Getting the most out of your contractor

With the advent of the do-it-yourself revolution in home improvement, we are all tempted to look it up on the internet and then, well, do it ourselves. Tiling, painting, plumbing—internet as guide, house as palette. And when we can’t—when the task is too complicated or the time is too short—the temptation is to once again look it up, then pay somebody to do exactly what we would’ve done if we could’ve done it. Right?

Right, but wrong approach. Useful as the look-it-up-and-shoot approach may be for DIY, it’s usually not the best way to engage with a contractor. So if you need to hire such a person anytime soon, here’s a tip that can immediately make life more negotiable: tell them what you’re trying to accomplish, not what you want them to do.

The difference is subtle but significant. And it’s well-established in negotiation research, which consistently advises negotiators to focus on interests rather than positions. In negotiations, that means telling your counterpart your underlying needs and motivations as opposed to your overt demands and offers. In working with a contractor, it means telling them your overall objectives rather than the exact piece of equipment (down to SKU and aisle number at Lowes) that you’d like them to install (bin number available on request).

A quick real-life story that might clarify: we once wanted to redo some wood floors that looked as if they hadn’t been redone since the advent of wood itself. After obtaining multiple bids, as advised, we settled on a contractor who offered high quality for a reasonable price and also came highly recommended. Rather than telling him exactly what stain we wanted and exactly which rooms to stain, we told him what we wanted to accomplish: to lend the house a light, airy feel; to do everything in a cost-effective manner; and to avoid doing anything that would ultimately interfere or look bad with an eventual kitchen renovation. Telling him what we wanted highlighted several possibilities we hadn’t envisioned or found in aisle 27 (bin 6) at Lowes: not staining the floors at all but letting the natural wood shine through and not yet redoing the floors in the kitchen, seeing as they might get damaged by the renovation or at least might clash with the cabinets. Brilliant! The solution looked great, saved a bunch of money, and paved the way for a beautiful kitchen renovation, complete with future flooring update.

With the benefit of a story, it’s easy to see the benefits of telling a contractor what you want to accomplish rather than exactly what you want. In general, here they are:

  1. You might find a cheaper solution. For example: not staining the floors.
  2. You might find a solution that better fits your needs. For example: not redoing the floors in the kitchen.
  3. You might discover you have a different problem. If you tell a contractor to install something from aisle 27, they probably will. If you tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask them how to get there, you have a fighting chance of leveraging their expertise. Hearing you put your trust in their expertise, they’ll probably put said expertise to work and give you their opinion as to whether you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem. If not, then wouldn’t it be great to solve the real problem?
  4. You might find that you don’t really have a problem. Again, contractors usually do what you tell them when you pay them to. But if you tell them the perceived problem and what you’re hoping to do about, they just might point you down a much easier path—at least if they’re honest. And if they’re not, well then you can always go with someone else or go back to aisle 27. Which leads to the next point…
  5. You might discover how competent or honest your contractor is. Again, you’re advised to get multiple bids. If you do that and tell each person exactly what to do, each will probably give you a price for doing just that. If you tell multiple people what you’re trying to accomplish, however, their responses will—if nothing else—tell you something about their level of knowledge. Or, if someone suggests something way out of left field (not that this has happened to me several times recently), you might even learn about their honesty.

So, the next time you have a problem with your home, I’d advise you to resist the siren’s call of Lowes.com. Instead, figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish and tell your multiple potential contractors your overall objectives. Wonderful and reliable as Lowes.com always is, leaving room for your contractor’s judgment can leave you much better off.

Have you ever told a contractor your overall objectives and been surprised by their response?

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