Photo by Olgar Fallas

Update: Selecting the right contractor for you is crucial to a successful remodel. Opening up the phone book and picking the first person you see is bound to lead to trouble; you need to follow recommendations from friends and neighbors, get a number of estimates so you know you’re not being ripped off, and make sure you hire someone that shares your vision of what you want doing to your home. Ensuring they are adequately insured and licensed is the final step to making sure your remodel goes as smoothly as possible.

Whether you are remodeling, constructing an addition or making repairs to your house, it is important to know how to select a contractor who is right for the job and right for you. Contractor scams are one of the most frequently reported problems in the construction business. There are, however, a number of things you can do before you hire a contractor that will make the entire experience safer, more efficient, and less expensive in the long run.

The very first rule of hiring a contractor, especially if you need to make repairs after a fire, flood, or other natural disaster, is this: Never, ever hire anyone who comes to your door or calls you on the phone to offer their services. Legitimate, experienced, licensed contractors do not do business this way.

The first step in selecting a contractor is to begin with a clear understanding of the work you want done in your home. At the very least, think through what you want done and what you do not want done. A better idea is to write out on paper exactly what you want done. Define the project, set limits on the project, and try to describe how the completed work will look.

Second, get estimates. Select three to five contractors who do the kind of work you need. Have each of them come to your home and provide a written estimate of the cost of the work.

How do you decide who to ask for estimates? There are several ways to identify contractors:

  • Ask friends, relatives, or neighbors if they have had similar work done. As them which contractor they used and if they were satisfied with the work.
  • Call and ask the Better Business Bureau to recommend a local contractor.
  • Use a referral service. These businesses pre-screen and certify the contractors they recommend. There are a number of internet referral services and services you can contact by telephone.
  • Call your homeowners insurance agent and ask if there are local contractors with whom they have had good experiences.
  • The last resort is to use the telephone book.

Call the contractors on your list. Confirm that they do the kind of work you need done, and ask if they provide free estimates. Most contractors will provide free estimates. While making this initial contact, confirm that they are licensed and insured. If they answer “no” to any of these questions, simply thank them for talking with you and move on to the next person on your list. Take notes on your conversations, carefully keeping information organized for each contractor. Be sure that you have at least three contractors scheduled to provide estimates.

When the contractor comes to your home, explain the work you want done. Ask the contractor to outline the best way to achieve your goals. Continue to take notes on your conversations. Ask the contractor to provide a detailed written estimate of the project, including any guarantees he/she makes or any statements about particular types of materials recommended. Thank the contractor for his/her time and set a time when you will notify him/her of your decision. This is also the appropriate time to ask for references, ask to see his/her license and proof of insurance. Check out any references provided by a contractor. You might also ask the contractor to identify recent similar work in the area. Go and look at those sites. If possible, ask those customers if they are happy with the work. Some of the questions you might want to ask these people include:

  • Were you able to communicate easily with the contractor?
  • Was the quality of the work satisfactory?
  • Was the promised schedule maintained?
  • Were your questions, complaints, or problems resolved quickly?
  • Were the members of the work crew polite, neat, and respectful of your home and family?
  • Would you use this contractor again?

When you have all of the estimates (at least 3), compare them carefully. Compare the estimates for more than price. Compare the details on the quality of materials, the quality of the work. Then rank the estimates in your mind.

The next step is to investigate the contractor and the information he/she has provided. Call the contractor’s insurance company to confirm that the insurance has not lapsed. Call the state licensing board to ensure the license is effective and that it has never been revoked for any reason. Check with the Better Business Bureau to ensure there have been no complaints against the contractor.

Finally, trust your instincts. If there is something about a contractor that doesn’t sound right or feel right, if something in the contractor’s behavior while in your home doesn’t feel professional, or if you just don’t trust one of the contractors who provided an estimate, don’t hire that contractor.

Now, make your final evaluation of all the information you have gathered. If the contractors are all reputable and they are proposing to complete the job in essentially the same way with the same quality of materials, their bids should be relatively close in price. If they are not, you need to ask yourself why one of the bids is significantly higher or lower than the others.

Once you have made your decision, notify the contractors you did not select for the job. Call and award the job to the contractor you have selected and request a written contract that specifies all of the details that made you select him/her, such as higher quality materials, better guarantee on the work, etc. Establish a start date for the project and an expected completion date. These dates should be included in the contract.

Remember this warning signs of disreputable contractors:

  • They do not provide contracts for the work
  • They do not guarantee the price of the job
  • They give no definite date to begin or end the job
  • They ask for money in advance of doing the job
  • They are uncertain of how long it will take to complete the work
  • They have no license or insurance
  • They contact you first

Asking the right questions, checking facts, comparing estimates, and feeling comfortable with the contractor, should make your remodel or repair a safe and pleasant experience.