The inside scoop on hiring a contractor

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | December 1, 2014

If you own your own home, there may well come a time when you need to hire a contractor. Approaching the task can be daunting, to say the least. There seems to be a glut of contractors fighting for your business, with everything from yard signs to internet ads to late-night commercials on television. How can you wade through all the information to find the one contractor who meets your needs?

Do your homework

Start by talking to your friends, family, neighbors, and anyone in the community who can tell you where to find the best contractors. Those who have personal experience with contractors are always your best bet. Keep an open mind, but do look for those who have clear experience. "Find out how long a contractor has been in
business; more than five years is generally a good sign," advised Dean Bennett, president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction, Inc. in Castle Rock, Colorado.

It's also a good idea to look for someone who can handle everything you need. "Recognize that, because even simple-sounding jobs can involve many different tasks, 'varied' experience is a good thing," Bennett said. "For instance, some bathroom remodeling may start with demolition and removal of the material, then continue with obtaining permits, new framing, plumbing, electrical work, surface preparation, finishing, trim, and painting. Make sure the contractor has the breadth of experience to cover whatever may come up in the project."

At this point you likely have a lengthy list of possibilities. How do you narrow it down? Look into whether the contractor is licensed, bonded, and insured. Check into organizations, such as the Better Business Bureau, to make sure they are in good standing. The best contractors will quickly rise to the top of the list.

Get the estimates

Now that you have chosen the lucky few, it's time to get the estimates. The interview actually begins as soon as you get in touch. How long does it take them to respond to an email request? How friendly and personable are they on the phone? When you meet them in person, pay attention to your gut. You don't have to be the best of friends with your contractor, but you do need to get along and feel confident in what they can do for you.

When it comes to the estimates, make sure you have all the information you can provide ready when the contractor arrives. Also be prepared with a list of questions. Some of these questions include the timeline for the project, how the contractor prefers to be paid, and how involved you will be in the process.

"Find out who will do the actual work and make sure you are comfortable with that person," Bennett said. "Will the contractor be bringing subcontractors into your home? It may be necessary for the job, but make sure your contractor will supervise the work and has qualified the subcontractors."

Each estimate should be very thorough. A few figures and dates won't cut it. "Ask the contractor to write down all the steps in the job, with figures, and provide you with a full written schedule and timeline for your project," Bennett said. "A good contractor should be able to outline potential pitfalls and types of things that may arise along the way to shift a schedule. Ask him/her to walk you through the worst-case scenario for your job. If they can't or won't do these, beware."

Comparison time!

When all the estimates are in, it's time to make some big decisions. Look at the estimates side-by-side. Remember that you might pay a higher price for someone who can handle both your design and building work. Make sure the timelines are clear, the payment expectations are acceptable, and you feel comfortable with everything the contractor plans to do to make your vision a reality.

"Watch out for the low bid," Bennett warned. "If one contractor's price is significantly lower than others' prices,
be suspicious of inexperience or desperation. The latter is not necessarily a problem, but it pays to be cautious. Like with other things in life, if the price is too good to believe, it probably is."

Before the work begins…

Once you have chosen the contractor you want to handle the project, there is more work to be done: Never go into any home improvement project without a clear, concise contract in hand. Sometimes a seasoned contractor will provide a contract template, into which you can plug in all the information you both need. But some homeowners find more peace of mind in going with an attorney to draft a simple, straightforward contract that spells out exactly what is expected, what the finished product will be, the rough completion dates, and a fee schedule that suits both parties.

Regardless of whether you go with an attorney or not, make sure some points are clear. "Agree on all timelines and project scope up-front. Agree on how changes and problems that arise will be handled," Bennett advised. "Establish a billing and payment schedule and get it in writing for any job that will take longer than a week. Weekly, or every-other-week, invoicing and payment often can be a good system to insure fairness to each party. If a contractor is unwilling to do this, think carefully before hiring."

In the end, remember that the buck stops with you. It's your home, it's your project, and it's your call. The more homework you do, the better prepared you will be to deal with contractors. "The reality is that most contractors are trying to do the right things," Bennett said. "Just as when dealing with any service or professional, understanding a bit of the business will go a long way toward ensuring that everyone is on the same page."

Photo credit to Kevin Irby

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.