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How to Choose the Right Contractor

In this article we’re going to layout a course of action to help take the guesswork out of hiring a professional contractor. 

We’ll give you advice from professionals, offer helpful tips and provide you an outline of the steps you should follow before you open your home and wallet to a stranger.

And while nothing is 100%, by following the guidelines and suggestions contained herein, you’ll stand a much better chance of avoiding the scammers and hiring a competent, professional contractor.

If you know a trustworthy company or reputable builder already, that’s great.  Tell your friends.  If you don’t, here’s how to find one and what to do when you do.  

Who Do You Hire?

At some point in your life, especially if you are a homeowner, you’re going to undertake a construction project that exceeds your ability and/or desire to tackle it and you’re going to need a professional. 

Locating a contractor will be easy as there are countless local crews with hammer and saw happy to take on a new job. But finding a competent contractor who is a true professional is just like hiring and outsourcing to a bookkeeper or finding any other professional – it will require a little leg-work on your part in the form of research.

There is much more to consider when hiring a contractor than mere cost. 

Can they do the job? What kind of a job will they do and will they perform in a professional manner while doing it? Do they have credible references? How do they strike you personally? 

Don’t underestimate your gut feeling. Someone easy to deal with now will in all likelihood, be easy to deal with should an issue arise.  And vice versa.

Know What You Want 

You’ll save yourself time, money and perhaps some unnecessary aggravation if you know precisely what you want done. 

Explaining to the contractor exactly what you want along with your expectations of what the finished job should look like is the first step toward avoiding any misunderstandings in the future of what was expected and what was done. 

Having a clear definition of the job before an estimate is given will ensure things go smoothly for everyone concerned. Use our free project checklist to ensure everything goes as smoothly as it can.

Get the Right Pro

Just as having the right tool for the job can make the task at hand that much easier, the same can be said for the hands holding those tools. Depending on how busy they are, a professional contractor will often sub-contract some of his jobs to an independent crew. 

Getting the right crew for the job is important. Let them know that.  Consider that you probably don’t want a roofer building your custom deck or a painter laying your flooring. Not that they couldn’t do it, but you want the right professionals on your renovation or building project.

Word of mouth is a good way to find a reliable contractor. You can also ask your friends or people you work with for the names of people they have used and trust. 

Interview more than one contractor and make sure to get at least 3 and up to 5 estimates before choosing your builder. Many contractors offer free estimates and those that don’t will usually waive their fee if hired. Use our free contractor interview form for guidance.

What to Know?

Here are a few tips to help you in the hiring process. When interviewing contractors, secure some references and get in touch with a few of the customers they have done work for. People usually don’t mind someone phoning them up to get their evaluation of work they’ve had done. Especially when they’re happy with the finished results. Use our free customer reference worksheet for guidance on this.

You can also read a contractor’s online reviews and check their rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to learn if they’ve had any consumer complaints lodged against them or have faced any litigation. 

When comparing bids, consider more than just the price. You want it done right the first time. 

You can generally kick the stand-out low bid to the curb. You get what you pay for. Sometimes, you don’t even get that. 

Go with someone having a proven reputation and that you feel comfortable about having around your home. Especially one with good references and whose bid is acceptably close to the other contractor’s. 

The highest bid doesn’t always mean they’re the best company bidding either. Here’s where a good reputation and honest references should carry a lot of weight in your decision.

Papers Please 

Hiring a licensed, bonded and insured contractor is smart business. Here’s what all that means. 

Licensed means he/they have completed all state licensing requirements and are registered. 

Bonded means their work is insured by a bond. This is for your protection. If the work is done improperly or left unfinished, you may have some recourse.  You should also verify they are insured or see if your homeowner’s policy covers you in the event someone has an accident.

Here’s a quick summary. Make sure your chosen contractor:

  • Is Licensed-Bonded-Insured
  • Is registered with the BBB
  • Can provide you with references/pictures of their work
  • Has the right crew for the job
  • Has a reputation for doing quality work

Get it in Writing 

People tend to trust people and sometimes you feel you have a good rapport with a person and you hire them on a handshake with a clear agreement of what you want done. I mean, it’s obvious right? 

Not always. Be wary of the person who scribbles down Build deck with just some measurements and a price. Ask if that includes all costs such as steps, rails and spindles?

I mention a deck because I hired a guy on a handshake and a piece of paper like the aforementioned. Don’t do that. Get the specifics of what you’re paying for in writing. See our Get It In Writing article for full details on this very important topic.

A reputable contractor will be happy to itemize each step and give you a breakdown of the total cost in writing and offer a written guarantee of their work. With any construction project, some delay is usually inevitable. But you can still mutually agree on a general time-frame for completion of the job. 

This next tip is also important. Verify that whomever you hire has the proper building permit(s) needed before construction begins. 

A friend of mine had a small addition added to his home. Halfway through the build a city official dropped by to check on building permits. They had none. He was ordered to tear down what was already built, get permits and start over. 

An average person learns from their mistakes. A wise person learns from the mistakes of others. Get permits.

Paying the Contractor

Some contractors may ask for a down payment to begin work while others may not. Many smaller companies ask for a percentage of the cost up front to cover out of pocket expenses to get started. 

Realize that when you pay out money before the work ever begins you are already at a disadvantage. Should the contractor fail to return, you have few options that are likely to get you your money back and little chance of any resolution. 

Few things are more aggravating than chasing someone who owes you. On the other hand, if you know or feel them to be trustworthy, by all means, help get them started.

Larger companies generally don’t need money up front unless they have out of pocket expenses for custom-built items or materials they may have to special order and are non-returnable. According to “This Old House,” larger jobs usually require 10% down with 3 payments of 25% spaced evenly over the course of the job. The final 15% being paid when all conditions have been met or the punch-list is complete, as they say.

For smaller crew, personally owned outfits, it is better not to pay in full until the job is completed. And unless you know and trust the person, don’t accept “Yeah, I’ll get somebody over here next week to finish up that wall.” Nada. 

They get their final payment when you are satisfied with their work. Otherwise, if they are disreputable and you’ve already paid them, they have little incentive to come back and finish the job. Then you’re stuck with an unfinished project and will have to pay someone…again.

This is one of the most common problems I’ve had with contractors. The last 10% of the job takes the most time, so many contractors like to skip out on that part if they can. 

A Little Q & A Session With Your Contractor

You can avoid some common pitfalls by being diligent. Choosing the right contractor means doing a little digging via a few question and answer sessions by phone or in person. Here’s a list of questions to consider asking them:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • Are you licensed, bonded and insured?
  • Who’s going to be coming in and out of my house or onto my property?
  • Will a Foreman or crew boss be on-site?
  • What precautionary measures do you implement regarding Covid-19?
  • What if I’m unhappy with something?
  • What added expenses might arise on this job?

Taking the time to get answers to these and any questions you may have, will help determine whom you want to hire. 

Know the Difference 

Unless you know them, it is difficult to tell just by looking if someone is competent or not. The guy that burned me on roofing my house by never coming back to finish after I’d paid him, had a nice truck, was well dressed and carried a clipboard. 

The guy that added a porch to my house looked like he came down from the mountains as did his crew. They were the nicest and most conscientious group of workmen I ever hired. And they did a great job for a lot less money than the others. 

As stated earlier, sometimes you have to go with your gut-feeling. But he did have pictures and good references and that helped influence me to hire him. Here are a few tips to help you recognize the good contractors from the not so goodones.

Good Contractor/Bad Contractor

For the homeowner on a budget, it’s important to recognize the warning signs and be able to see those red flags when they pop up before you.  

A good contractor will have a good reputation. Most of their customers will be happy with their work. I say most because you can’t please everyone. 

A good contractor is also responsive to your calls and listens with earnest to what you have to say about the project. They also offer a written contract and total cost while detailing in full what is to be done. Professionals are also are punctual and clean up after themselves. You can learn the latter by contacting some of their references.

A bad contractor may not have all the paperwork required to be considered legit. They may offer a discount for paying in cash and try to get around city/county codes in order to cut corners. They show up late and often the crew looks like a raft of ship wreck survivors. A bad contractor is often not licensed, bonded or insured. 

Unprofessional workers are notorious for not getting back with you when you’re trying to reach them, especially if you spotted them any money in advance. Common sense dictates you avoid those contractors offering few references and with a questionable work ethic. Even contractors who are capable of doing good work are often terrible at communication about that work. So just be aware of this problem.

Nothing’s Perfect

All the information we’ve laid out in this article is meant to be practical and useful. But if you know someone and trust their skills though they don’t necessarily meet all the proper regulations criteria, by all means hire them. In the end, you just want quality work at a fair price. If it’s a friend or someone referred to you, all the better.

There really is no set science for finding exactly the person you need. Well, maybe there is but even so, there is no guarantee there won’t be issues. Things can go bad with a good contractor, too. 

So what’s a person to do? Do your homework and trust your gut. Following the guidelines supplied in this article will definitely increase your chances of hiring the right contractor, but often enough it just comes down to a little common sense coupled with a few good references.

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