Contractor referrals: who do you trust?

Brett Kulina | Improvement Center Columnist | November 20, 2012

Deciding to remodel your home, or finally taking the plunge and purchasing that cute fixer-upper, can seem like a simple decision, that is, until you realize that you also need to hire a contractor who can make it all happen for you. Locating and hiring the right contractor for your remodeling or construction project can be a challenge, and for many homeowners this important decision can be their first step toward success, or that initial ball of yarn that unravels in disaster.

Although you have plenty of options when hiring a contractor, some methods of finding the best contractor for your project are head and shoulders above the rest. A recent survey of 571 homeowners conducted by BuildZoom, a consumer service that analyzes and ranks contractors, "How Consumers Hire Home Improvement Contractors in the Digital Age," found that over 80 percent of surveyed homeowners rely on personal referrals when hiring a local contractor. When gathering contractor referrals for your remodeling project it seems obvious that you would ask friends and neighbors for their recommendations, but networking with professionals in the building industry and online research are two other ways to get the job done.

Getting to know you

"Almost all my work comes from customer referrals; these are people who have been satisfied with my work, know that I met my deadlines and stayed within budget. Then they tell their friends," says Will Gaddy, owner of Gaddy Construction in Missoula, Mont.

Advertisers and marketers have always relied on the fact that American consumers tend to make purchasing decisions that are similar to their friends and neighbors, so it makes sense that you would look to others for help when hiring a remodeling contractor. After all, if your friend was satisfied with their contractor after navigating a complete home makeover, why wouldn't you consider hiring the same contractor instead of just pulling an unknown name from the Yellow Pages?

The key to turning a personal contractor referral into a successful hire is to make sure the referral is only the beginning of the hiring process and not the ultimate factor in your decision. Evaluating a contractor based on everything from their experience to their personality is the next step in determining if you've found the right contractor for your project.

"Keep in mind that a complete home remodel can go on for months, so it is important that there is some sort of personal connection and a good line of communication between customer and contractor," says Gaddy when reflecting on a few of his most successful projects. "You almost become part of their family for a short while, and issues always come up that need to be dealt with."

It takes one to know one

When seeking out contractor referrals, you should look beyond just your friends and neighbors and ask other professionals in the home buying and construction industry. For example, your real estate broker might know of the perfect kitchen remodeler, or your plumber might just share with you the name of his preferred house painter. References from professionals like these can offer you a larger pool of potential hires than just a single referral from a neighbor. After all, your neighbor may have only completed one home remodel, while your real estate broker may have been involved in dozens.

Other local professionals to consider asking for contractor referrals are home inspectors, interior designers or the salespeople at the local lumber yard. Referrals from these types of professionals can be even more valuable to you than referrals from friends, because a professional may risk losing your future business if their referral goes sour, while a casual acquaintance like a neighbor has less to lose if their recommendations don't pan out.

Getting personal without the person

The BuildZoom survey also cites statistics that show homeowners look to the online world for local contractor referrals. While a Google search may unearth some useful information for you, more often than not general search engine inquiries are going to lead you to online sites that specialize in local contractor referrals. Sites such as ReliableRemodeler.com and ImprovementCenter.com are just two of the many online resources that can bring qualified contractors right to your front door.

When using these types of online resources, you simply supply some initial information about your intended project, and the site matches you with up to three pre-screened contractors who work in your local area. Although these sites are excellent for finding local contractors, it is still up to you to evaluate each contractor and then complete the hiring process by detailing your work agreements, setting construction budgets, and ensuring that all the permits and paperwork are taken care of.

And the winner is…

Although you may rely on personal, professional and online sources for your contractor referrals, the important take away to remember is that your chances of a successful project increase when you put in the effort to locate and evaluate many potential hires before you ultimately decide on just one. Establishing clear criteria in your evaluation process such as experience, licensing, cost, and availability can also help you to cull through all the "maybes" and decide on a winner.