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My New Home: Choosing a Contractor

Early last winter, after searching for more than two years, I finally found a new home in Oregon, outside of Medford, near the small town of Ruch. It took a long time to find this place because I couldn’t decide where I wanted to live and once I did, I had a hard time finding a place I could afford—a small, older home that hadn’t been remodeled. After the “big boom,” houses like that became pretty rare.

A Note from the Publisher:


Many people have asked about my new home and shop, so we’re publishing a new series of From the Road articles. You’ll notice I’m using a lot of Katz Roadshow-sponsored materials. We choose our sponsors carefully, from among the best manufacturers in the industry, and that’s why I chose to use their products on my own home, too, some of which were donated.


The place I bought was built in the fifties and had no insulation in the walls or floor. The entire west side of the house, facing the Applegate River, had once been a porch. The interior was mostly old wood paneling—the cheap kind, with several layers in some rooms, where previous owners had redecorated, and cove molding in all the corners—including the ceilings! The electrical and plumbing…well, these pictures will show you what I mean.

The plumbing was a mixture of copper, old galvanized pipe, thin-wall PVC, and even garden hoses.


(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

037_1 The wiring had been spliced—inside the walls—with electrical tape.
Sunken foundation piers had to be replaced. 069_1
150_1 And on top of all that, I planned to build a new shop and guesthouse—a lot of work for a guy who’s on the road most of the year. I needed a GC!

Hire Slow and Fire Fast

I began to look for a good contractor/carpenter—someone who wore a tool belt and could work with me side-by-side or when I was thousands of miles away; someone who was eager to learn and to teach, too—as a finish carpenter, I haven’t been involved in general construction for more than thirty years, but I wanted to do all the finish work!

I started by asking JLC for a list of their subscribers in the Medford, OR area. I sent emails to those fifteen names, and I received seven or eight responses. I followed up with the ones that replied within a couple days, doing a brief email interview with each contractor. I eliminated several—those who weren’t licensed or didn’t work with tools themselves. I interviewed about five contractors on the phone, and then I sent plans for my new shop to three of them. All the time, I paid close attention to how quickly they responded to email, how organized they were, and how digitally savvy they were. As I mentioned before, I was looking for a contractor who I could work with closely, even when I was far away; he’d need to be familiar with a computer, email, etc.

In the end, after meeting each of them, visiting their jobs and speaking with their past customers, I chose the one who asked the most questions, the one who provided me with the most organized and thorough bid, and the one who was the most responsive: Scott Wells Construction. He was also the high bidder. Go figure.

Demo to Drywall

Scott started work in February, and by the time I arrived in the middle of May, he had gutted the old house, installed new wiring, repaired the plumbing, insulated the walls, and primed the drywall. He had the foundation formed for my new shop,…


…and he had also dug utility trenches all over the property. I arrived just in time: the dirty work was almost over. IMG_0300_1

A lot of folks have been asking about my new place, wanting to see pictures. In the months (and years!) ahead, I’ll be sharing some of the lessons I’m learning while working on my new home.

_MG_9753_1 For better or worse, I’m learning quite a few lessons the hard way.
You can expect to see articles in TiC, JLC, and Fine Homebuilding, too, from building doors to setting windows; from installing the kitchen cabinets, to building out the new shop. MVI_0623_1

The next article on my new home will cover installing a French door and flanking sidelights, but it’s not your run-of-the-mill install. This one has a remodel twist—I had to install a deck ledger first.

• • •


Gary Katz still travels the country doing Katz Roadshows—carpentry clinics at locally owned lumberyards and tool stores. But he no longer lives in L.A. These days, well, a picture is worth a thousand words.



28 Responses to “My New Home: Choosing a Contractor”

  1. Barry Munsell

    This should be very interesting. I have a suggestion. Why not have your contractor write a parallel story with his take on the job and working with you.

    • Barry Shepard

      First of all I want to say good luck on your new home, Oregon seems like the place you want to go to when you’ve paid your dues. Keep doing your shows, I recommend your to other finish carpenters all the time. Yes, it would be great to hear from the contractor who did your project, no sugar coating. My latest project.

      • Gary Katz

        Barry (s):
        I think you’ll be hearing a lot from Scott Wells. He’s just getting warmed up! He’s working on a story about building the prow roofs on the front and back of the shop. I’m sure he’ll have a few things to say about working for me. It’s so funny to have gotten ‘old.’ Scott is more than twenty years younger then me; and the young man I hired to help with everything around the new place (carpentry, DVD orders, video, mowing, ditch digging, etc) is only nineteen–forty years younger than me!!! Wow. You’ll probably be hearing from him, too. He’s developing quite a voice–yeah, they all talk back to me! what’s up with THAT?!?

  2. Dixon

    Sounds like we’re in for some interesting reading Gary. Beautiful site there on the river, and looks like your shop will be “to die for”. Good luck, and have fun!

  3. Gabe

    Gary, several years ago I got into the trades. When I started doing finish carpentry I started buying every book and magazine that I could find that could supplement my hands on experience. As it turns out you happened to be in quite a few of them as a contributor. Now later in my life I have found JLC online forum and there you are responding to questions that are asked from the general building populace. To me its like a real life celebrity responding with good common sense answers based on decades of experience. Thank you on behalf of all of us who have benefited from your years of experience.

    • Gary Katz

      Thanks for your note. While I appreciate the thought, the whole idea of a ‘celebrity carpenter’ is kind of an oxymoron, if you know what I mean. There’s probably been only one celebrity carpenter that I know of–I mean the one and only Master Carpenter, if you get my drift, and it’s not Norm. In fact, the guy I’m thinking of has never even been on T.V. But he’s still famous. Go figure.

      I’ve always loved carpentry. I think for the reason John mentioned in his comment on the Williamson Free School article: Carpentry empowered me to feel that “I can do that.” I think all the writing I’ve done, and the clinics, and right down to the work on my new place– has been motivated by that feeling and by wanting other people to feel that same way. Plus I had to make a living somehow.

  4. David Pugh

    Gary: Thanks for your article giving glimpses of your new place. All the best to you. Keep the news coming and thanks for letting us all “talk back” to you.

  5. Laurie McDougall

    Very timely article, my wife and I are just beginning our search for our next home on Vancouver Island. I have been worried about how to find a competent GC, so thank you for teaching us how!

    On a more important note, how’s the fishing there? LOL it looks like a great fly fishing stream.

    • james Bunch

      The fly fishing is great by his house, I landed a 30″ native steelhead in his area….welcome to Oregon., I moved to Eagle Point., in Sept… it here.

      JIM B.

  6. Kirby Dolak

    Great article. Now we get to tie a house with your new address. Now you have a ‘hobby’ house.

    Look forward to seeing how you set-up your new shop. Did you include a video production studio?

    Enjoy your time by the river 8-)

    • Gary Katz

      Kind of. I ran a wall across the interior of the building leaving me about 40 x 40 for the shop and about 20 x 30 for the studio. There’s also a utility room and storage room in that space, and a bathroom. But it’s enough room for the videos I want to do on Mantelpieces, Coffered Ceilings, etc.

      The problem is…the view out the windows is kind of distracting…it’s hard to stay in there for very long and when I do, I’m always a little sorry that I missed even an hour outside.

  7. Tim Raleigh

    Thanks for the update. I was hoping your home and shop build would become a story here. Like other here, I am really looking forward to future articles on your build.

    BTW, if your “Master Carpenter” is the one I am thinking of he’s more like a life coach for me…but then again I find it hard to distinguish between life and work.
    Thanks again for all your effort.

  8. David Lemke

    Looks like a sweet spot. Keep a backdoor plan for a porch or something. I am going after the barnwood down on the Deschutes starting this month. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

    • Gary Katz

      Thanks for not forgetting me! I haven’t forgotten you. Keep me posted on what you come up with!

  9. Josh

    Looking forward to seeing the project as it progresses! What an awesome location on the river.

    Please be modest with pictures of the shop… Already struggling with shop envy after only one picture. :/

  10. Michael Leistiko

    I have to think that the master carpenter you are speaking of has to be: Jed Dixon-even if he is a Luddite.
    Please tell me if I’m wrong.

  11. Peg

    Hi Gary,
    I just found you for the first time, although your name seems familiar. Excuse me for not knowing, what is JLC Please enlighten me.
    It looks and sounds like your home isn’t/wasn’t up to code, and down right dangerous. What will you use for heating/cooling in the home and the shop?
    Best wishes,

    • Gary Katz

      Sorry I didn’t respond earlier…your note just slipped past me. I’ve re-wired and replumbed the house. It was pretty crazy. And I’ve installed a radiant floor heat system (hot water) in both the home and the shop. In the home, the hot water runs through tubing that’s set into aluminum panels beneath the hardwood flooring; in the shop, the tubing is right in the concrete slab.

  12. Paul Comi

    Congratulations on your undertaking. My inlaws live in Brookings and we are up in Oregon twice a year. Often I have considered doing the same thing youre doing but it hasn’t been feasible yet. The Rogue and Chetco rivers are beautiful. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what choices you make for exterior trim and such. My in laws have hardiplank siding and pressure treated trim and they take a beating with the rain. I’d definitely be using PVC trim and details for as much as I could afford up there.

  13. jonathan carr

    Hey gary,

    Is this famous Master Carpenter you speak of the One who framed the universe? If so, I’m happy to hear Him mentioned in high esteem. Shalom!

  14. Jason

    As a carpenter & contractor in London,England I found this really interesting.

    The good communications that you mention are time consuming & hard to remember once on the job site but most problems with projects go back to… an assumption made by someone along the line.

    Thanks for another article.

  15. Ranny

    This looks like what we bought a year ago! Did you get to sister any floor joists? I got to do 19 of them to correct the 2 1/2″ drop over about 8 ‘. A friend did show me what 30 year old, cheap wood paneling (mine was actually exterior grade siding) is good for. You put it in the fireplace, light a match and instant fire. Did your contractor find any carcasses in the walls?

  16. Tony

    Gary, can you tell me where I can locate this product don’t know the name but I can describe it to you when installing base moulding mitering inside corners sometimes the inside corner is not plum causing the bottom of the base to be pulled in causing a gap I saw a screw of some type that pulls the moulding into alignment. I have been looking for it for a while but can’t locate it.Please help. Thank you.

    • Gary Katz

      You are looking for a Trimadjuster screw. They are (were?) made by Bill Shaw who designed the Copemaster machine. But I’m not sure if he’s still in business. I noticed his website is down. Here’s a video that will only tease you if Bill is no longer in business.
      I’ll call him and see what happened.

      • Gary Katz

        I spoke to Bill and you can order the screws by phone: 800-630-1104


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