Photo by Olgar Fallas

2012 Update: Being thorough about researching potential contractors is easier than ever with the wealth of information now available online. Larger companies all have websites, and many independent local contractors now also have their own websites and blogs where you can check out examples of their work and testimonials from other customers. Checking the appropriate licensing laws in your area is also much simpler as all local government information will be available online. There are also plenty of sites where you can rate your local contractors and read praise – or potential horror stories! – from people that have worked with them before.

The first step to picking the right contractor is determining what type of contractor you want. You have the choice of hiring a single general contractor to do the complete job or hiring several sub-contractors who specialize in different phases of the project. In either case, there are several things to consider when hiring a contractor.

First, make sure the contractor is fully licensed with local and state governments. You should check with your local jurisdiction to find out if a license is required and, if it is, to ensure the license is valid and up-to-date. Do not rely on the contractor’s word. You should contact your state, county, and city governments for information on the contractor’s license. lists licensing requirements for all 50 states.

Make sure the contractor is fully insured and carries worker’s compensation, liability and property damage insurance — ask for copies of the documentation. In addition, check with your insurance agent so you are aware of what your insurance covers and what it does not.

Once the above is established, explain your project, review the drawings, sketches, and plans and ask for the contractor’s opinion on the project. This is the best way to gauge the contractor’s interest and capability. You want to pick a contractor who has experience with projects very similar to yours. You don’t want to pay for an expert and get a novice.

Ask what work the contractor will do him or her self, what his or her employees will do and what jobs will be contracted out to others. It is best to hire a contractor whose own employees do most of the work and who only contracts out some of the specialties like electrical, tile, or plumbing. If the person you interview is the one who is going to do 80 percent of the work, you will have less of a chance of miscommunication than if you work with a general contractor who hires others to do all the work.

Ask for local, recent references as well as a history of the contractor’s experience and business. An individual with ties to your community is usually best. When you check references with other homeowners, ask about the contractor’s work habits, timeliness of the work and the quality of the results. Would they hire the contractor again?