On high-end kitchen and bath jobs, remodelers have to work with demanding clients and one-of-a-kind materials and designs. To do this successfully, they need to partner with qualified subcontractors. And that means remodelers must look beyond the rudimentary license and insurance checks.

Bill Ballas, vice president of Plath & Co. in San Francisco, says it's hard to find subs with the right balance of business sense and talent. He reviews the subs' work, then looks at their billing and administrative processes. He asks for and follows up with remodeler and homeowner references. During this process, he asks about their drawings and evaluates their communication with architects. "A quality sub is someone who not only does good work, but someone who meets the schedule," Ballas explains.

On a recent job, Ballas had to find a sub who could help the architect design and install a bronze birdcage elevator in the foyer of a house. Ballas had seen the work of a specialty subcontractor in a magazine. His conversation with the sub about the scope of the job revealed a smart, savvy craftsperson. "You can tell if he's an A-team player," Ballas says. "He comes in with tons of pictures and can sketch details off the top of his head."

Communication counts

Aside from being able to communicate with the remodeler, subs on high-end jobs need to interact well with demanding clients. "If a guy can't communicate, I don't care what skills he has, he will fail on the jobsite," says Peter Feinmann, president of Feinmann Remodeling in Arlington, Mass. He also advises remodelers to explore how the sub deals with the pricing process. "How do they communicate with you? Listen for the kinds of questions they ask of you during the pricing stage," says Feinmann. "Do they understand the product or work?"

High-end work often involves handholding with the client, as well as working with fussy designers and architects. One of Ballas' clients is an avid cook who spent days with the cabinetmaker going through the best storage for his utensils and pots. These plans then went back and forth between the architect, client, and cabinetmaker. Ballas says the subcontractor must effectively manage this process.

Roger Griffin, vice president of production for Traditional Concepts in Lake Bluff, Ill., chooses subs who have a thorough bidding process and anticipate all the work so they won't upset the client halfway through the job. Follow-up service is also vital. "They need to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Griffin says. He avoids small contractors on high-end jobs, opting for larger companies with a full office staff and a weekend answering service.

Part of the team

When Ballas presents subcontractor choices to a client, he communicates information about the sub and allows the owner to make the final decision. For example, he warns his clients if the sub who does the best work is also slow or uncommunicative. This ensures that clients know what to expect before the job begins.

Most remodelers informally coach their subs on high-end work. Feinmann says this takes time, so he refuses to try out a sub on a high-end job. "We try him on a mid-range job to work out the bugs and develop communication and trust," he says. But once tested, subs become a critical part of the team.

Griffin asks his subcontractors to sign an eight-page agreement that lists what he expects from them. It establishes a dress code (no T-shirts bearing off-color messages), clean language on the jobsite, and proper communication between office and field staff. He reviews the document with subs every year to set and maintain expectations throughout their working relationship.

Griffin says it's important to establish long-term relationships. "If you constantly change suppliers and subs," he says, "you don't know their weaknesses." Effective communication with the sub during the process makes the job look smooth and professional. "It should look seamless to the client," Griffin says, "even though we are constantly problem-solving behind the scenes."