The One Question You Should Ask Before Fixing Anything in Your Home

Totally cringe-y confession: For the past year, duct tape has been holding up the tiles in my guest bathroom. As soon as they started coming loose, I began investigating my options: What would it cost to do it myself? My sanity. Well, how about hiring a pro? As the initial quotes came in—ranging from $10,000 to $18,000, because, as it turns out, a bathroom that hasn’t been touched since the 1950s needs, well, a total plumbing-to-fixtures overhaul—I turned to duct tape and tabled the idea until I couldn’t ignore it any longer. (Real mature, right? Though I convinced myself that nobody uses that bathroom, so it’s fine…for now.)

In the meantime, I focused my energy on the other fixer upper projects my home needed, and in the process, learned the critical question to ask before deciding what caliber of repairs you need: “What would you do if you were me?”

It sounds foolishly simple, but it’s been a game-changer when receiving estimates on any household project, especially with the rising cost of materials (like lumber) and other shortages causing those estimates to vary wildly. Often, contractors and other pros will offer their top-of-the-line solution to your problem. If pressed, though, some will offer a lower-tier option of what they could do instead. (Or they may try anchoring, aka strategically presenting you with a high-end option and a low-end one right off the bat, so suddenly the cheaper option seems downright affordable, even if it’s much higher than you’d anticipated. To that end, a 2012 Yale study found that people are far more likely to actually commit to buying when given the choice of purchasing something at two different price points.)

Typically, the salespeople and contractors can’t tell you which choice to make—“the choice is yours and yours alone,” as any Nickelodeon-loving product of the ‘90s knows—but when pressed to say what they’d do in your situation, you’ll often find a middle ground. It’s that moment of putting themselves in your shoes, coupled with them having a more robust background knowledge of the problem and its potential solutions, that can work in your favor.

Case in point: I tried this strategy when I needed to replace my air ducts. The four companies I spoke to offered a range of solutions, from simply swapping the duct lines to creating a whole new trunkline system, and ranged in cost from $1,500 to nearly $5,000. As I tried to hold back my panic-induced dry-heaving, I explained I was saving for a bathroom and really didn’t have the budget for the top-of-the-line fix (as sleek as it could be), but I also didn’t want a Band-Aid that’d need to be fixed again six months to a year from now.

What would you do if you were me?

Two of the four pros came back with a solution that met my needs without having to tell my daughter her college funds went to the air conditioner. At $2,200, the fix wasn’t cheap, but it was far more reasonable than the $4,000 to $5,000 quotes I’d received, and most importantly, I had cool air throughout the house once again.

Since then, I’ve tried the approach with other projects, and the insights I’ve gained have been invaluable. Sure, it’s not the only question to ask before deciding which company to go with for a repair project (“Are you licensed and insured?” “What’s the timeline for this?” And “Who handles acquiring permits for this?” are all pretty critical too, in addition to scoping out reviews). But outside of those practical asks, this empathy-builder is a good one to keep in mind. If nothing else, it at least reveals how the pro thinks—and whether you’re on the same wavelength. If they’re super rigid and won’t factor in your situation and needs, are they really the best fit for the job?

As I gear up for a fresh round of bathroom renovation estimates—this time armed with a better idea of what I want and actually need—I’ll see how this question affects the range of quotes I receive. Then I’ll prepare the “so, we gave your college fund to the bathroom” convo with my toddler.

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...