FAQ for Finding and Hiring a Good Contractor

My in-laws recently asked me to help them help pick a good contractor for some major repairs on their home in Florida. This was an interesting experience, especially because they have had a bad experience with a contractor  in the area before. Although contractors in the Northeast tend to be more reliable, I thought it would be helpful to write up some tips about how to find, hire, and work with a good contractor. The answers to the frequently asked questions below are not meant to “toot my own horn” too loudly. Instead, I hope you’ll find that they contain objective advice to help you have the most positive contractor experience possible on your next home improvement project.

1. “Where, oh where, do I find a contractor?”

  • The best place to start is with friends, family, and neighbors who have had successful projects.  Who did they work with, and why?
  • You can get referrals from your local chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) or National Home Builders Association (NAHB).  Also, you can ask your town’s building department for a list of contractors working in the area and the specific types of projects they do.
  • Research each contractor before you contact them.  Check if they have a website.  It should show a portfolio of previous work, and the overall quality of the website is often a good indication of how the contractor works.

2. Is the contractor a good fit?

  • Does the contractor do what you need done?  Do they have experience managing a project your size (big or small)?
  • Does their schedule fit your needs?  Do you need the project done by a certain date (wedding, bar mitzvah, child birth, etc.), and can they accommodate that?  Plan ahead so you have more choices and won’t be forced to work with someone just because everyone else is booked.
  • How many projects do they typically work on at one time?  Do they have a large enough crew and good project management skills so your job won’t be left idle and unfinished?  Of course, small periods of dormancy are inevitable, but they will be worse if the contractor is overextended.

3. How can I check out a contractor more thoroughly?

  • Check out what customers are saying on the contractor’s website.  While they won’t post a bad review of their own work, you can get a sense of what the contractor feels is important to be said about them.
  • Ask the contractor to put you in contact with some past or current clients. As long as you’re serious about doing a project, they shouldn’t mind. Ask the clients about their experience with the contractor? Does he communicate well, and does he show up on time? Is his crew happy and professional?
  • Ask about the subcontractors (“subs”) that worked on the project. As you might imagine, subs can make or break a job. It’s a good sign if a contractor uses the same subs for each project; it means they have a good, trusting relationship based on quality work, staying on schedule and on budget, and professionalism.
  • You can even go so far as to visit a jobsite. Of course, ask the homeowner’s permission first. Then take a look around: is the job neat, organized, and safe? Is the contractor respecting the homeowners and their neighbors?
  • Call your local Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency and check for complaints.

4. What should a contractor look for when they visit my home?

  • Unless the project is totally indoors, the contractor should see your home in the daylight.
  • The contractor should look around your whole house to get a sense of how it’s built. They should also check out your heating, plumbing, and electrical panel to make sure the current systems can accommodate your new project, or whether it might be time to expand or upgrade to higher efficiency systems.
  • Make sure they make a good impression and you get along well.

5. How many contractors should I look at?

  • Even if you’re pretty sure on a certain contractor, it’s a good idea to get another opinion for a fresh perspective or a different approach. Check out at least three, but more than five may be a waste of yours and their time.
  • Make sure you give each contractor the same plans and specify what level of quality you’re expecting for appliances, materials, and fixtures. Better yet, the contractor should ask you for those plans and expectations.  Keep in mind that better materials are a little more expensive, but they make a big difference in the project.  Also, ask each contractor to itemize their estimate by category (framing, trim, windows, tile, etc.) so you can compare fairly side-by-side.
  • It’s okay to ask one contractor about another contractor’s idea or approach.

6. What are some other things I should watch out for?

  • Licensing: a contractor should have a current Home Improvement Contractors (HIC) license. In MA, you can check for this online at www.mass.gov/homeimprovement. If the job requires a building permit, the contractor also needs a current Supervisor’s License.
  • Insurance: A contractor must have workman’s compensation insurance for anyone working on the site (unless a sub provides their own).  Although it’s not required in MA, a contractor should also carry liability insurance.  This will protect you from any accidents or damages that could happen on site.  Don’t work with a contractor who doesn’t have insurance (you can ask to see current certificates) and consider stipulating that in the contract.
  • Permits: A contractor should not ask you to pull your own building permit or, even worse, work without one. Both of these can be immediate signs to walk away.

7. What do I make of these estimates?

  • If you haven’t decided on all the exact details of the project yet, the contractor may present a range budget instead of a tight estimate.  This is usually a more honest and open-minded approach.
  • We wary of excessively high or low bids.  A contractor with a “low ball” bid may not have considered the job in detail or might not have experience with your type of project.  (The same can be true with a bid that is too high.)  They might try to make up the difference with change orders.
  • A good contractor doesn’t necessarily have x-ray vision, but should expect certain snags along the way and accommodate for them in the budget.
  • Don’t ask the contractor what their expected profit is.  It won’t really help you compare bids because each may define profit differently.  Plus, you don’t ask your doctor that question, do you?
  • Once you’ve compared the bids fairly and decided on a contractor, who you’d like to work with, ask them to prepare a contract.

8. What should be in the contract?

  • Once you decide on a contractor, they may ask for a retaining or design contract first.  From the contractor’s point of view, this makes sure you’re serious about doing the project and the huge amount of work they have already done and are about to do to prepare everything won’t be a waste of time.  You should ask how long it will be before you will see the actual contract.
  • In MA, all contracts over $1,000 must be in writing.
  • The contract should at least include the following:
    • A description of the job to be done and the materials and finishes to be used.  On a larger project, a separate specifications document will help clearly break out the different phases of the job.  This very important to ensure you get what you were expecting.
    • How much the job will cost, including a payment schedule.  Expect a deposit or first payment when you sign, and then further payments at certain project milestones (i.e.: finishing the foundation, installing cabinets). (Be wary of a deposit much higher than 10%.  If the contractor has to order specialty items before they can start that can be added, but should be noted.  The contract may ask for a large amount when work begins; this is normal, as at this point there will be a lot of out-of-pocket expenses.  Don’t expect your contractor to be “the bank.”)
    • When the job will start and how long it will take (barring delays such as weather or add-ons).
    • Communication expectations and the frequency of contractor-client meetings.  You should meet at least once a week (Monday morning is usually good), but every day is probably too much.
    • A description of both the contractor’s and your responsibilities.  (Moving furniture? Protecting the garden? Locking up at night?).  Your responsibilities might include things like moving your car out of the driveway, making room in your basement for subcontractors to work, or shoveling snow and ice off the walk.
    • A complete set of plans, including drawings or photos of important details.
    • A warrantee on the work, describing what’s covered and for how long.  It should also specify whether the contractor is just supplying labor to fix an issue or materials, also.  Don’t push your contractor to install something they are not comfortable warrantying, such as delicate tile in an entryway or a countertop that won’t stand up to your kids—there’s a good reason for it.  The contractor should also warrantee the subcontractors’ craftsmanship.  The bottom line is, if they don’t stand behind their work, don’t use them.
    • Insurance certifications should be attached to the contract.  You can also ask for a performance bond to guarantee the job will be completed if, for some reason, the contractor can’t finish.  Expect to pay extra for it, but if the project is large enough it may be a good idea.
    • It may be a good idea to have your lawyer review the contract.  There are even lawyers who specialize in the construction industry.
    • Your contract should specify that a change order or additional work order be produced for any extras or unexpected findings.  While there should be an allowance for “uh-ohs,” don’t expect the contractor to know that there had previously been a fire in the home or that someone’s uncle did his own electrical work and left a bunch of wires in the wall.  Bug damage and hidden structural issues are also acceptable change order items.  Keep in mind that if the contractor feels that additional work (“while you’re here”-type items) will make him late for his next booking, they may charge you for overtime or rushing materials.

9. What can I do to help the project run smoothly?

  • The contractor’s job is to make you happy, but it’s a two-way street.  Cool drinks or coffee can go a long way.  If the crew knows you care about them, they’ll return the favor.
  • Your kids and pets may be cute, but they can be a distraction and a safety risk.  We don’t like stepping in poo, getting barked at all day, or being bitten.  And while we love that your children are interested in what we’re doing, they should not be on the jobsite unescorted or play with tools.
  • Ask questions!  If you don’t understand a process or some terminology, ask.  We’re happy to explain it.

The contractor should understand that this project may be a huge monetary outlay for you, not to mention a disruption to your lifestyle and home.  They should be courteous and respectful.  A good contractor knows that a happy client is good for everyone.  If you follow the advice above, you should have a great building experience!