How to Choose a Contractor Part I

Okay, before you mistake me for an expert, let me admit that this post should really be called “How We Chose a Contractor.”

A big reason for this blog is how confusing the whole home reno process is. We all know it’s good to preserve older buildings, improve home efficiency and get off fossil fuels. We know that renovating is better for the planet than destroying a house and building new. So why is it so difficult and expensive to do the former and so easy and (relatively) cheap to do the latter? How many families do you know who live in homes that are falling apart?

One of the difficult parts is finding the right professionals to work with. I’m going to tell you how we arrived at our decision to hire Ridgewater Homes. You’ll have to follow the story to determine how good they really are. Hopefully our story will help you with your story.

Somebody gave me a Mike Holmes book a few years ago. I think it was my Dad. The book is called, “Mike Holmes Make It Right“. In it he takes issue with the common advice of talking to three contractors before choosing one. You need “way more than three” he says. It sounds perfectly reasonable. Here is a link to a Holmes on Homes article on contractors.

The trouble comes when you try and find contractors willing to give you an actual quote. It’s not like they were beating down our door wanting to help us with our eco-heritage reno and retrofit. I got the impression the profit margin on our project is too low, we are too far out of Vancouver (1 hour’s drive), and a heritage house like ours has too many unknowns for a lot of reputable contractors. Maybe they have no shortage of easier projects to do.

But first, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: do we really need a contractor? Can we be our own contractor? Well, first of all, we’ve done enough work ourselves on the two houses on the property plus the garage to want someone else to do the work for a change. More importantly, I’m pretty sure being our own contractor on such a big project would be like being our own lawyer. We would have fools for clients.

I had the dream that we might be able to afford to hire a general contractor to do everything–the house would be finished quickly and professionally and life would go back to normal. We have come to a compromise: Ridgewater will handle the things we can’t and we will take over and do the rest. The rest is a lot.


The first contractor we talked to was called A Helpful Handyman. I came across their initial estimate last week and was overcome by a wave of nostalgia.

Our first estimate
Our first estimate

Before we planned anything more than a bathroom reno, before Annabel the Architect, before Monte the Energy Advisor, before Lisa Zosiak the Heritage Planner and before Lorraine Gauthier of The Now House Project when there was just a squishy toilet, a low ceiling and carpenter ants, I posted a request on a web-site that connects people to contractors.

It was a predecessor to and I’m not sure if it exists anymore or whether it has become HomeAdvisor now. Anyway, I described a simple bathroom renovation and expected to be flooded with eager professionals for me to choose from. Only AHH came up. We had already hit a snag in my quest to find more than three contractors.

I already described our first conversation in last year’s post called “Do we really need a permit” but I didn’t mention the name of the company. It was Dave from AHH that I was talking about. It’s true, we didn’t hire them, but they were helpful and I would recommend checking them out.

I look at Dave’s estimate now and I think it’s so cute! We were only talking about a simple bathroom reno.image

A lot of this work we could have done ourselves, with a little help from knowledgeable neighbours and Dave-the-father-in-law, but we needed a break from DIY.

Here is the total that included the bathroom and kitchen floors.

The proposed start date was July 20, 2010!! We’ve come a long way.

Dave did come back once or twice after Annabel had helped us arrive close to where we are now with our plans. He was still interested in the project and free with his advice, but I had the impression it wasn’t a perfect fit for his company. He said it was bigger than they normally handle and we never had another estimate from AHH.

Let’s just look at that estimate total again. Can you guess what Ridgewater’s estimate comes to?

Next time I’ll tell you about Peter and Kingswood Builders who deserve a shout out because they gave us two estimates as our plans changed along the way.

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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