MANHATTAN —Jean Brownhill Lauer bought a fixer-upper in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2008, believing it would be a relatively easy project.
As an architect with a decade of experience in the industry, she opened her Rolodex and called her Manhattan contacts. None, however, would come to Brooklyn, and the process of finding the right contractor proved more difficult than she imagined. She found someone who had done kitchen and bathroom rehabs, but never a full-scale house.
He abandoned the job before it was done.
"We ended up hiring a general contractor who wasn't a good fit for the project," said Lauer, who took the lesson to heart, recognizing that if she had such difficulties, then, "How does a regular person who doesn't think about these things all day long do this?'"
So, she channeled the experience into creating Sweeten, a New York City-focused online matchmaking service for homeowners and renovation experts. The site is now one of several that help provide homeowners with inspiration and recommendations, like Houzz, Apartment Therapy, Porch and Home Advisor.
"Many contractors have a limited web presence, they focus in fairly specific neighborhoods, and you have no way to find out whether they are interested in or available for your project," said Lauer, whose site tries to solve this issue with its network of roughly 400 contractors. They are held accountable through a rating system that affects their "matchable score." (The service is free for homeowners; contractors pay a small commission on signed contracts.)
Figuring out who might be right for your home, Lauer added, starts with planning and research.
"I wish I had a better plan at the beginning," she said.
Here are some tips to make the process easier.
1. Have a vision of what you want before you bring in professionals.
Bringing professionals in too early allows them to dictate too much, believes Fraser Patterson, founder and CEO of Bolster, an online service that helps homeowners find out a "fair price" for their remodeling projects.
"If you bring in an architect or a contractor first, they will tell you what the project is," said Patterson, whose free e-book, "The Homeowner's Guide to Remodeling," aims to "make you an expert in an hour."
"When you have a better idea, you will be able to communicate it better. You'll also feel more confident talking to contractors."
2. Figure out whether you need an architect, interior designer or general contractor.
Most contractors can handle "your average" kitchen or bathroom re-model without an architect, Patterson said, noting that some 90 percent of renovations nationwide don't use architects.
"Architects are typically focused on high design projects with lots of zeroes at end," he said, explaining that they're helpful for larger projects with a lot of structural changes.
Architects charge anywhere from 5 to 18 percent of the project's cost, noted Lauer.
Her site has a helpful flow chart showing that an architect might help if you want to alter your current floorplan, but otherwise an interior designer or general contractor might suffice.
3. Know your budget.
How much you can afford will often end up dictating a project, Lauer said.
But figuring out your budget is often easier said than done, she acknowledged.
"Unlike almost every other purchase on the planet, there isn't really a way to window shop to figure out your price range for renovating," she said.
"So, the first thing you need to do is think about how much money you can put toward your renovation, because your budget will largely dictate the quality of materials you can buy and the level of labor you can afford."
Sweeten has some pricing guides showing, for instance, that installing new wood floors in an 800-square-foot apartment could cost between $12,000 and $24,000 for labor and materials.
4. Get referrals, check references and make sure a contractor is licensed.
Ask family, neighbors and real estate brokers for referrals, Patterson suggested.
"But be mindful that your friend's project is not your project, so don't lean too heavily on that," he said. "Find out whether the contractor was good and reliable."
Patterson also advised homeowners to get names and contacts of a subcontractor and supplier who work with the general contractor.
"Then you'll know if they're paying their men and suppliers on time," he said. "Because if not, then your project will stop."
Lauer stressed the importance of making sure the contractor is licensed by visiting ismyGClegit.com.
5. Get bids from three contractors.
You don't need to go overboard getting bids, advised Patterson. Three should be sufficient, and you should give them the exact same information.
"Specificity is key. Put in writing, 'I'm doing a kitchen. These are the types of cabinets I want, this type of tile and this layout," he said. "If you give everyone the same information then you can get sensible bids back."
Contractors tend to charge between 30 and 50 percent above the cost of parts and labor since they need to cover workers compensation and other fees involved with running a high-risk business, Fraser said.
"Do not squeeze the price," he added.
"If you're being taking for ride, you'll have two bids at $50,000 and one $30,000. It might be that man you're dealing with at $30,000 is a one-man band. You will get what you pay for most of the time."
6. Know specifics of your building.
The specifics of your building — like whether there is available parking nearby and how many doors and stair barriers there are to getting in and out — matter "a lot," Lauer said.
Your contractor will also need to know if your building's condo or co-op has certain work approval requirements, license and insurance needs, and permitted work hours.
"Don't sign a contract until you are certain that your contractor has provided any paperwork that your building requires," Lauer said.