Sara Peterson's Kitchen Redo: My Best Tips For Hiring a Contractor

Sara Peterson, HGTV Magazine's Editor in chief, opens up about choosing the perfect contractor for her complete kitchen overhaul.

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Photo by: Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards

This is the first time I’ve gut renovated a kitchen, so there was plenty I wasn’t sure about, like: How many — and how high — should pendant lights hang above my island? Could I somehow see what the floor tiles and the grout color would look like together before installation? How would I know if the appliances I liked best would fit in my space properly? These were just three of about 350 questions I had whirring around in my head like a blender set to "smoothie." Plus, about half of these questions involved some kind of math. (Yuck — not my forte.)

But I did know this for sure: The most important decision was whom I was going to hire to guide me like a skilled Sherpa through this process. Whom did I trust to get this job done right? Whom did I want to be my contractor? That was, by far, the number-one question. And now that I’m neck-deep into my kitchen redo, the advice I would pass along to friends, family and readers alike is different than I thought it would be. 

Here, first, is the obvious advice (it’s worth going over because it’s solid and still very true):

1. Ask a trusted friend for a recommendation. And I don’t mean any friend. I mean one who has recently worked with a contractor for a substantial amount of time. And you should admire this person’s home style. It’s not enough to get a recommendation for a contractor who is, say, budget-conscious and knowledgeable about the latest materials. You need to like the contractor’s work, too. 

2. You could also ask people at your local lumberyard for contractor recommendations. They always seem to know who is the most reliable — after all, they do a lot of business with them.

Host Jonathan Scott completely guts the kitchen, as seen on Brother vs Brother.

Host Jonathan Scott completely guts the kitchen, as seen on Brother vs Brother.

Photo by: Jill Hunter/AP Images

Jill Hunter/AP Images

3. Chat with candidates on the phone, or schedule a quick meet-up to ask a few basic questions, like: Who are your employees? How long have you been working with them and your subcontractors? (The contractor I eventually hired has worked with two other guys — and only these two guys — for more than 15 years; that was a huge comfort and benefit.) How many jobs do you have going on at once? Do you have a list of previous clients I can contact as references? Listen to their answers, of course, but also ask yourself: Do I like how this person is communicating with me? Do I feel comfortable talking to this person? You are going to be spending a lot of time talking to your contractor, and he or she will be spending hours in your house with and without you there. So no matter how highly recommended he or she comes, make sure this is a person you actually like. I would say having good communication is the most important factor in hiring a contractor.

4. Once you’ve narrowed your list down, ask to see photos of the contractor’s work. At the very least, it gives you a lot to ask him or her about, like: How long did this project take? What’s this tile, and where did these cabinets come from? Any trouble spots or big headaches with this project? How much does something like this cost? And finally (my favorite): Is there a way it could have been done for a little less money? 

5. Ask (a lot) about the billing process. Make sure you have a detailed estimate (it should break down the cost of all labor and materials) and a payment schedule in writing before even one speck of work is done. As the project moves along, if there are any changes to the plan (let’s say you change your mind about materials), revisit the estimate and make adjustments in writing again (and again and again, for as many times as you need to).

And now a few less obvious pieces of advice:

6. Will this contractor meet you at various places to help pick out materials like flooring and tile? (Mine did — big help!) 

7. Will he or she text or email you photos when you need to see something right away? My kitchen reno went smoothly because my contractor was willing to text me photos of his progress when I had to be at work. I also felt a lot more at ease because I could see what was happening even though I was miles away. 

8. Find out how he or she cleans up your home after a day’s work. Have him or her walk you through the process. Coming home to a clean work area will make you so much happier — trust me on this one! 

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