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How to Hire the Right Contractor

Hiring a contractor to tackle your upcoming home project is no small undertaking. Whether it’s a maintenance task or a small repair, a renovation project, remodel, new construction, or specialty work like plumbing or drywall, it’s important to find a good contractor who you trust in your home.

Get Recommendations

The best place to start on your hunt for a contractor is with your own friends and family. Ask for their experience working with different contractors around your area. Chances are they will give you some good leads to get you started. Check out Nextdoor, too! Nextdoor is an incredibly handy app for homeowners that allows you to connect with your neighbors. You’ll be able to find reviews, good and bad, and recommendations concerning contractors for a huge range of projects. And you can, of course, check in with NARI (the National Association of the Remodeling Industry), which will provide you with a vetted list of members located in your area.

Hire Local, Licensed Contractors Whenever Possible

Working with a local contractor comes with a couple of benefits. First of all, if a problem occurs later on down the line, they will be nearby and much easier to contact. They are also more likely to be well-versed in the building challenges of your area. Be suspicious of anyone who goes door-to-door or refuses to leave a contract overnight especially following a storm.

Ellen finds that good contractors typically will have vehicles and uniforms with their company logo on them who present themselves professionally. Thorough branding is evidence of a trusted and legitimate company.

Quick note: Be mindful of how “big” the contractor you are hiring is. A smaller contractor will most likely be completing all the work themselves while a general contractor, which most will hire for larger jobs, will be coordinating multiple subcontractors to complete your project. For a smaller project you won’t need a general contractor, for a bigger project, you do and they will put together a detailed quote.

Check Their Past Work

Take some time to review work completed by the contractors you are considering. How has their work turned out in the past? Ellen recommends asking the contractors directly for references. Make sure the references they provide you are recent jobs, not ones from years ago. Check with their references about the products they used, the workmanship, and the quality of their customer service. Ask them about the contractor’s job site cleanliness. Ellen says that job sites should be tidied up and swept at the end of each day.

How Long Should My List Be?

Many will recommend speaking with 3 different contractors, but Ellen suggests not sticking to such a stringent number. Keep your list long and as you go through the vetting process it will begin to shrink. Essentially, you are searching for a contractor that you trust, and can work with on a daily basis so don’t limit yourself to only a few options.

Phone Interviews

Once you have your list of possible contractors, it’s time to chat with them! Ellen recommends calling each one of your prospects and going through these questions with them:

  1. Do they take on projects of your size?
  2. Can they give you references from recently completed projects?
  3. How many other projects would they have going at the same time?
  4. How long have they worked with their subcontractors?

These questions will help reveal more details about the contractor, such as their availability, reliability, and quality of communication. This is the beginning of establishing clear intentions with your contractor. This goes along with Ellen’s biggest piece of advice for homeowners hiring contractors:

“The key to a successful project is clear EXPECTATIONS about COMMUNICATION, response time and medium (text, calls or emails).”

Meet Face-to-Face

Based on your phone interviews, decide which contractors you can see yourself working with and set up a time to meet with them. You’ll be able to ask them more questions and better gauge their responses. Make sure they give you satisfactory answers in a manner that puts you at ease. Remember, this person is going to spend a lot of time in your home! Like Ellen says, you are looking for a contractor that you can trust.

“Throughout the entire process, always ask questions about anything you are even slightly unfamiliar with. This will help keep expectations and communication as clear as possible!”

Take Your Time Making a Sound Decision

Don’t be pressured into making an immediate decision, particularly with regard to signing a contract. Be cautious when asked to pay a large deposit upfront. Read all of the fine print on every single estimate and contract. If you’re having emergency repairs done and don’t have time to thoroughly research a contractor, it’s essential to work with someone who has provided good work for a friend or family member who needed the same emergency service, or call Ellen first!

Check Their Insurance

You must make sure the contractor is properly insured! Ask the contractor for a certificate of insurance (COI), it should come from the insurance company and have them listed as the certificate holder, policy number, and policy limits the contractor carries with your name as the location of the job. Do not do business with a contractor who does not carry the appropriate insurance coverage! If the contractor is not insured, you may be liable for accidents that occur on your property.

Put It In Writing!

For larger projects make sure to draw up a contract that details every step of the project: payment schedule; proof of liability insurance and worker’s compensation insurance; a start date and projected completion date; specific materials and products to be used; and a requirement that the contractor obtains lien releases (which protect you if he doesn’t pay his bills) from all subcontractors and suppliers. Don’t worry, it’s not rude to require all of these terms in your contract. Insisting on a clear contract isn’t about mistrust, it’s about ensuring a successful renovation!

Finally, remember that as soon as a change is made or a problem is uncovered, the price is going to increase or decrease and the completion date pushed back. The four most expensive words in the English language? “While you’re at it…”

Get everything in writing, and make sure the contract is clear and well-written. The contract should include the following:

  • A detailed description of the work to be completed and the price of each item.
  • A solid payment schedule – for example: one-half down and one-third when the work is partially completed, and the balance due upon completion of repairs.
  • The estimated start date and completion date on large projects.
  • Any applicable warranties should be written into the contract and clearly state what is guaranteed, who is responsible for the guarantee, and how long the guarantee is valid.
  • Signatures from both parties. You should never sign a contract containing blank sections.

While drawing up your contract, Ellen recommends having a direct conversation with your contractor about how you will communicate. Both you and the contractor need to have a clear understanding of what it will look it. Establish who will be the point person on both sides and discuss how returning calls and texts will go. Also, go ahead and discuss things like parking, noise levels, and bathroom usage.

Keep a Job File

Keep your contract and all supporting documents in one folder. Your file should contain any change orders (with any pricing modifications noted), plans, specifications, bills, invoices, canceled checks, certificates of insurance, and any correspondence with the contractor.

Don’t Pay Up-Front

Another important tip for hiring a contractor is to work out a payment schedule ahead of time. Payment schedules can speak to a contractor’s financial status and work ethic. If they want half the payment up front, they may have financial problems or be worried that you won’t pay the rest after you’ve seen the work. For large projects, a schedule will typically start with 10% at the time of signing the contract, three payments of 25% evenly spaced over the duration of the project, and a check for the final 15% when you feel every item on the punch list has been completed.

Don’t pay for the entire project before it is completed. Make your payment checks out to a company, not an individual, and do not pay in cash. Retain your cashed check as a receipt.

Don’t Let Price Be Your Guide

Don’t be tempted by a lowball bid, this contractor is probably cutting corners or, worse, desperate for work. Once again, Ellen reiterates that this is more than just a decision based on technical competence, comfort plays an equal or greater role. And remember that communication is key. All things considered, it’s better to spend more money and get someone you’re comfortable with when hiring a contractor.

Foster a Healthy Working Relationship

And remember, the contractor, as well as their employees and subcontractors, are going to be working around your home, so treat them nicely! They’re doing work for you in your home so be understanding with inevitable delays, which are many times caused by circumstances they cannot control like weather or supply chain issues, and be realistic with them in regards to the timeline.

Don’t jump to conclusions throughout the process! Ellen says:

“If it looks unfinished, it most likely is! Perhaps you see that only one coat of paint has been applied and it looks like they are finished painting, don’t start rage-taping yet! Speak with your contractor about your concerns and keep in mind that they may have been delayed in finishing the part you think is incomplete.”

Acknowledge your contractor’s hard work! Ellen always goes out of her way to provide food for contractors working around her home a couple of times a week. Ordering some subs or pizzas is an easy way to show the people working around your home that you appreciate them! She also recommends appropriate tipping them when the project is complete. It’s the little things that will help your contractor put your job and small details first.

Still have questions about the contractor hiring process or looking for some recommendations? Call Ellen first – no matter the size of the project! With so many years in the industry working with old houses and new-builds alike Ellen most likely has just the guy for your job!