By Shannon Roxborough
With so many contractors of every stripe out there—the good, the bad and the ugly—finding a competent contractor for your home improvement or repair project can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Here are some guidelines and advice to help you make the right choice.
Get “In the Know” About Contractors
Among the best ways to prepare yourself for finding your ideal contractor is to inform and educate yourself, starting with home improvement terminology. Learning how to talk the talk by mastering industry jargon will help you understand contractor speak, which can be incomprehensible gobbledygook to the uninitiated. Then, learn everything you can about what’s involved with the type of project you’re interested in. Doing so can save you valuable time and money in the long term.
Ask for Recommendations
One of the best places to start is close to home. So, ask for referrals from family and friends who have had positive experiences with their contractors. Another good starting point is the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, a non-profit national trade association. Visit the NARI website for a list of members in your area. Though often officially prohibited from making referrals, ask a building inspector which contractors routinely meet code requirements for the type of work you need. It’s also a good idea to inquire about tradesmen with good reputations at your local Big Box store, hardware or lumberyard. And, last but not least, pick the brain of another home improvement pro. Good contractors in one field likely have professional contacts with other specialties.
Tap Professional Resources
John Hoagland, the owner of Trinity Home Renovations, a Rochester, N.Y.-based contractor with more than 25 years’ experience with a range of home remodeling projects, suggests steering clear of contractors not registered with the Better Business Bureau. Hoagland, who takes pride in his reputation for honesty and quality work, also urges homeowners to ensure that contractors have adequate insurance for all employees and subcontractors and be able to produce a copy of their insurance certificate for verification. And, Hoagland says in states where licenses are required, it’s a good idea to confirm their licensing status with the state government, which can usually be done online.
Conduct Phone Interviews
After you’ve put together a list of good prospects, quickly narrow the pool by calling each contractor and asking them the following questions:
- Do you take on projects of the size and scope that I need?
- Can you provide a list of previous clients I can contact for references?
- Are you able to put me in touch with your suppliers or bank so I can determine your financial standing?
- Will you handle the job personally or use subcontractors. If the latter, how long have you worked with your subs?
- How many other projects would you be doing at the same time as mine?
After the interviews, evaluate the contractors’ responses to determine the best candidates and move on to the next phase of the decision-making process.
Schedule a “Free” Estimate
Narrow it down to three or four contractors for face-to-face meetings to discuss details of the project and costs. Contractors should be able to adequately answer all of your questions about any aspect of the job. Get a written estimate and trust your instincts.
Don’t Rely Solely on Cost
It may sound counter-intuitive, but pass on unusually low bids. All too often, lowball estimates mean a less competent contractor, someone who cuts corners or a person who is desperate for work. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Do Your Homework
Once you settle on the contractor you’re most comfortable with, get in touch with former clients to find how their project went and ask to see the finished product. If at all possible, go a step further and visit a current job site to get a first-hand look at the contractor in action. Take note of contractor-client interaction, the condition of the job site and overall professionalism. Check with the state consumer protection agency and the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau for a history of complaints or disputes.
Sign on the Dotted Line
Put the project in writing in the form of a contract that spells all the specifics of the project: payment terms, start date and proposed timeline, work to be performed and a detailed material list. Also, require the contractor to obtain lien releases from all suppliers and subcontractors, which protects you if they don’t pay their bills.
Shannon Roxborough is a widely published freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, newspapers and websites. An avid home improvement enthusiast, he has more than a decade of DIY experience and previously ran a property maintenance business.