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A Before-and-After Project with Sweeten

What do handbags and general contractors have in common? More than you might think.

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It’s no secret that people love a good before-and-after moment. It’s what keeps Pinterest running—the idea that you can make your before into a beautiful after. In all the steps it takes to get from the before photo to the after, it can easily feel like you’ve lost your way. That’s where Sweeten comes in.

Sweeten is a free matchmaking service and online community that connects homeowners to qualified general contractors. It currently serves the New York and Philadelphia metro areas and will be in L.A., Chicago, and Miami by summer. It was founded in 2011, just four years after founder, CEO, and architect Jean Brownhill had her fateful run-in with a bad general contractor.  

“After saving up, I bought a fixer-upper, and even though I came from the industry, [I] ended up hiring the wrong general contractor,” says Brownhill. “That experience was my lightbulb moment,” she says.

Before she was renovating her own home, Brownhill spent years working for handbag company Coach, where she developed a web platform that streamlined construction of stores around the globe. Couple her lightbulb moment with her experience at Coach, and Sweeten was born.

Sweeten works a lot like a dating service. Homeowners list their projects on the platform and then Sweeten gets to do what it does best: comb a database for qualified general contractors who can help based on your location and project needs. Think of it as a matchmaker, but for your house.

Sweeten’s value comes from that vetted list of highly skilled general contractors. Renovators have the ability to look up their profiles, read reviews, and see previous projects before they decide who to work with. Sweeten also helps homeowners navigate the payment process by assessing any bids they receive.

Once selected, the Sweeten team monitor and track projects, making sure everything is running smoothly. Contractors receive a rating based on their work once the project is completed. 

“It’s very similar to a driver’s Uber rating,” says Brownhill. “If a Sweeten [general contractor’s] average rating falls below three stars, they can no longer work with us.”

When Brownhill set out to build a platform where contractors and homeowners could come together, she had one goal: “to help people renovate fearlessly.” In the case of this Brooklyn townhouse, homeowners Nydia and Jonathan needed a space that could fit their family.

Their kitchen was dark and dated—not suiting the fresh traditional aesthetic they envisioned for their home. In a city where natural light is at a premium, the couple wanted to maximize theirs as much as possible.

Budgets for Sweeten projects range anywhere from $15,000 to $5 million, according to Brownhill, with kitchen and bath renovations as the most popular. Her top five tips for working with general contractors are pretty simple.

First, make sure you only work with a licensed general contractor, like the ones in Sweeten’s database. Second, review at least three bids from competing general contractors—the cheapest isn’t always the best. Third, list your “must-haves” and your “nice-to-haves” so you have a clear plan of attack when discussing with your contractor. Fourth, when budgeting, be as realistic as possible but always add a 10 percent cushion in case of an issue. And, fifth, remember that you’re going to be working with this person to build your dream home. It’s important that you can communicate clearly and effectively together so that personal connection should always be a priority when making your final selection.

With the help of Sweeten, Nydia and Jonathan matched with a contractor in Brooklyn who was able to turn their dark 250-square-foot kitchen into a place where the family of five spend sun drenched mornings sipping coffee.

The general contractor moved the refrigerator, installed new cabinetry and stainless-steel appliances. In order to maximize light in the kitchen, they added white frames to windows and opened the layout by changing up the stairs leading to the basement. They also added on a peninsula to the existing counter, maximizing space for the family.

“The kitchen is definitely the highlight of the house,” says Nydia. “It’s warm and inviting and makes everyone feel welcome.”

To see more projects from Sweeten and connect with a general contractor, visit the website.