Hire Smarter: 7 Tips for Working with Contractors to Remodel Your Home

What you need to know before diving in, plus what happens when remodeling goes wrong.
Construction workers
Photo: Thinkstock


Remodeling your home can seem daunting and, even when you call a professional, there can be some real horror stories. Just ask HONOLULU Family senior editor Jennifer Carlile Dalgamouni, who, with her family, moved into her husband’s childhood Mānoa home in 2014 after years of renting it out to UH professors and students.


“When we moved back in, it was truly almost falling down,” she says, so they hired a contractor, a family friend, who said the project would take five months. “Everyone encouraged us to trust him and advised against bonding him. Big mistake. As months turned into years, work went from slow to almost nonexistent and he lied about workers, progress and purchases, even submitting at least one fraudulent invoice.”


Dalgamouni, who was out of state, wasn’t able to oversee the remodel herself and, in her absence, the contractor fell behind on work but still got paid. “When we returned and saw how much work was left and how little was left in the contract for it, it was obvious that he would never finish the job,” she says. Some work needed to be done over, including two bathrooms and a lānai that weren’t correctly waterproofed. “Worse still, he had not paid multiple subcontractors, and they suggested putting liens on our home. It was difficult and expensive to hire another contractor, as he had done some work on every part of the 5,000-square-foot house, but had not completed a single room.” That meant that a new contractor had to bring in specialty equipment and set up scaffolding all over again, further extending the costs. The remodel was finally completed in 2017, more than two years later than expected. 


Bad tile
Photo: Jennifer Carlile Dalgamouni


Here are some tips for working with contractors, from Dalgamouni and Spencer Davis, owner of contracting company Davis Builders:


1. Do your research

Read reviews online, and make sure the person has a license and the proper insurance through the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (cca.hawaii.gov). You can also check for complaints against them through the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org).


2. Be involved

Dalgamouni went out of town for a few months during her home renovation and, despite checking in constantly, when she came back, the contractors had cut corners and made mistakes. She suggests being around as much as possible.


3. Set up a payment schedule

Davis suggests a 50 percent deposit and 50 percent upon completion for small to medium projects. For larger projects, there should be a deposit, followed by increments as certain percentages of the project are completed. At Dalgamouni’s house, the contractors would complete 40 percent of each phase and ask to be paid for 80 percent of the work—and then never finish.


4. Review contracts thoroughly

Ask questions if you’re unsure about anything.


5. Stick to your guns

Some architects and contractors may suggest pricey upgrades that may not align with what you really want. Research their suggestions, especially if you are interested in their ideas
but are curious about cheaper options.


6. Get multiple estimates

You’ll have a better idea of what’s fair, and this can spotlight any bids that seem too good to be true (and probably are).


7. Do it yourself

If you know enough about home improvement to tackle projects on your own but want some advice, hire contractors as consultants and pay them for their time, but purchase the materials and do the work on your own.