Pro Tips

Diaries of a Newbie Contractor – Mistakes on My First Project as a Contractor

Jenni Wileman
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September 14, 2020

This is a guest post was written by an active licensed contractor. If you'd like to contribute a story to our blog, let us know.

After spending 10 years in the construction industry remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. I decided it was time to take the big leap and go out on my own. I mean who doesn’t want to be their own boss? Why wouldn’t I want to call all the shots and set my own schedule? 

Contractors always made it look easy. Always calm, waltzing on and off-site throughout the day. I thought, “Wow, he’s sure got it easy.” And on some days I even assumed he left the construction site and treated himself to a spa day. Not really – but you get my point.

I have the skill, the drive, and I am really good with people. I am a craftsman and have the ability to get the job done. I thought if they can do it, then so can I.

HAHA… I learned quickly that there was A LOT more going on behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. And I was about to get a crash course in becoming a contractor.

This is the first in a series of stories I'll be sharing about the trials and tribulations of getting started as a first time contractor — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Getting Started – It’s Never as Easy as It Seems

For me, getting my license and setting up my business was a logical next step in my career. I studied away and got my references. Then I applied for my home improvement contractor’s license. I figured it was the right fit and seemed like it would be easy. Surprise number one – it wasn’t as easy as I thought. 

I had to go through quite a process and finally, in the end, I got it! Albeit, it was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic so I had no idea what I was in for.

A lot went into choosing my company name, getting my LLC formed, learning how I would keep my books straight. All these things I overlooked when dreaming big. Like getting my website up, compiling pictures of my past projects, finding the right social media handles. 

Wow, and I hadn’t even gotten a single client yet and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

I was realizing that there was more to this than meets the eye. And I was getting a fast and furious lesson that finding clients is not all that needs to be done. 

Finding My First Client Took Time… a Lot of Time

Here we go, marketing like a pro, or so I thought, at first. I had this crazy idea that I could send out a few emails, post on my facebook and instagram accounts and the clients would come rolling in. In reality, I ended up spending hours learning marketing tips and reading blog post after blog post from other contractors on how to break into the market. 

Meanwhile, being inundated with calls from companies like Home Advisor and Houzz promising me all kinds of returns by creating a “free account.” Just to have them follow-up with… well, real results cost money. 

Are these companies even listening to me? Hello, sales people? Anybody out there? I just said I started a few months ago and during a pandemic, I don’t have any revenue yet.

After posting before and after pics of previous projects on Instagram and even doing a few $5-$10 ads on Instagram and Facebook. I saw an increase of traffic to my website – but netted me next to nothing in terms of results. 4 meetings, a lot of free estimates, but zero paying clients. 

But, I stuck with it, consistently posted, and continued to promote my company.

Then it happened, out of the blue, it all paid off and a fruitful connection was made. Phew, for a minute there – well, for three months – I was starting to think I was never going to get my first client!

My First Project – Reality Sets Really In

Wow! I was so proud of myself because I had won my first paying client and a project with a $20k budget. 

The homeowner seemed agreeable to all my suggestions and the contract was signed. Everything seemed like it was smooth sailing from there…

Over the next two weeks, the cabinets were ordered, most of the choices were made, and deadlines were set. I had this idea in my head and written down on my clipboard that everything would go according to the schedule.

Then the late-night texts started coming in from the homeowner with questions about things we had already addressed. Asking about changing paint colors, countertops, and hardware. I was starting to feel like they weren’t confident in their choices and that was scary. If they didn’t know what they wanted, I feared they wouldn't be happy in the end, no matter what I did.

I tried to be open, communicated, reassured them of their choices, and made any changes they wanted. And it didn’t seem that dire to respond to text after hours, so I just obliged. Big mistake, the after 8:00 pm and weekend texts continued throughout the job. 

On my next job, I will definitely set better boundaries.

I also had not written a “change fee” clause in my contract and most of the material changes resulted in price increases. Even though I addressed these things upfront. I didn’t do it in writing 🙁. As the project progressed this happened often enough that the budget increased by almost $2k and now my client was blaming me for it. No matter how many times I reminded them that the increases were due to the changes they made, they still made sure I knew about the overages daily.

The Things I Didn’t Think About

I found out quickly that $20k was not a lot of money for a kitchen remodel, even on this small 8x10 kitchen. 

There were several expenses I didn’t account for. Like the 75 Home Depot runs, 10 lost tape measures, and the tools that ended up broken or went missing over the course of the project. Or the unforeseen plumbing and electrical issues, both of which I had.

It was also difficult to find good subcontractors and laborers having never done this before. And believe it or not, construction was booming amidst the pandemic. I called supplier after supplier asking for referrals and everyone was booked out for weeks, even months. I wasn’t sure what to do because now we were approaching the first day of construction and I was going to be the only one standing on the job site. 

I sent out masses of texts to friends and family asking if they knew anyone who was looking for work. After a whole lot of no’s and I don’t know’s… I remembered one of the contractors I follow on Instagram posting a request for help on his story. So I did the same and it worked — I found some help just in time!

Unfortunately, almost half of the help didn’t show up that day. But, we made it work. 

Demo Day

Getting in the trenches and demo-ing made me feel like I was back on track. I didn’t go all HGTV with the sledgehammer, which kept the drywall repair to a minimum. I had also heard horror stories of accidentally knocking out a drain or finding hidden electrical and damaging it. Ultimately, the demo took two days instead of one, but we managed to get through it without any incidents.

My First Big Mistakes — And Delays

Initially, I told the client that from beginning to end it would be 30-45 days. I now understand why this timeline is unrealistic. 

It’s not that you couldn’t do all of the work in a week or so, assuming everything was readily available. But, I needed to factor in my mistakes and account for other people’s mistakes too. Not to mention all the moving parts. If one thing is thrown off schedule, then the entire timeline has to shift. All of the stars must align and nothing can change – which is near impossible

But still, I was confident that I could stay within the ballpark. The demo was done a day late so I had to push the electrical, which had to wait for a few days because he had other commitments. But, when he did get started it seemed like all was going smoothly. Until I was informed that the soffit contained electrical and was part of the HVAC system… Ugh, so much for an easy hood vent installation. Another thing to add to my “problems to solve” list. The electrician would have to return to do the hood vent electrical another day.

Moving into the second week, all that was finished was demo and most of the electrical. 

Demo mostly complete

Still no kitchen cabinets. 

I had requested an 8:00 am delivery the day they were scheduled to arrive and even confirmed it the night before. But, low and behold, nothing at 8:00 am, then nothing at 10:00 am, and still no delivery at 11:00 am. I called the supplier and everyone was in a meeting so finally around noon, I learned that the cabinets are not scheduled to be delivered until 4:00 pm. 

Sigh…You guessed it, that day I was paying my guys to watch the paint dry. 

Oh, wait. We don’t have paint yet...

After a Rough Start I Knew I Needed a Little Help

Feeling deflated, I again went back and read through the industry blogs I subscribe to. And one thing that stood out was the advice to reach out and ask questions. So I did. 

I reached out to some local and national construction companies I admire and follow on Instagram. And you know what…most responded, and the advice I got from these already successful contractors was priceless.

THIS IS NORMAL! Get used to it, mistakes happen, delays happen. They told me with experience you’ll find a way to manage all the balls in the air. They encouraged me to continue to ask questions and to find my “construction tribe.”

If you're taking notes, here's what I have learned so far:

  • Take your time in putting together your estimate — get it right, but estimate high, then come in low.
  • Make sure your proposal is thorough and the client understands it.
  • Be realistic about the timeline, and add another 30 days.
  • Schedule subcontractors days (or weeks) ahead to allow for errors.

We're only at the beginning of this project, so there's still much more to go. Stay tuned for my next post in the series to see what hard lessons I'll be learning next.

About the Newbie Contractor:

Jenni Wileman is a freelance writer specializing in the construction and remodeling industry. She is a licensed contractor and the owner of Designing Nashville, a remodeling company that focuses on the design and functionality of a home.