MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Evaluate Contractor Bids

Q: I’ve followed your advice and gotten three bids from different contractors who want to do my project. Now what? Do I just hire the one with the best price?

A: Those bids can tell you a lot about the contractors who wrote them—but they may not be very accurate measures of the total price each one would wind up charging for your project. Here’s why.

Unless you’ve given the bidders the exact specifications for your job—in other words, drawings, materials lists, and product names put together by an architect or designer—the bids are at best educated guesses, says Cambridge, Mass., Realtor and renovation consultant Bruce Irving.

The contractor is making assumptions about what you’ll pick as the project unfolds and pricing each component of the job based on those assumptions. So the differences in their bids could very well boil down to differences in their assumptions. And your costs are bound to escalate as the project proceeds, because you can be sure that the contractors will hit you with up-charges for any product or option you select that’s more expensive than his estimate.

If you have hired a professional designer (which Irving recommends for any significant project, because for the added 10% or 20% you’ll pay, he says, you will get you a far better result, professional oversight of the contractor, and a whole lot less stress along the way), the bids are likely much more accurate measures of what each contractor will charge, especially if their bottom lines are just a few percentage points apart. Always throw away outliers. Extreme low bidders are probably desperate for work and planning to cut corners on your job, and super high bidders are probably too busy to take on your project unless you’re willing to overpay.

Whether or not you’re not using a designer, however, bids can be quite useful as character studies about the contractors.

“Look not only at the numbers but at how they’re presented,” says Irving. “Are they clear, organized, detail-oriented, and delivered when they were promised? Do they accurately reflect the nuances of what you told him you’re looking to do?” There’s no guarantee that a quality bid equates to a quality contractor—or that a sloppy one means you’ll get sloppy work—but it increases the odds.

Look for a bid that thoroughly outlines every aspect of the job, from the cost of the porta-potty for the crew to the fee for the town building permits—and of course the contractor’s price for each and every element of the project, with a bit of detail about the options that he’s priced (not just “under-cabinet lights,” for example, but “eight under-cabinet LED light fixtures”).

That way, even without architect specs, you can see, in writing, exactly what he’s proposing to deliver—and charge you—for each part of the job. Once you sign the bid and it becomes your contract, if a question arises later about whether the price includes, say, installing stone or ceramic tiles, you’ll have his description to refer back to.

In any case, the bids should only play a supporting role in your decision about who to hire. “It’s just as important to visit a current project, see the way the jobsite is kept, and meet the crew,” says Irving. “And it’s vital that you talk to his three most recent customers to ask whether they’d use him again—and how close the final price came to his original bid.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

Home Improvements That Add the Most Value

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m hoping to sell my house in the spring, and I’m told the place could use some freshening before I put it on the market. I don’t have the budget to fix everything, so which are the best projects to invest in if I want to get some of that money back when I sell?

A: The good news is that after years of sluggish performance, in many places the housing market has started picking up steam again. But that doesn’t mean you can expect every home improvement project to increase your home value when it comes time to sell. Remodeling magazine’s latest Cost vs. Value report shows that, on average, home improvements paid back 62% of their costs at resale in 2014. That’s up from a low of 58% in 2011, but still well below the 87% paybacks of 2005.

Each year, the magazine surveys contractors about the costs for a host of common projects and asks Realtors to estimate how much each of those projects adds to a house. You can’t exactly take the results to the bank, because there are a host of other factors that will affect your payback, from how badly your house needs the work to how common such updates are in your neighborhood. Still, the numbers are handy to keep in mind if you’re investing in a project and also think you may sell within a few years.

Here’s how the 2014 return on investment looked for some major remodeling projects across the country. As you can see, curb appeal goes a long way, ditto cosmetic upgrades of kitchens and baths. For a regional breakdown to see how much these projects would add in your area, check out the full report.

 

Project Cost ROI
Siding Replacement (upscale fiber cement) $14,014 84.3%
Deck Addition (midrange wood) $10,048 80.5%
Minor kitchen remodel (midrange) $19,226 79.3%
Window Replacement (midrange vinyl) $11,198 72.9%
Finish basement (midrange) $65,442 72.8%
Window Replacement (upscale wood) $17,422 71.9%
Bathroom Remodel (midrange) $16,724 70%
Major Kitchen Remodel (midrange) $56,768 67.8%
Add a two-car garage (midrange) $52,382 64.8%
Family Room Addition (midrange) $84,201 64.1%
Bathroom Remodel (upscale) $54,115 59.8%
Major Kitchen Remodel (upscale) $113,097 59%
Master suite addition (upscale) $236,363 53.7%

Source: 2015 Cost vs. Value Report

TIME advice

This Infographic Will Help You Pick the Perfect Paint Color for Every Room

We asked the experts for their no-fail picks

Committing to a new paint color is scary. We asked a group of pros to share their go-to hues—from soft and soothing to rich and splashy—so that you can find the ideal one for every room.

paintchart_field
Graphic by Katie Field

Paint pricing: Benjamin Moore Regal Select Interior, $50 a gallon; Regal Select Exterior, $52 a gallon • Sherwin-Williams Harmony Interior, from $51 a gallon • Farrow & Ball interior paint, $95 a gallon • Dunn-Edwards Everest interior paint, from $42 a gallon • Valspar Reserve interior paint, from $42 a gallon; Reserve exterior paint, from $46 a gallon

Where to buy them: Wool Skein by Sherwin-Williams, Wickham Gray by Benjamin Moore, Mink by Benjamin Moore, Chocolate Candy Brown by Benjamin Moore, Palladian Blue by Benjamin Moore, Shining Knight by Dunn-Edwards, Precious Pearl by Dunn Edwards, Amazing Gray by Sherwin-Williams,Heartthrob by Sherwin-Williams, Shaker Beige by Benjamin Moore, Revere Pewter by Benjamin Moore,Simply White by Benjamin Moore, Dovetail by Sherwin-Williams, Rainwashed by Sherwin-Williams, Apple Blossom by Benjamin Moore, Glass Slipper by Benjamin Moore, Prussian Cadet by Valspar, Tan Whirl by Dunn-Edwards

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

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MONEY home improvement

The Cheap and Easy Way to Quiet Banging Pipes

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We just upgraded to a high-efficiency washer and dryer, and now the pipes are making a racket inside our walls. Every time the machine draws water, which seems like a dozen times per load, we hear a loud banging noise. What can we do?

A: Today’s washing machines use quick-acting valves that slam open and shut in a millisecond, and that sudden change in pressure can cause pipes to jerk. If they’re not fastened tightly to the house’s framing, they can slam against it. This is not just a nuisance; it can also potentially cause premature wear on old plumbing pipes and joints.

There are two potential solutions to so-called “water hammer,” and either one is fairly simple to do yourself if you don’t want to spend the money for (or take a day off to wait for) a plumber.

If you can find the spot where the pipes are banging against framing—meaning it’s not hidden away inside the walls or floors—you can add pipe straps to hold the pipes in place and eliminate the banging. Pipe straps are available for just a few dollars anywhere you can buy plumbing supplies; make sure to purchase straps that are sized for the diameter of your pipes.

If you can’t access the banging pipes, or don’t even want to attempt the hunt, you can also install water hammer arrestors. These are essentially shock absorbers designed to cushion the change in water pressure so the pipes don’t bang and don’t suffer wear and tear from the extreme pressure changes. You can pick them up for $15 to $25 each at any plumbing supply. You’ll want two, so you can install them on both the hot and cold pipes. Attach by disconnecting the washer hoses, threading the arrestors onto the wall spigots, and then connecting the washer hoses to them.

Place a strip of Teflon tape over the threads before screwing on the arrestors to ensure they’re easy to remove later, and keep an eye on the connections during the next couple of wash loads to make sure they’re not dripping.

MONEY

How to Have the Best-Looking House on the Block—in Every Season

Paintbrushes painting the seasons
Jason Hindley—Prop Styling by Keiko Tanaka

Keeping your home gorgeous year-round is easier and less expensive than you think.

Does your house look like a million bucks? That might depend on when you’re doing the looking. In most of the country, properties shine brightest in spring and summer, when everything is in bud and bloom. But when the weather starts to cool off, “things can get dull and dreary,” says Madison real estate agent Brian Callahan.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can maximize your curb appeal—and your property value—throughout the year with a few simple projects. Here, our seasonal guide to having the best-looking house on the block.

WINTER

Add interest with bark, berries, and seeds. Colorful evergreens, such as cypress (gold) and barberry (red), brighten your winter yard, says landscape contractor Ross Mastrorocco of Monroe, Conn.  Choose deciduous trees with interesting bark, like birch, or unusual shapes, such as corkscrew willows.
Cost: $25 to $200 per sapling, depending on type; add 50% for pro planting.

Brighten with paint. Next time you need to do a full exterior house-painting job, add a punch of color on the walls. “In winter, paint color can become the focal point of the property,” says home designer and contractor Dean Bennett of Castle Rock, Colo.
Cost: $4,000 to $10,000 to repaint the entire home.

Light up the night. During winter’s short days, landscape lighting creates after-dark appeal. Use up lights for trees, down lights for stoops and porches, and walkway lights on your entry paths. Today’s low-voltage systems are easy to install yourself: Plug the transformer into an exterior outlet and run the wires under your mulch.
Cost: $400 to $500, or two to three times that if you hire a pro for installation.

SPRING

Undo winter’s damage. Cut the beds and mulch. Use a spade to cut clean edges for your planting beds and lay down bark mulch (skip the cheap tree-company wood chips, which may contain termites or carpenter ants). Go easy: Deeper than 1½ inches can smother the roots, says Mastrorocco. For a mulch that lasts, use cedar, which is slow to decompose.
Cost: $200 to $500 to DIY; $500 to $1,000 for a pro.

Get a free landscape plan. A nursery or landscaper can suggest plants to provide color throughout your growing season. In southern New England, for example, azaleas bloom in spring, hydrangeas in summer, and some roses last into fall. Add a few perennials and annuals and you’ll have three seasons of blooms.
Cost: $25 to $200 per plant, plus 50% for planting.

Spring-clean the windows. After the dust storm of tree pollen is over, tackle your windows. Use water mixed with dish soap and a glass-safe scouring pad. Invest in a squeegee rather than trying to dry with linty paper towels, says B.J. David of Mella Window Cleaning in Cincinnati.
Cost: Expect to pay a pro $8 to $30 per window, depending on whether you have storms or tilt-in windows.

SUMMER

Mow high. Tall grass stays greener, helping to mitigate the brownouts that are so common during the dog days of summer. So set your mower (or ask your landscaper to set his mower) about three inches off the ground. The longer turf will retain more moisture and also better shade the soil, ensuring that the roots don’t dry out—and shading out any crabgrass.
Cost: Free if you mow yourself; $30 to $50 per mow if you hire a landscaper.

Have fun with numbers. Get rid of those boring “contractor grade” house numbers. You can find interesting numerals in all sorts of fonts and finishes at houseofantiquehardware.com. Wayfair.com offers letters too, so you can spell out your low-number address.
Cost: $5 to $25 per digit

Upgrade the walk. A cracked or outdated walkway hurts curb appeal all year long, but summer is the best time to tackle replacement. Handy? Interlocking pavers make the job simple enough to do it yourself. Look for tumbled pavers if you want a stonelike look.
Cost: $500 to $1,000 if you do it yourself; $2,500 for a professional installation (compared with $4,000-plus for natural stone).

FALL

Update your flower boxes. Rotate fall bloomers, such as mums, ornamental kale, and autumn sage, into your flower boxes and planters in early autumn. When those are done, cut back the plants and poke in seasonal cuttings, such as evergreen boughs and holly sprigs, suggests Chicago realtor Laurie Gross.
Cost: $15 to $25 per store-bought plant.

Fertilize in fall. Your shrubs and lawn are having an underground growth spurt right now, developing long roots to reach nutrients deep in the soil. Promote this growth with a potassium-rich fertilizer. (Your nursery can suggest one for your climate.)
Cost: $40 for a bag of fertilizer; $75 to $150 for professional fertilizing.

Give the yard a buzz cut. Readjust the lawn mower blade to as low as it will go without scalping the grass. Short turf looks better when dormant because it won’t get folded over and matted down, says Mastrorocco. Cut back perennials and annuals to the ground to make the yard look neat—and to limit how many fallen leaves get caught up in the grass and plantings, simplifying cleanup.
Cost: Free if you do it yourself; $250 to $750 to hire a professional.

Read next:
6 Simple Projects to Make Your Home More Retirement-Friendly
How to Negotiate the Price of a Home-Improvement Project

MONEY Ask the Expert

Free Fixes for Cracked Paint and Other Winter House Woes

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We paid a small fortune to have our great room painted last summer—and now that it’s winter, the paint has cracked at nearly every seam in the woodwork! Did we get a bad paint job? Can we demand free touchups?

A: This is an extremely common problem, especially with new woodwork and especially in climates where there’s a wide temperature swing from summer to winter. Your house was painted during the warm weather, when high ambient temperatures (and, depending on where you live, humidity too) make wood expand. Come winter, temperatures and humidity levels drop, wood shrinks, and each piece of trim separates a tiny bit from its neighbor, cracking the paint.

If the cracking is happening along all of the seams, your painter didn’t properly prepare the wood before painting, says Debbie Zimmer, of the Paint Quality Institute, a research arm of Dow Chemical. All of the seams between wood pieces should have been filled with paintable acrylic or siliconized acrylic caulk prior to the job. Unlike paint or other wood fillers, this rubbery material flexes with the wood, stretching and compressing as the boards shrink and swell and preventing the paint from cracking.

But even properly caulked projects will sometimes crack here and there. Most painters offer a two-year warranty on their work—and count on repeat business from good clients—so you should absolutely call your painter and ask him to come back and address the problem. It’s a quick fix for him, Zimmer, says and he should not charge you for the work if it’s within his warranty period. It’s quite possible some cracking will occur again in the second winter, and you can absolutely call him back again for another free touchup.

Don’t delay, because you could miss out on the warranty—and because those cracks will all but disappear when the weather warms up, making it harder to make your case and harder to identify every crack that needs caulk. Still, even if you miss out on the warranty, this job should cost only $200 or $300. Or, if you have experience with caulk and paint, you can fix it yourself: Fill all gaps with top-of-the-line paintable caulk, wipe away excess with a wet rag, allow it to cure for the time recommended on the tube, and then brush on paint. If you’re using leftover paint, first bring it to the paint shop or home center where it was purchased for a free shake to ensure that it’s well mixed.

And next time you hire a painter, make sure to confirm—and perhaps even note on the contract—that he will caulk all seams and joints as part of his prep process.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Negotiate the Best Price From a Home-Improvement Contractor

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Can I negotiate the cost of a home improvement project? I feel like these guys all really want my business, but I don’t want to anger anyone by suggesting they lower their bids.

A: Yes, you can negotiate with a contractor; the trick is doing it without making it feel like a negotiation. Anytime you’re haggling over someone’s work (versus a mass-produced product like a car or flat-screen television), look for a way to ask for a lower price without any suggestion of insult. The last thing you want is an angry contractor looking for ways to cut corners on your project to make it come in at what he thinks is an unjustly low price.

Here are three effective techniques you can use:

1. Announce that you’re getting multiple bids. One of the major advantages to getting three or more bids for any significant (say, more than $5,000) home project is that you can tell the prospective contractors, honestly, that you’re doing so. That gets the message across that a) you’re concerned about the price, b) he’s competing with other contractors for your job, and c) he’d better sharpen his pencil and give you the best possible number he can. This is not to say that you should hire the contractor with the lowest bid. Hire the one whose work and reputation are the best. But the process of competing for your business will almost certainly drive down everyone’s price.

2. Ask him to “value engineer” the plans. Rather than flat-out asking your contractor if he will lower his price to win your business, which could backfire, ask for his advice on how you can rein in the cost of your plans. If his bid is $30,000 and you’re trying to keep the project to $25,000, for example, tell him so, and ask him if he can recommend any changes that could bring the cost in line. Maybe he will suggest a similar-looking-yet-more-affordable tile for your new master bathroom or a different layout that keeps the fixtures where they are and therefore slashes the plumbing costs. An open conversation about where to scale back doesn’t run the risk of making him mad—in fact, it shows that you value his opinion. And it further drives home the message that your budget is tight, possibly leading him to make other money-saving suggestions elsewhere.

3. See if you can contribute some sweat equity. If you’re handy and have the time, you might be able to knock off a portion of the project yourself. In that case you can ask the contractor to reduce his price accordingly. If you have a good hand for painting, for example, that’s a perfect project to tackle yourself. You could also do some basic demolition (assuming you have the know-how and gear to do it safely), excavation work (for small projects that don’t require power earth-moving equipment), or landscaping around the finished job. Any of these could easily slash hundreds or thousands of dollars off the project price.

 

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s the Right Amount to Spend On a Home Renovation

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: When remodeling my house, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on updates that don’t actually increase my home value. How do I know how much is a smart amount amount to invest, and when I would be going overboard?

A: Jump into a renovation project without first setting a budget and you may spend loads of cash on all sorts of lovely options—from a marble island-top for your kitchen to a two-person hot tub for your new patio—that you won’t get paid back for if you sell your house in a few years.

While that may not be a concern if you’re staying put for the long haul, if you’re likely to move in 10 years or less, it pays to limit your spending to what you might reasonably hope to get back at resale.

Thus start with renovating only spaces that are functionally obsolete, says Omaha, Nebraska, appraiser John Bredemeyer, a spokesman for the Appraisal Institute, a trade association. “Changing out a perfectly good, 10-year-old kitchen, for example, just because you don’t like the previous owner’s style choices, is not an investment that will pay you back at resale,” he says. But if that kitchen is from the 1940s, 1960s, or even the 1970s, a well-budgeted renovation makes financial sense.

How much should you invest? Bredemeyer’s rule of thumb is to spend no more on each room than the value of that room as a percentage of your overall house value (you can find an approximate value of your home at zillow.com).

Here’s how the percentages break down for each room:

Kitchen: 10% to 15% of house’s value

Kitchen renovation budget for a:

$300,000 house: $30,000 to $45,000

$500,000 house: $50,000 to $75,000

$750,000 house: $75,000 to $112,500
Master Bathroom Suite: 10% of house’s value

Master bathroom suite renovation budget for a:

$300,000 house: $30,000

$500,000 house: $50,000

$750,000 house: $75,000

 

Powder Room/Bathroom: 5% of house’s value

Powder room/bathroom renovation budget for a:

$300,000 house: $15,000

$500,000 house: $25,000

$750,000 house: $37,500

 

Finished Attic or Basement: 10% to 15% of house’s value

Attic or basement finishing budget for a:

$300,000 house: $30,000 to $45,000

$500,000 house: $50,000 to $75,000

$750,000 house: $75,000 to $112,500

 

Other Rooms: 1% to 3% of house’s value

Living room, dining room, or bedroom renovation budget for a:

$300,000 house: $3,000 to $9,000

$500,000 house: $5,000 to $15,000

$750,000 house: $7,500 to $22,500

 

Patio, Deck, Paths, and Plantings: 2% to 5% of house’s value

$300,000 house: $6,000 to $15,000

$500,000 house: $10,000 to $25,000

$750,000 house: $15,000 to $37,500

 

Got a question for Josh? We’d love to hear it. Please send submissions to realestate@moneymail.com.

MONEY home improvement

$336 Made This Blah Bathroom Awesome

A budget remodel turned this bleak bathroom into an attractive cottage-style space. Here's how the homeowners pulled it off.

Nothing’s more boring than basic beige. While the master bath at Meredith and Stephen Heard’s ranch house, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was perfectly functional, it was a bleak blank box of washed-out finishes. To give it some oomph, Stephen created a high-contrast look on the walls with white-painted board-and-batten wainscot made from low-cost lath and furring strips; above it, Meredith used a dark gray paint to add depth.

The vanity was in great shape, so Stephen just replaced the cultured-marble top with stained and sealed butcher block and, to create more deck space, put in a vessel sink. Meredith updated the cabinet doors with white paint and satin-nickel pulls left over from their kitchen remodel. To brighten the space, Stephen replaced the old strip vanity light with a three-shade fixture and the standard overhead flush-mount with a drum-shade pendant. Finally, Meredith added a sunny shower curtain she made herself. Having banished the bland, she says, “It’s so much more welcoming now—we feel like we really gave the room some personality.”

The Project Tally

• Tacked up lath and furring strips, board-and-batten style, using a nail gun; filled knots, sanded, and caulked; then sealed it all with leftover primer and paint $26
• Painted the walls a dark gray, custom mixed at the store from paint they had on hand $0
• Freshened the vanity with leftover paint and pulls $0
• Topped the vanity with a new butcher-block counter, vessel sink, and faucet from a big-box store $170

For the full tally, click here for the original article from This Old House.

Read next: The Secret to Getting a Ridiculously Cheap Thanksgiving Flight

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