The Contractor Factor

Tips for hiring reliable home-improvement professionals

"A good contractor is hard to find." I've operated a Homeowner Referral Network (HRN) business for nine years, and that is the number one complaint I hear from homeowners nationwide. Believe it or not, reliable contractors do exist -- it's simply a matter of knowing where to find them and, more importantly, how to screen them.

Whether you're planning a large home-improvement project or small repairs around your home, these strategies will help you find a contractor you can trust.

Getting the Best Recommendations

When looking for a contractor, many homeowners ask their friends and family for recommendations. But no two home-improvement projects are alike, and your friend's contractor may not have the skills necessary to tackle your job. Tradespeople (painters, plumbers, carpenters) deal with contractors repeatedly, over a long period of time and on a variety of projects. They are, therefore, in a better position to offer a contractor referral. And if a recommended contractor tells you that he's too busy to take your job, ask him to refer you to a colleague who may be suitable.

Screening Potential Candidates

Don't take the contractor's word about his work '- ask for the names and phone numbers of three to five customers who've had similar work completed by him in the past two years. Asking for specific references makes it more difficult for a contractor to handpick only his best clients. Call each reference and ask the following questions:

  • What did you like and dislike about the contractor?
  • Did the final cost of the job exceed his estimate? (See warning under Getting the Details in Writing)
  • Did he complete the work in a neat and timely fashion?
  • Would you hire him again for another home-improvement project


Checking Credentials

Before checking to see if the contractor you'd like to hire is adequately insured and licensed, you'll need to contact your county offices to research what credentials are required for home-improvement contractors in your state and in your county. I also recommend that the contractor you hire have a minimum of $1 million in general liability insurance. Be sure to get a copy of his license and insurance for your records.

Finding the Perfect Match

Are you the type of person who likes to be involved in every decision, or do you prefer to leave your job "to the experts"? Believe it or not, your contractor's personality can make or break the success of your project. Some contractors prefer not to be micromanaged, and others want the homeowner's input on every aspect of the job. Be up front about how involved you'd like to be in the renovation process. And ask your contractor to tell you how comfortable he is with customer involvement. If your approaches aren't compatible, it's a good sign that he might not be the right person for the job.

Getting the Details in Writing

In addition to getting a written cost estimate for the job, ask the contractor to document details about the type of materials he plans to use as well as his anticipated start date, project schedule and completion date.

Once you've signed a contract, most contractors will request a 10 to 30 percent down payment. The remaining balance should be paid in increments throughout the remodeling. Be sure to hold onto the remaining 10 percent balance until the final details of the project are completed to your satisfaction.

Two good reasons to nix a contractor: He is hesitant to put the details of your job in writing, or he warns you that the cost of the job could exceed his estimate. There's always the potential for unexpected surprises in general contracting projects, and it's good to allow for at least a 10 percent cushion before beginning any project. If the expense surpasses the original estimate, ask the contractor to provide you with documentation that justifies the additional material and labor costs.

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