How to find a great contractor in NYC

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I've heard so many horror stories about renovating in NYC. How do I find a good one who will finish my job on time and not overcharge me?


Whether you’re looking to do a straightforward kitchen remodel or a baseboard-to-ceiling renovation of your NYC home, your satisfaction and sanity will be directly correlated to your ability to hire a skilled, reliable and honest contractor.

“It’s a common mistake to assume that ‘licensed and insured’ means something important, but actually it’s nothing more than a minimum entry level requirement, much like an athlete needs lungs,” says Fraser Patterson, a former general contractor and the founder of Bolster, a 4-year-old NYC-based company that matches homeowners to reliable contractors and architects, simplifies the bidding process, and financially guarantees the success of each project. “And while reference checks can provide a sense of a contractor’s skill and their history of delivering a project on time and on budget, it’s extremely difficult to assess the actual health of a contractor’s business. If one client doesn’t pay on time or the business they anticipated doesn’t materialize, they go under—bringing projects to a complete halt and taking your deposit with them.”

Below, some tips from Bolster for finding a contractor whose business is healthy and whose work is high quality:

Word of mouth

Ask for references from friends, family, and co-workers who’ve had similar work done. Learn about the successes, pain points and failures of their own projects. But keep in mind that even if your contractor is endorsed by a friend whose own project was a success, that doesn’t guarantee the same will be the case for you, even if your project sounds similar.

“Maybe your apartment is on the 10th floor of a high-end building with restrictive renovation rules and a $10 million insurance requirement, while your friend’s was on the ground floor of a so-so building where access is easier and the insurance requirement is only $2 million. Your job will almost certainly be more difficult to deliver and cost more,” says Patterson.

Or, perhaps, at the time of your friend’s project, “the contractor was doing great and the business was going well, but they have recently gotten a divorce, been forced to pay a huge fine, or lost a key subcontractor. Before you know it, halfway through a project you have a bankruptcy.” says Patterson. (Read about how this happened to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist—who lost $140,000 as a result.)

Do some online sleuthing

Reviews on sites like Angie’s List, and in the discussion forums of local real estate sites such as Brownstoner and StreetEasy, can give you a window onto other people’s experiences with specific contractors.

When you read reviews, look for contractors that are familiar with homes like yours: if you live in a historic brownstone, but the professionals you’re considering seem to primarily work in modern condos, they’re probably not the best match for your needs.

Take reviews with a grain of salt: even with extensive online research, it’s hard to tell if a contractor is good quality, legit, and properly vetted, and reviews tend to be limited in what they reveal about the underlying value of an individual’s work.

If you do encounter criticism of a contractor, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write them off. If the contractor otherwise seems like a great match, ask them about what happened on the previous job.  

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