Expert Tips: From a Contractor

In progress at Callicoon Hills
Photo by Ethan Sale

Hey everyone this is Wayne Congar here, I’m the founder of HUTS. We got to sit down recently with the first expert in our new HUTS Expert Tips series, Ethan Sale from ES Builders who is based in the Western Catskills. At HUTS we want our clients to feel empowered and ready to take on all the aspects of building a new home. So today we are gonna talk through a little bit about what it means to work with a great contractor, how to find a great contractor, and some of the trends Ethan’s seeing upstate. Keep reading to see what advice Ethan has for anyone looking to find a good contractor and to make their project run as smooth as possible.

Wayne: “Ethan maybe you can just give us a little bit of background on how you started ES builders and some of the work that you’ve been doing so far?”

Ethan: “Yeah so, I actually moved up to the Catskills full time this year. I came up here thinking I’d be a one man show just doing some smaller renovation projects and as everyone knows the market has kind of blown up.”…”So we’ve taken on full scale remodeling projects, and started to get involved in the pre-construction for some new builds, and yeah that’s pretty much how we got started up here.

Wayne: “Very cool”…”And I know that you and I met at Callicoon Hills in Callicoon Center, it’s a large hospitality project, maybe you can tell us a little bit about what you’re working on there?”

Ethan: ”Yeah so Callicoon Hills, actually that project came about by me stopping by a job site near by and talking to an architect that was involved in the project and I got put in touch with the project manager. It started out and it was going to be a small deck build and we ended up working in their hay loft which is a large barn that they had brought in from Indiana and built, we went in there and added some bathrooms, some ADA compliant components and after that now we are across the street in their Farmhouse working on their cafe and bar. Helping manage some of their motel renovations as well.”

After Kitchen Renovation
Photo by Ethan Sale
Before Kitchen Renovation
Photo by Ethan Sale

Wayne: “Very cool, and outside of that you guys are working on some single family projects?”

Ethan: “Yeah”…“Mostly residential projects, that’s really the one commercial that we’re working on right now. We’re doing some roof decks for a passive house, a big modern house on top of Shandelee. We have a full gut renovation in Callicoon Center for a restaurant owner in the city. It’s his weekend getaway. We’re kicking that one off next week and a couple of other smaller projects going on all at once.”

Wayne: “Where all do you guys work, where in the Catskills is your boundary?”

Ethan: “So I’m actually based out of Tyler Hill Pennsylvania, but right now oddly enough we have 3 projects in Callicoon Center, no work in Pennsylvania. So, we’re mostly focused on the New York side. You know we’ll go over to Roscoe, Livingston Manor, callicoon. You know we’re flexible. I have a job coming up in Long Eddy that’s kinda out there. Within an hour we’ll travel and for the right job probably a little further. “

Wayne: “Cool”…”As you know a lot of our HUTS customers it’s their first experience doing anything upstate and usually their first time building something. They are looking for land for the first time, they are working with an architect and designs for the first time, they are going through permitting for the first time, they might be financing a project for the first time, and they are certainly working with a contractor for the first time. What we found is the scariest parts of a project for them often, and the most unknown is what it’s going to be like to work with a contractor, and I guess from your standpoint what do you think makes a good client-contractor relationship?”

Ethan: “Well I think people are often scared to reach out to contractors, they don’t trust them, there’s a pretty bad reputation particularly around here for contractors, and some of that is warranted you know historically there have been some issues. But I would say the first thing I do with a client and I think I mentioned this when I met you for the first time, is when I show up to a job site if I get a call you know people are like “come out give me a price” typically I show and I might take a few measurements but I’m really just there to jive with the client. The first initial meeting we’re vetting each other. I’m vetting them, they’re vetting me, I just wanna see if we’re gonna get along if the project is a good fit. If it’s something I think is cool and if they’re gonna be able to stand me because ultimately we’re gonna be married while that project goes on. And I think a good relationship between a contractor and a client, there isn’t the fear of telling each other the truth whether the client changes design and is afraid to tell the contractor because they think they are going to be mad, or if there’s a change order. There needs to be that open communication. You have to have a certain level of trust. And that relationship you really need to get along from the get go, so I think you know the relationship is going well there isnt that fear based conversation and there’s open communication from day one.” 

Wayne: “One of the things I think is difficult for folks who are engaging with a contractor for the first time, or building a house for the first time is understanding where they are in the project. Are we moving forward? Are we moving backward? Are we doing well? Are we doing poorly? And I think that laying that out is such an important part of it. How do you guys address that? How do you help communicate with the client where you guys stand relative to the scope of the project relative to the scope of the project? “

Ethan: “I am typically pretty close in communication with the clients. And it depends on the client too, some people want to know every day what’s going on, some people really just want to be left alone till it’s done. Some of that is upfront as a contractor. I get a pretty good feel of what people want, I find for a bigger project sometimes maybe it’s a weekly meeting, walking through, sometimes it’s a simple phone call. I do think as a client you need to be checking in, and really ask your contractor the questions, put them on the spot and just get the updates, where are we in the project. As far as I’m concerned I think you have to at least speak weekly, but it depends on the scale of the project too.”

After Home Renovation
Photo by Ethan Sale
Before Home Renovation
Photo by Ethan Sale

Wayne: ”What are some of the things you think that can really throw a project out of whack?”…“Beyond the interpersonal relationship between contractor and client I think the other fear and worry is ‘Yeah we decided on this scope but now everything is changing’. How can a client help reduce that possibility and try to keep their project within scope? What are some of the things that pop up that tend to throw it off the rails?”

Ethan: “Honestly, I think design is a big one. A lot of people come to me with no design, and they are like ‘I have a Pinterest board and I know what I want, can you design it?’ And I am a firm believer that there are architects and designers for a reason and I’m a builder for a reason. I can do certain things. But I think that clients on bigger projects like full remodels, new builds, anything like that to come to the builder with a good set of drawings is very important. But also get the builder involved in the drawings early on because an architect or designer might go down a certain road and the builder might be the bearer of bad news. You know and be like this isn’t realistic.” … “ And in your mind you want that. So I think having that designer builder relationship early on is really important. I think that can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. And rather than rushing to get things done like ‘Okay you want to start tomorrow?!’, get your pre construction done, have all of that set before you break ground because ultimately you’re going to lose ground if you rush. You might start sooner, you’re gonna end probably in the same place or later.” 

Wayne: “What else do you think that beyond the personal relationship, what other questions do you think that clients should be asking of their contractors before starting? You mentioned that you’re vetting them, they’re vetting you. Beyond personality, what sort of information do you think someone should be asking of their contractor?”

Ethan: “I think it’s good to walk their jobs sites, I have no problem, you came to one of my job sites. I think it’s good to see how the contractor works, if you’re type A and you go to their job sites and it’s a mess they probably aren’t going to be a good fit for you. And look at their portfolio, if all of their projects seem like something that isn’t really your taste, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not a good fit because they’ve never had the opportunity to build this, but it’s something worth looking into and kind of pressing them on and getting a feel for what they really specialize in and what they’re interested in. You know as a builder some people come to you with projects that aren’t a good fit just from your taste and what you feel comfortable building.”

Wayne: “I know you’re not an excavator, you’re really a builder but maybe you can entertain a little bit of this question. So many of our clients are starting from scratch, they don’t have a parcel of land, they have nowhere yet to build and they’re starting to go through the process of looking at land listings to acquire. Many of them are looking in your part of the world in Sullivan county and maybe into Delaware county and there’s very diverse topography there. You have big rocky outcroppings, you have large farm-y meadows, you have kind of swampy areas. When you look at some of these lots and think about where to build what are some of the biggest concerns there on the differences between those settings and the differences on the construction methods?” 

Ethan: “You know well, I come from a landscaping background initially, so for me projects I’m most interested in and projects that come out the best are projects where the building and the landscape are integrated. It doesn’t feel like a building was thrown on top of a landscape. I Really enjoy being on projects and being like how can we build this into the landscape and have it feel like it was meant to be here. That’s something to think about. Think about the building you’re building and where is it going? Does it make sense? And from a more practical standpoint, the weather here is harsh. What is your sun exposure? Are you the kind of person that wants to do solar? Then make sure you have the right property for that. Water is another issue, drainage, I get constant calls on building failures and usually it comes right back to we need to fix the drainage before we do anything else”

Wayne: “Those are for other people’s projects right? That they built, yes?” 

Ethan:” Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, No that’s for other people. A lot of times its for old remodels that’ll call that they want to redo this house, and I’m like you know what we should do first is let’s get the drainage right”…”So I would always tell people when you’re looking at property that if you’re in a swamp maybe rethink this, or realize you’re going to have a lot more work on your hands then just setting the building right there. And you know I’m not an excavator but I do work with some of that.”

Callicoon Hills Project In Progress
Photo by Ethan Sale

Wayne: ”Another reason to have your contractor involved as early as possible”

Ethan: “Yeah I think if you’re shopping properties and you have a contractor in mind or you like it might make sense to have them on some sort of retainer where they are willing to take meetings and go check out these properties, and help you just walk them and be like here’s where you should put a building, this property’s not a good fit. Power is another thing. Sometimes with these really beautiful rural spots, you might be bringing power from way down the road and that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and then you have to start thinking about alternative methods of power. How is the road getting cut in? That stuff adds up. You might walk into a beautiful meadow in the middle of the woods and be like this is where I want my house, but you might need a mile and a half of road and what is that like.”

Wayne: ”You touched on isolated lots where you are running power and other utilities and driveways, but you also mentioned harsher climates particularly in the Western Catskills, how does that affect material choices?” 

Ethan: ”Yeah, so I’m working on a passive house right now and that one extreme and you can go that route and those walls are like 16 inches thick and that house will certainly do fine here. But I think you can also build a good house and expect to go a 2 by 8 wall and have your air ceiling done right. And like I mentioned earlier solar exposure is important and wind exposure, how much of a beating is your house going to take from the wind? Those are things that when you live in a climate like this, it will have an effect. On your energy and how your house needs to be built. That’s when having an architect is helpful to bring in. I have some knowledge of that but I don’t claim to be an expert on every single aspect of building science. That’s where I think designers and architects and builders really should work together rather than trying to avoid each other.”

Wayne: ”Absolutely, a lot of our HUTS clients are building their cabin upstate really as a secondary structure. Not living in full time, maybe visiting two to three weekends out of a month and the rest of the time they may Airbnb or subsidize with vacation rentals. But that means there’s a lot of time where the property is uninhabited and one of the things that we think about a lot in our designs is how to manage the property from afar and also sort of lock it down. What sort of concerns should people be thinking about there when they are not at the property and what are some things that you can think of to keep the property safe when they are back in New York, or wherever they live full time?”

Ethan: “I did this for a while, I had a very remote cabin. It was on top of a mountain you couldn’t really get there in the winter. We’d do it sometimes with chains on the truck and whatnot and something I always wished I had was someone who was around who could check on the property. I think having a property manager is always a good thing. Because like I said they could be calling for rain and we could get a foot of snow. You need to be clearing properties, clearing driveways from snow and whatnot. I also think that having a well insulated home and an airtight home especially on these ones where you might be there 3 weeks at a time you don’t want to be cranking the heat in that house you want to be able to set it low and have it maintained. And a lot of people will be like well it’s just my weekend house. It doesn’t matter, let’s just cut the corners on that with cheaper products but I think it’s actually more important. You want that security that if the power does go out for eight hours that the wind isn’t blowing right through your windows and freezing your pipes. Building a tight structure and keeping it simple, not doing anything over the top. That’s important in those kinds of projects.“

Wayne: “Maybe the last question here, the biggest concern for any of our HUTS clients or really anyone that is building a house is how to get accurate pricing. Maybe you can talk us a little bit through your process for how to develop estimates and how you kind of agree on that with clients?”

Ethan: “So this is always a tough one, especially right now. Material prices have been crazy; they’re all over the place. On larger scale projects I’m a really big believer in the cost plus kind of method which involves me billing weekly or biweekly whatever we agree upon and its open book. So I’m showing my clients how many hours it took. Here’s what I’m billing these carpenters out at and then the markup, overhead, and profit for business everything’s open book. You’re pretty much seeing what I’m making and I’m showing you the bills. Same with subs, like here’s the sub, plus management percentage. A lot of people are afraid of that because they think you’re gonna drag your feet and want to stay here forever and you’re gonna want to upcharge for everything to make your percentage. And that could be true for a certain builder and that’s where that trust comes into play. You need to have that conversation where you feel comfortable with the person you’re building with. And it’s not easy, it takes time you know, sometimes we’ll do fixed prices for certain aspects of the build. Like when we do decks we typically do fixed price, there’s not a lot that’s going to change. Versus looking at my house that 170 years old were probably going to have to do cost plus because I don’t know, neither of us know and when you get into those types of contracts it comes back down to communication. You need to be open with each other and talking constantly about what you’re finding and what’s changing as you go. But I really do think that fear of the cost plus or the time plus material could really save people a lot because as you bid, that fixed fee that most people are giving you, there’s so much risk involved, a lot of fluff a lot of times.”

Wayne: “It’s very padded”

Ethan: ”Yeah, and as a builder there are times that you kind of have to do that, or there’s change orders. Which isn’t great for a client either, and no one wants that constant “Oh I thought I was gonna pay this” and now here’s another five, here’s another two ” ( thousand dollars) “Then all of a sudden you’ve added another twenty precent onto the project.”

Ethan hard at work
Photo by Ethan Sale

Wayne: “So the kind of constant check ins, understanding what’s been done, and it seems like you’re really coming from a place of transparency and making sure everyone understands what’s going on all the time.” 

Ethan: “That’s how I like to work, and I’ve mentioned a few times I do like to be transparent with clients and really communicate with them as well, that’s why I vet them as well. Are we going to be people that can talk to each other? And then you know it depends on the project also. Smaller scale projects with a fixed fee can make sense. On a larger scale I’m definitely a fan of open book. “

Wayne: “Amazing! Well Ethan, I know that you’re busy working on renovating your own big farm house at the moment, so I’ll let you go to get back to it but thank you so much for giving us some insight. Thank you for your partnership with HUTS, and for anyone out there that wants to check out some of Ethan’s work head over to He’s doing some amazing work upstate and will hopefully be working with us on some HUTS builds soon.” 

Over here at HUTS we hope this can help you make more informed decisions when it comes to finding a contractor to work with. Keep an eye out for more Expert Interviews from mortgage brokers to realtors and more!