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Save money like the pros on your renovation

It’s time. You’ve been saving every spare penny for the last few years and now you finally have enough to tackle that big project in your home. It’s tempting to just call a contractor and pay him whatever he asks to make your “problem” go away and turn it into the space of your dreams. But being so “hands off” can cost you big.

Contractors will probably hate me for this article but, honestly, I don’t care. I’m here to help homeowners navigate through the crazy twists and turns of home improvement projects. I’ve been a contractor for years and have done everything from kitchens to bathrooms to backyard paradises. So let me be straight with you. As a contractor and business owner, not only did I want to make you (the client) incredibly happy with my work but, like every business owner, I also wanted to be profitable. There are certain ways I would increase my profit margin, though, that savvy homeowners could navigate around with a little time and know-how. Here comes the know-how:

Obey the three bid rule

Always get three bids on your project from three licensed and bonded contractors. Contractors will tend to charge more or less depending upon their schedule. If they are slammed with work, they might gouge you with a higher price, to see if you will bite. They are actually too busy to take the job but, if you pay big bucks, then it would be worth the stress. This is why sometimes you see huge differences in bids. If you’re not in a time crunch, try postponing your work to contractors’ slower periods (October - December). Christmas doesn’t pay for itself!

Compare apples to apples

Get familiar with the materials each contractor is using, especially when it comes to cabinets, flooring, counters and fixtures. These can vary in price significantly, so make sure all the contractors’ bids are using the same quality products. One bid may be very low, but the quality of materials may be low as well. Get the brand names. Some of these contractors say they “have a guy” that can get them the same quality products at a cheaper price. They steer you into another product, usually because they know the supplier and get “incentives” for buying from them. Research all the products and make sure they are under a good warranty and up to the quality standards you want in your home. Make no exceptions! Once you are sure everyone is on the same playing field in terms of materials, then you can make sure they are on the same page with price.

Break the bid down

Most contractors won’t break down their bids with materials and labour. This is so you can’t see how much they are actually charging for labour. Contractors can make even more money padding the labour bid for each project.

Take, for example, a backyard project estimate to build a 20’ x 15’ shade structure. On the estimate sheet it will give you a “call out” of materials needed and an overall price of $12,000. Now, I don’t mind paying for good, high-quality labourers. In my experience, you get what you pay for. Just make sure that what you are paying for isn’t too much.

Simply write down all the materials they are using (add in 5%-8% for screws and hardware), call your local home improvement store and get a hard cost on the materials. Note, contractors sometimes get a price-break depending on the store. Make sure you are checking the price of comparable materials to what your contractor is using in your home. Subtract it from the total cost of the project and you should be left with a general idea of how much they are charging for labour. You also need to take into account a 10%-20% margin on each build for managing the job. It’s a standard contractor’s fee and really how they make the bulk of their money.

If the labour price seems high, ask to know how many days it will take to complete the project and how much manpower will be needed. Talk the price down if the numbers aren’t adding up. This gives a clear picture that you mean business and they can save the “padding” for someone else.

Sub it yourself

Every homeowner has the right to be an “owner-builder”. Simply put, you can pull permits, hire subs and do basic general contractor duties without having to hold a license. Just be sure to file the proper paperwork with your city first.

So what is a subcontractor? Subcontractors are specialized trades for each area of the overall project (electricians, plumbers, drywall, carpenters and masons). If you have good organizational skills, and time to spend making phone calls and scheduling, you could save big money on your project if you learn to manage these subs. To do this, you have to get a design drawn up, break down the build by trade, call in various subcontractors, give them the scope of work to be done and then find the best sub for the best price. If you’re a bargain shopper, this can be a fun game to play. Meeting the sub face to face lets you try to bargain, rather than having a contractor say it’s a set price that can’t change.

Before attempting to manage your own project, you should have some grasp of home improvement to figure out what subs will be needed when. Here is an example of the order in which to schedule your subs, after demo, for a kitchen renovation.

Kitchen Reno Schedule

  • Framers or carpenters for any structural work
  • Plumbers/HVAC
  • Electricians
  • Drywall
  • Painters (makes it easier than having to tape off a bunch of fixtures or cabinets)
  • Finish carpenters
  • Flooring
  • Counters
  • Electrical/Plumbing finish work

Subs don’t like their schedules bumped around, so add a little extra time between trades to ensure one trade is done before another comes in. Always hire licensed subcontractors that carry liability insurance. If someone gets injured on the job at your house without insurance, you may have to contact your home insurance company and file a claim.


Try doing as much of the work yourself as possible. Demo is the best thing to tackle on your own because breaking things comes easy for most of us (including me). Also, take on any of the trades you are comfortable with. I would probably leave plumbing and electrical to the pros, but maybe paint and hanging cabinets are in your wheelhouse. Tackling a few items can take a big chunk out of the budget and also give you a sense of accomplishment.

Now put on your workboots and start saving!

-by Matt Blashaw