How to haggle with a contractor

Want your home pro to cut costs, not corners? You have to learn to negotiate the right way.

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By Josh Garskof, Money Magazine contributing writer

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(Money Magazine) -- In this extreme buyer's market, you can talk down the price of everything from flat-screen televisions to summer rentals. When it comes to home improvement, though, haggling is as risky as ever. Even if contractors are more willing to lower their prices nowadays, they're still liable to get angry and to cut corners on the job.

To find out how consumers can safely play this give-and-take, we asked dozens of home-improvement pros around the country what approaches would work on them. Most didn't want to talk about it, but we persisted, and a few revealed plum tips.

Stir up competition

Get at least three bids so you know the market price range for the job. Tell each contractor that you're getting other bids, so he's motivated to give you a competitive number.

--Chris Cipriano, Landscape architect, Ramsey, N.J.

Choose all of your project details - the tiles, fixtures, hardware, everything - before you ask contractors for bids, so they're pricing the same things rather than guessing at parts of the job. Then ask for itemized bids, compare the costs apples to apples, and respectfully point out discrepancies.

--Paul Wallerus, Contractor, Minneapolis

Dangle incentives

Ask if you can pay the contractor's subcontractors and suppliers directly. That's good for him because he won't have to lay out the money - and for you because he won't be adding his markup to their fees.

--Ron Graham Jr., Carpenter, San Ramon, Calif.

Be flexible about timing. Exterior work is cheaper in the fall; interior renovation and decorating jobs January through March.

--Steve Brennan, Contractor (and Ph.D. in economics) Chicago

Help him save face: Suggest that he ask his subcontractors or suppliers for better pricing. Then he can say, "I pushed back on my subs and got you these savings," even if the money is coming out of his pocket.

--Bill Hirsch, Architect, Cary, N.C.

Take the right tone

Play your hand and then shut your mouth. If a subcontractor wants $9,000 from me, I let him know my budget is, say, $7,000, and then I clam up. He who speaks first loses.

--Helmut Schmidt, Green builder, San Francisco

Treat him as an ally in your quest to reduce the cost of the job. Ask for his professional advice about money-saving changes you might make, such as a slightly different countertop stone or line of cabinets.

--Steve Gray, Contractor, Indianapolis

Choose the guy who's best for the job, then talk budget. If you demonstrate your desire to work with him, it shows you understand his value. He's more likely to lower his price.

--Chuck Kensicki, Contractor, Anaheim  To top of page

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