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Cooking Up a Kitchen

Andrew Forsythe

I’VE WRITTEN BEFORE about the financial benefits of learning to cook and then preparing meals at home, rather than frequently eating out. I still heartily endorse that notion. Still, our recent decision to remodel our kitchen can’t be defended as a wise financial choice.

In fact, the consensus is that almost all remodeling jobs result in an increase in home value that’s less than the remodeling project’s cost, and that includes kitchen renovations. Instead, our latest home project was an emotional and enjoyment expenditure, one that I owed to my wife, an expert cook and very patient woman. Our home was built in 1986 and we moved in a few years after that. The kitchen hadn’t had any major updates since then.

The biggest factor in a remodeling project’s success is the general contractor, so our first step was to find a good one. Ideally, you have a trusted friend or family member who says, “This is the guy. He just handled our project and he’s great.” But we didn’t know anybody who had a general contractor they’d recommend.

Nextdoor, Yelp, Google and so on can all be helpful in identifying potential contractors. The guy we ultimately chose had an extensive website. He later told me I was the first person who’d actually read the whole thing.

Still, what drove our decision was the contractor’s references. I spoke at length with three clients. Each was obviously intelligent, articulate and made no bones about being demanding. They all sang our guy’s praises. We were sold.

We’ve now finished the project, and we’re as happy with our contractor as his references were. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now list his attributes that were most important to me:

  • Organization. I got a sense of this from his website. It went into detail about his process, from the design phase through to completion. It was logical and made sense to me. Once hired, he followed the schedule and process outlined in our written contract. He adhered closely to the timeline he laid out, which is rare among the other remodeling projects I’ve heard about.
  • Responsiveness. I’m something of a fanatic about communication and responsiveness. Fortunately, this is something you can easily check before making a hiring decision. How quickly does a prospective contractor get back to you, and does he address the questions you’re asking or does he just respond with a general sales pitch? Our guy was great. He promptly answered emails and returned phone calls. He addressed what I was asking about. He didn’t become impatient or lose interest when I asked follow-up questions.
  • Honesty and integrity. This comes through in many ways. But one indicator is when something, however minor, goes wrong. There’s often a tendency to make excuses or blame others, such as suppliers and subcontractors. Our contractor took full responsibility for the few small mishaps we had, and then worked double time to fix them, in one instance by making a series of calls while out of town at a funeral.
  • Subcontractors. Our contractor had a small list of subs whose work was up to his standards and with whom he works on most jobs. The subs did great work, and the mutual respect between our contractor and them was obvious.
  • Attention to detail. Our guy was a perfectionist. He spotted and corrected small things we hadn’t even noticed and maybe never would have. This meant more time and effort from him, but reflects the pride he took in his work.

The hard part for anyone shopping for a contractor: How do you judge in advance whether a candidate has the attributes that are important to you? Without doubt, the best way is talking at length with references. Take the time to ask them to grade your prospect on every attribute that’s important to you. I promise you that, later on, you’ll be happy you did.

Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dog, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with five beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. Check out his earlier articles.

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