Choosing the Right Contractor
Before hiring a contractor for your home improvement project, interview at least three candidates and check both client and subcontractor references
For most homeowners, the hardest part of any home renovation project isn’t the work itself, it’s finding a competent and reliable contractor to do the job. Installing kitchen cabinets, knocking down a wall or retiling the bathroom is simple compared with the struggle of hiring a quality contractor who will perform at a high level from start to finish.
Even with a good contractor, renovation can be stressful, expensive and involve unpleasant surprises, such as rotted subfloors that are revealed when tile is removed or dangerous electrical wiring or leaking pipes behind walls.
Choosing the right contractor can make the difference between a successful home renovation project and a disaster. But even for experienced renovators, finding the right contractor can be a challenge.
If you’re doing a big project, you’ll need a general contractor, who may hire subcontractors for specialty work such as plumbing and electrical. Homeowners with renovation experience sometimes work as their own general contractors, hiring specific tradespeople for each job. While this may save you money, it can be time-consuming and will mean multiple contractor searches instead of just one, since you’ll have to find a specialist for each smaller job.
Whichever way you go, there are steps you can take to find the right contractor while still keeping your budget – and your sanity – under control. Here are 10 tips to help you find a contractor who will get the job done right.
- Know what you want before you get estimates. “Start with a plan and some ideas,” Hicks says. “Don’t start by talking to contractors.” You’ll get a more accurate estimate if you can be very specific in what you want done and the materials you would like to use to make it happen.
- Ask friends, relatives and co-workers for references. People in your neighborhood who have done similar projects are your best sources. If you know people in the building trades, ask them, too. Employees of local hardware stores may also be able to provide referrals.
- Interview at least three contractors. Ask a lot of questions and get a written bid from each one. When you compare bids, make sure each one includes the same materials and the same tasks, so you’re comparing apples and apples. Get three bids even if you have a contractor you like because you’ll learn something from each interview. “Don’t be afraid to negotiate,” Hicks says. While you might do some haggling at the interview, be prepared to do most of the negotiation after you get the bid and before you sign the contract.
- Ask what work will be done by the contractor’s employees and what work will be done by subcontractors. Christian advises asking for an employee list to make sure the contractor really has the employees he says he does and won’t be using casual labor hired off the street.
- Choose the right contractor for the right project. Someone who did a good job tiling your neighbor’s bathroom isn’t necessarily the right person to build an addition to your home. You want to find a company that routinely does the kind of project you want done.
- Check references. Talk to both clients and subcontractors, who can tell you if the contractor pays them on time. “See if you can talk to current customers,” Christian says, because those clients have the most recent experience working with the contractor.
- Read online reviews, but don’t consider that enough information. Angie’s List does not allow anonymous reviews, and the site checks to see whether reviewers actually used the contractor. Yelp and Google also have some reviews. You want to read the reviews carefully to make sure the contractor is the right person for your job and will work well with you. Keep in mind that reading reviews is not a substitute for checking references.
- Sign a detailed contract. Make sure your contract spells out exactly what will be done, including deadlines, progress payments, the exact materials that will be used down to the model number and who will provide which materials. “If you don’t have it documented, it’s your word against theirs,” Hicks says. If the builder’s contract is not detailed enough, write up your own or provide addendums. Any change in the project, whether you change your mind about products or ask for additional projects, should generate a written change order that includes the new work, materials and cost.
- Verify insurance coverage. Know what is covered by your homeowners insurance and what is covered by your contractor’s business insurance. Get a copy of the company’s insurance policy.
- Don’t make the final payment until the job is 100 percent complete. Contractors are notorious for finishing most of the job and then moving on before they get to the final details. Don’t make the final payment until you are completely satisfied with the work and have all the lien releases and receipts.