Contractors who understand building from the ground up, and who are familiar with the permitting process can save you a lot of headaches. Of course they charge the most, but they understand workflow and can schedule laborers to work concurrently. They are likely to be licensed, insured, and bonded. Additionally, project #3, the failing septic system, might require someone who is able to understand and follow highly specific plans, submit reports and answer questions of inspectors. A general contractor might be just right for the job.
Again, understanding the job, the process of work, materials acquisition, billing and payment cycles and other details will require a high level of communication and written documentation. Before settling on your contractor, get fully clear on the work to be done and be prepared for the help that you are hiring to be in your life for the duration of the job.
Hiring help does get easier. The more projects you do and the more providers that you contact, the more your skills and network grow. Hiring help is actually a talent, and the more you do it, the better you get at finding the right providers. Having a checklist, gathering information and keeping organized as you gain information and understanding of your options ensures that the help you get is the help you really need. Your job of hiring the best help possible begins the process, and taking the time to hire great help will leave you celebrating a fantastic finished project.