How to Find the Best Experts for Home Upkeep
Beat the expensive post-pandemic system with tips to find real estate agents, remodelers and more
Maybe it’s temporary, maybe it’s permanent. But as of this moment, almost every aspect of being a consumer is topsy-turvy: Prices are soaring, hired help is hard to find, supplies are back-ordered, deliveries are delayed, and yet demand for goods and services — especially those related to your home — keeps going up and up. How do you get the home projects or work done that you want in such an environment, at a cost that’s reasonable?
Here are some tips and approaches to help you find the right people to keep your home in tip-top shape during these challenging times.
Find the best home remodeler
Home remodeling has become even more of a challenge since the pandemic. Not only do remodelers face a labor shortage and high demand for their services (up roughly 25 percent since 2020 for Steve Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Contracting in Williamsburg, Virginia), but so do the subcontractors (electricians, carpenters, painters, tile specialists and so on) that remodelers bring to a job. Add to that supply-chain disruptions that can slow delivery of materials such as lumber, windows and appliances to a crawl. “I just ordered a garage door for a job that will take 15 weeks to deliver,” says Mike Williams, owner of Maryland Professional Contractors. “Cabinets can take two months from some suppliers.” All of this is boosting prices to eye-watering levels (lumber costs jumped 218 percent in just five months in early 2022, according to the National Association of Home Builders). Be patient, because finding an honest, experienced pro has never mattered more. Here’s how.
Bias toward referrals. Remodelers are so busy that without a referral from a satisfied customer or another contractor, you may not even get an estimate, Williams says. “My volume is up 40 percent,” he says. “So my business plan is to stick with referrals. If you know somebody who knows a contractor they liked, that will help you get an estimate.”
Ask smart questions. When you talk with friends, neighbors and coworkers about contractors, be sure to ask the difficult questions: What part of the project didn’t go as planned, suggests Sal Alfano, retired executive editor of Professional Remodeler magazine. Delays and budget changes are typical, but did the remodeler explain them honestly as soon as they cropped up? Did he give you excuses? Or did he constructively discuss options?
Find out who’ll actually do the work. Will the guy you hired be on the job? Who are the subcontractors that will get used, and do they have required licenses and insurance? Ask a potential remodeler if he uses the same subcontractors on every job, and if he is sure they aren’t bogged down with backlogs, Cunningham suggests.
Look for connections. A remodeler with several years’ experience may have the supplier relationships and know-how to help get materials as quickly as possible, Cunningham says. Some have staffers who will go with you to pick out everything from paint and tile to washing machines and faucets.
Check their credentials. In ultra-busy times like these, less-than-reputable players emerge. Check online to see if your state requires contractors to have a home-improvement license or registration. If so, ask your remodeler for proof. Also ask for proof of insurance and certification by a professional organization, Alfano suggests. A contractor with extra certifications and credentials in specialty areas is someone who values ongoing, advanced training, Cunningham says.
Find the best real estate agent
Shocking fact: As of February, there were far more Realtors in America than homes for sale. This imbalance — the result of fewer homeowners looking to sell and a surge of workers changing careers to become real estate agents — means you have your pick of agents. To find the best one, you have to know how to get them to reveal their skill sets, says Ken H. Johnson, a real estate economist and associate dean at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business. What you’re looking for, whether buying or selling: a great track record, intimate knowledge of the market, trustworthiness, and the ability to listen carefully and fully to your needs and concerns, says Clare Trapasso, deputy news editor for Realtor.com.
Start with word of mouth. Ask friends and neighbors who they used when they bought or sold a house locally. Did the agent really listen to their needs and concerns and work actively to show them houses that filled the bill? Or did they try to sell them the wrong properties? Then check online lists and ratings. If you’re moving to an area where you don’t know anyone local to ask, several websites list agents by neighborhood; consider Realtor.com, HomeLight.com or Zillow.com.
Count recent transactions. Active and aggressive agents have lots of recent closings. Type the names of agents you are considering into the Agent Finder tool at Zillow.com to find out how many sales the agent has made in the past year and how far above or below the asking price.
And count years in business. “This is a very Darwinian business — only the fittest survive. People with 10 or more years of experience, who sell real estate as their family’s breadwinner, are your best bet,” Johnson says. An experienced agent can also handle surprises that can crop up after you’ve reached an agreement to sell your home, he says. “There’s something more than getting to the sales price. There’s the terms of the sale, getting to the close,” he says. “A seasoned agent knows how to deal with contract issues.”
Be a tough interviewer. Treat this like a job interview because that’s what it is, Trapasso says. If shopping for a home in a new area, tell the candidate what kind of town and neighborhood you are looking for, as well as things that are important to you, like schools, parks or a nearby bustling downtown. What areas would they recommend and why? Are they really hearing your needs, or are their comments scripted and tired? Don’t sign up with someone right away.
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Find the best landscaper
Labor shortages are just the start of the challenges for landscapers these days; there’s also a diminished supply of trees, shrubs, garden plants, landscaping materials, fertilizers and even lawn equipment. This pushes up lead time and costs. Plus, there’s a looming lack of truck drivers to deliver it all, notes Britt Wood, chief executive officer of the National Association of Landscape Professionals. These strategies can help you find a great landscaper in these unusual times.
Get honest about budget. Being an informed client about the challenges and costs landscapers are facing makes you an attractive customer. “Contractors … want to work with clients who understand the value and are willing to pay the market rate for quality landscape projects,” Wood says.
Ask about substitutes. Sixty-five percent of landscape professionals told a recent survey they expect plant shortages to continue into 2023 or longer. Prices for hard-to-get items could be 20 percent higher than in the past, with standbys like white pine and Norway spruce and attractive fill-ins like some types of ferns hard to get in some areas. A savvy landscaper can recommend smart substitutes with a similar look that will thrive in the conditions in your yard.
Decide how much work you can do. If you’re an avid gardener, see if your landscaper candidate is primarily interested in handling the heavy lifting, like installing boulders and irrigation, and doing the more challenging plantings. Then you can dig in to do the detail work. That could shorten the project time span, which might be a factor for the landscaper.
Walk the neighborhood. Unlike internal home remodelings, landscapes are out there for all to see. If you see homeowners with a landscape you admire, it’s a sure bet they’ll love talking about the landscaper they used and what the project entailed.
Credentials matter. A reminder: There’s a big difference between a gardening service that mostly just mows, edges and weeds, and a landscaper who is trained, certified and expert at creating beautiful spaces. The best landscapers post on their websites that they belong to a national or state association and that their crew members have certifications. Their top employees also should have a secondary education in the field or several years of experience.
Find the best painter
Outstanding house painters spend as much time (if not more) prepping as painting. But as professional painters contend with labor shortages, high consumer demand and ongoing shortages of interior and exterior paint, it will take a different kind of prep on your part to find top pros who can deliver the quality you desire, says Jason Paris, owner of Paris Painting in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and chairman of the Painting Contractors Association.
Start your search sooner. “I’d say the backlog is the longest I’ve seen since I started in this industry in 2008,” says Emily Howard, editor in chief of American Painting Contractor magazine. Many painters are now scheduling months in advance. “I often hear about painting contractors booked out for the entire season, into the next year,” Paris says. “Demand’s only gone up as boomers retire from the field and millennials aren’t coming in.”
Get paint-store referrals. A painter who has good, ongoing relationships with local paint shops may be able to get the paint you want despite shortages, Paris says. Ask store employees and managers who they work with and would recommend. This also gives you a name to drop when contacting a painter about an estimate; referrals can help move you to the top of the list for getting a quote.
Look for a standard operating procedure. The best painters have set routines that result in repeatable quality. Many of the best ones post their procedures on their websites or proposals, says Mike Mundwiller, end-user product experience manager for Benjamin Moore & Co. Top-notch painters will proudly detail the efforts they will go to prepare surfaces, be it power-washing, scraping, or even replacing and back-priming wood. It should be in the proposal or estimate. For interior jobs, get details on how they will protect your furniture, floors and valuables. For exterior, ask how they will protect your landscape.
Check their online presence. Serious paint businesses often have websites that feature photos of their finished jobs. And check their social media presence. Painters who are active on social media take pride in their work and aren’t afraid of comments, Mundwiller says.
Offer some scheduling flexibility. A painter may be able to fit you in sooner if you can make your home available for work on short notice, should another job fall through, or on weekends, Paris says. At the same time, the two of you should agree in writing on a date for completing the project.
Research paint choices. In 2021, 61 percent of painters told an American Painting Contractor magazine survey that they were affected by supply shortages caused by supply-chain disruptions. Shortages are continuing into 2022, Howard says, but vary by locality. Your best bet: Know which brands, colors and types of paint you want and also think about how flexible you’re willing to be. This could help your painter find a comparable product sooner.
Find the best home handyman
Anyone can call himself or herself a handyman. Which means that in times of high demand like now, there’s been an increase in scams. “We do a lot of work after other contractors have taken a customer’s money and disappeared,” says Eric Marie, owner of Get an Eric, LLC, in Chicago. “This makes the wait time for jobs even worse.” He and Kristina Tuttle, director of client services at Best Handyman Boston, offer tips on finding someone you can trust.
The diamond is in the details. In researching handymen to hire, look for online comments that go beyond “He did a good job.” Comments citing punctuality, good communication, professionalism and cleanliness indicate a provider who takes pride in his work. Also look that the job was done at the quoted price; if the additional expense was significant, it suggests the provider may not have the needed experience and skill.
Consider affiliated handymen. Hiring a pro from a handyman franchise or through a big-box store or hardware store chain is a good way to find a qualified and vetted worker, Marie notes. Get several quotes. Even for modest jobs, it’s good to get a few quotes to make sure you aren’t overpaying — or getting low-balled. Plus, you’ll get to see the handyman in action, assessing the situation and showing in real time his understanding of the job. Remember that a good handyman with lots of business is also evaluating you, so be your best self. “I also pick and choose,” Marie says. “If I see that a customer is going to be a real pain, I try not to work with them.” Hospitality counts, too, says Tuttle. Offering a cup of coffee is nice, but if you really want to be on the top of his customer list, let him know it’s fine to use the bathroom.
You can still negotiate. Before you sign a contract with your preferred handyman, it’s worth negotiating the price, even in a tight market, Marie says. “Bargaining is fine,” he says. “It’s normal. Obviously I’m trying to make a living, but I always have some space to negotiate.”
Don’t pay cash. If a handyman asks to be paid in cash, say goodbye. He probably doesn’t have a business checking account and may be trying to avoid income tax. If things go wrong, he might just disappear, and you’ll have little recourse.
Clean up before he comes. If a handyman sees clutter and dirt, he knows the job will take longer and he may charge you more.
Sari Harrar is a contributing editor who focuses on health and consumer topics. David Schiff has written several books on consumer and home topics.