How to Hire a Contractor Part One: Ready for Your Kitchen Remodel?

Beautiful inset cabinetry is so luxurious in a kitchen remodel.

If you ask me, a proclivity for the managing of projects, a.k.a “project management” should be recognized as a trait – you either have it or you don’t. And yet, if you are a homeowner keen on renovation projects, this trait can certainly come in handy.

What if project management isn’t one of the traits that makes you, fabulous you? And what if you just have to remodel your avocado-green kitchen, like yesterday?  Allow me to introduce you to Nicole Sinclair, a project-manager-turned-home-renovator.  Nicole lives in Maplewood NJ with her husband Paul and their two daughters. From budgeting to hiring tradespeople, she’s got the info. Recently Nicole and I sat down in her newly renovated first floor to discuss the highs and lows of home renovation. Speaking passionately, she broke it all down for us…

How long have you been renovating?

We lived in Summit, NJ for five years. We did a few minimal renovations and one large renovation, the kitchen. We’ve been here in Maplewood for almost six years. So far, we’ve done one major renovation, our entire first floor.  We’ve also done the third floor bathroom and a complete exterior makeover. We are about to embark on remodeling the second floor.

Do you use the same contractor for all your projects?

An interesting question…I’ve not consistently used the same contractor. I find the dynamics of working with contractors really interesting. Every contractor has his ups and downs.  I feel like I’m on a quest for something that is hard to find. I’ve worked with contractors who produce really great quality, but then the client-relationship part can sometimes be tedious. It’s important to keep communication open.

What are some ways the layperson/homeowner can keep the project on schedule?

One of the main reasons schedules go off track is because a product doesn’t come in on time (or it wasn’t ordered on time). Order your products ahead of time – before anyone even touches your house, before it’s gutted. Before we remodeled our first floor, which included the kitchen, I made sure our cabinets were ordered I’d say six weeks before they even started. A kitchen designer can also give you insight as to how long a lead time you need for appliances and cabinetry.

How do you manage your project schedule?

I create my own project plan and work backwards to give myself enough time. And then of course I had our architect. He was constantly on top of it, always making sure we were sourcing products. The architect, I think, has a really big part in making sure everything is seamless. I use Excel to create my own spreadsheets. It doesn’t have to be extravagant.

Please give us some of your project management tips.

I might need a couple seconds to think about it…

Well, I think one of the things everyone should be thinking about is their budget. I think that’s a huge part of it. One of the things that people get caught up on is the amount of money they need to spend so a lot of times there is a big disconnect between your budget and how much a project really costs. I think one of the homework items is to have your architect give you a true ballpark figure, or you can do your own research.

I know it’s hard in this area because national averages don’t correlate to the actual budget amount needed to renovate in the Northeast. But there are other sources out there, like your neighbors who may have completed a project similar to yours. You can search or post questions on Facebook community pages. Also, your architect can estimate cost per square foot. Find your style and then pick out and buy your materials as soon as you can.

Just get out there and go to tile shops and hardware shops. Visit cabinetry, appliance, and countertop shops. This will also help you define costs. You’ll find doing the research yourself is worth it. It may take a lot of time but I think it’s worth it because in the end not having these materials available when they are needed could hold up your project. You can also use resources like and other online sources. Knowing what you’re looking for versus just going in and not knowing, saves time. And if you don’t know what you are looking for you also risk not getting exactly what you want.

Get at least three of four bids from contractors. Don’t only compare their prices but understand what is entailed in the work. Get them to itemize each project element. The price they estimate may not be worth it to you.  That will help you eliminate what you want vs what you need. It’s a cost-cutting technique.

I would get two to three references from the contractor that you think you’re going to hire. Ask their clients a lot of questions about their relationship. Like how they handled the finances and if they met the terms of the contract. Ask about any issues that came up out of scope. How well were these issues managed and communicated? Don’t ever believe any one who says there were no issues! There is no perfect contractor out there, so if someone is telling you everything was great, call BS on it. You need honest answers and you have to go in knowing who you’re going to deal with.

Let’s go back to the architect relationship you mentioned – how is the architect an integral part of this whole thing? Tell us a little bit about how you hired your architect.

Yes, your architect creates the aesthetic and helps you design and plan. And he or she also knows about budget and can give you a ballpark budget. A couple years ago we interviewed three different architects and ultimately decided to go with the architect that we’ve been using for years now because of our comfort level with his listening skills. What we found is that a number of architects, instead of listening to what you want, they come in ready to tell you what want. He or she should learn about your lifestyle, how you function, and be willing to understand you and your family. Ultimately, you’re living in it and you’re paying for it.

You’ve been doing renovation for years, here and elsewhere. You must have said to yourself a few times “Damn, I wish I would have done that differently”. Give the first timers out there some perspective.

I don’t know. One of the things that we got caught up in when we did the first floor renovation was the flooring. We made an assumption that we could salvage the floors that were original to the house. We found out a little too late that the gapping between the floorboards was just way too big for anyone to fix. My kids were dropping toys through them and they were landing in the basement. That pushed our scheduled back because now we needed to find, order, and get these floors in before cabinets could go in.

Shelf crafted from reclaimed barn wood. Real Antique Wood in Irvington, NJ produced this piece especially for the kitchen remodel.
Shelf crafted from reclaimed barn wood. Real Antique Wood in Irvington, NJ produced this piece especially for the kitchen remodel.

I have this thing where I have to fall in love with something for me to be okay with it in my renovation. Otherwise I won’t go with it.

I have a funny story about the knotty Hickory floors I wanted. The first floor is 1,400 square feet. The floors that I really wanted were, I don’t know, $15 a square foot. So you do the math. I had to be really creative, I found a source in Georgia that would cut them to the level of knottiness that I wanted.

Between submitting the order and delivery, it took about four weeks. But then Hickory is the type of wood that has to sit in your basement for two weeks so that it can acclimate to the climate. I mean we had options – we could have tried to match the wood, to reset the planks.  By the time we realized what was needed, it was too late in the process. Never make assumptions.

Which retailers did you use that you would recommend?

Real Antique Wood, they basically do whatever you want. Anthony is super easy to work with. The lighting is from all different places–we like Restoration Hardware. Omega Cabinetry for the kitchen cabinets. Atlas Granite and Marble for countertops.

Top 3 Pro-Tips

Budget – plan for a cushion. You don’t know what you don’t know, so plan for it just in case.  I suggest what many articles suggest–a 10% cushion.  So if your budget is $50K for your renovation, have an extra $10K for any problems that might come up.

Love the product – If you do not love what you are purchasing, keep looking.  You are going to live with this sink, faucet, etc. for most likely years and you are investing dollars, so choose what you love.  You don’t want to be changing out that sink in two years.

Be Flexible – Sometimes unexpected situations come up and you have to be flexible.  Other times sticking to your guns is in order. If you are a parent, it can be like dealing with your children. Pick your battles wisely. If you are not a parent, it can be like dealing with life. Pick your battles wisely. 


Thanks for mentioning that if you don’t love the appliance you looked at, keep shopping because you’re going to live with that sink, faucet, etc. My wife is thinking about remodeling our kitchen because she speculates that it’ll look better with a modern and more lavish look. I think it’s a good investment to hire a reputable professional that can help us remodel our cooking area if we decide to renovate.

Carla Labianca says:

Good luck on your home renovation! And enjoy the process.

I like how you pointed out that every contractor has their ups and downs. I would like to hire one to remodel my kitchen before Thanksgiving. My in-laws are coming and I want to impress them.

I liked it when you mentioned asking for quotations from several contractors to compare which one offers the best rate for your kitchen remodeling project. My sister is planning to install kitchen cabinets for her new house since she is moving there in a few months after her son finishes with his current semester. I will suggest to her choosing a contractor that offers the best rate to deliver the best outcome for her project.

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