My Story: Buy Local

contributed by Moriah

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After months of planning and agonizing, we finally started demolition of our kitchen and small adjacent bathroom. As first time homeowners, we'd never done a home renovation project. We did our own general contracting, in part because we wanted to use our "sweat equity" for as much of the project as possible.

We knew this project would be difficult and expensive, but both my husband and I are fairly organized, so started out by doing our research. The most surprising thing we discovered is that "buying local" isn't just a good idea for fruits and vegetables, but may be the best money-saving strategy for our renovation project.

When we first started shopping around for ideas and materials, we went where many people go: the big box store. You know what I'm talking about. When we first bought our house three years ago, we made weekly trips there and joked that we should buy some of their stock so at least we would get some of our money back.

The big box store (BBS) is convenient. If you want to look at the cost of tile versus stone, you just go from aisle 8 to aisle 10. You don't have to drive across town or into the next state. You can wander from aisle to aisle pricing toilets, refrigerators, ceramic tile versus stone, and even get estimates for installation fees. All can be done in one handy, just-off-the-main-highway spot.

But you pay for that convenience in a lot of ways. The first is the price. Even though the BBS often gets exclusive rights for selling some brands, that doesn't necessarily mean that those brands are cheaper than a similar brand or style elsewhere.

You also pay with lack of quality. Unless you pay for the high-end stuff from the BBS, the quality is often much less than you'd find at a specialty store. And with a kitchen or bathroom, where traffic is high, don't kid yourself that a cheap alternative will look good for more than a year. If that's all you can afford, and the room simply isn't usable unless you do something right this instant, then go for it. But if you've saved and are looking to do more than surface touch-ups, this is where spending a moderate amount of money will pay off in the long run.

Another surprising way you pay is with lack of choices. We thought we were locked into a BBS choice of medium-quality countertop that we weren't thrilled with, but the price was in our range. When we went to a specialty store, we found a countertop we loved, of equal or greater quality, and the total cost was half of what the BBS offered! This can be for a variety of reasons, including lower overhead or something simple like a material being manufactured or quarried locally.

When it came to work we couldn't do, we were at first afraid to find contractors by ourselves. We thought that going through the BBS-recommended contractors would give us some level of assurance that the jobs would be done right, and insurance if something went terribly wrong. That is not correct. In this fashion, the BBS simply serves as a middleman and connects a client to the contractor. Though the BBS takes a cut from the contractor for getting them work, in the end, the client is still working directly with the contractor. Any problems or suits would go directly through that contractor, with the BBS slinking out the door.

It took a bit of time, but by using a lot of web-based resources, we were able to make contacts with local suppliers and installers. There are free sites like the Better Business Bureaus, which log complaints for service providers registered in their city, and Craigslist, where a lot of independent contractors post their services. We also subscribed to Angie's List where the subscribers themselves generate ratings for services. It gave us peace of mind to be able to quantitatively assess the quality of different contractors.

It's great to have a word-of-mouth reference from a friend or relative, but no matter where you get your contractors, always do your research. We asked for references from every contractor and actually called those people. A good set of references should include at least one general contractor and one homeowner. Don't be afraid to ask what they paid for the services they had done, and to bluntly ask if they had any negative experiences with the contractor. You can save yourself a lot of money and heartache by being a bit calculating and pushy at this stage. Just because a contractor "seems like a nice person," doesn't mean he or she is the best person to be working for you.

In the end, we're happier and more comfortable with the local choices we've made. For reasons of full-disclosure, I'll tell you that we still ordered our cabinetry from a BBS. Our kitchen is small, and we completely removed and did not replace some of the cabinets. In order to maximize the storage space, the BBS's high-end, quality cabinets with all the fancy pull-outs and specialty drawers met our needs, and were less expensive than locally manufactured cabinets with similar options. I'm not telling you to avoid the BBS entirely, but just don't assume that they're the best value for every part of your project. We were able to afford the fancier BBS cabinets we wanted because we're saving so much in other parts of the project.

"My Story" is a regular feature of The Dollar Stretcher. If you have a story that could help save time or money, please send it by

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