How to Choose a Contractor

If you read nothing else, make sure to read this post on how to best choose the professional to work on your home.

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Choosing a Contractor

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Choose A Contractor

We all occasionally get in over our heads with a project. You thought that you could replace the tub yourself or you thought that the deck would be easy to build. After all, how hard could it be to order lumber?  Well, for those times when you don’t have the time or knowledge to do the project yourself, you need to choose a contractor or choose a handyman to help do it for you. There are a lot of things to consider when you choose a contractor though.

Before we go any further, I do want to make something clear. I have met great contractors and great handymen. I’ve also met contractors who didn’t seem to know more than a handyman on a certain project. Be aware that the name “contractor” doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual is more qualified to do a job. 

It all depends on what experience the person has. Don’t be afraid to hire somebody without their CCB license, frequently they are just retired contractors who didn’t want to take the tests or pay the fee anymore. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to refer to them both as contractors for this article.

This article may contain affiliate links.  They don’t cost you anything but they help to support me giving you great content.  Check out our disclaimer page to learn more.

Choose A Contractor For Their Personality

Communication With You

Let’s be honest here, the most important aspect of choosing a contractor is their relationship with you. You are the customer and you have to deal with them throughout your entire project. Not only that, but can you name the last home improvement project that you weren’t stressed about? Probably not. That means that you need to choose a contractor that can deal with not only your project, but you. There are a few key factors to making sure you have a good relationship.

Promptness

Choose A Contractor Who Is Prompt

Time and again, promptness is one of the most important factors in a relationship with a contractor. If they say that they need to meet you at the job site at 10 am, they need to be there at that time. After all, you hired the contractor because you were already busy. You don’t have time to wait at the job site forever waiting for them. Repay that promptness on their part by being prompt on your side of things. Nothing annoys a contractor more than a homeowner who makes them wait 20 minutes to discuss materials.

The other important aspect of being prompt when discussing contractor and homeowner relations is when you can expect work to be done. Nobody wants to live in a construction zone for longer than they have to. You need to be able to trust your contractor to complete the work by a certain time. If you choose a contractor that consistently misses deadlines, you will live to regret it, I promise you.

Availability

A contractor working for you should also be available to answer any questions that you have. I got my roof replaced recently and I found it incredibly comforting to know that I could call my contractor anytime with any question. For example, I came home one day and had a question about the vents that were being installed on my roof. I called to ask and he said he would be there in five minutes. After looking at it, he told me they chose the vents they did because I was missing other crucial vents and it was the best choice for the roof.

My contractor was incredibly available. Don’t expect to find a contractor that can just come by your job site in five minutes. But they should be able to talk to you on the phone at any point, at least during normal business hours. If you call outside of normal business hours, you’re just being unreasonable. They’re people too.

Openness

A contractor is no good for you if you don’t feel like you can ask them anything. Please don’t misunderstand. Don’t hang around the job site and ask every question about what they’re using and how they use it unless the contractor has said that’s okay with them. However, you should choose a contractor that can answer a few questions that you do have. If you are looking for a recommendation on what product to choose, they should have input and answers. If you are looking for an update, you shouldn’t feel like a hassle by asking them.

Communication With Their Team And The Neighbors

Choose A Contractor Who Communicates

Communication with you is vital to a good remodel or renovation project. However, how a contractor talks to their team can also change your view of the remodel. There’s nothing more awkward than watching a contractor chew out their subcontractors or journeymen and then try to be nice to you. Not only that but the contractor is the point of communication with many of your neighbors as well.

Communicate Your Wishes

A good general contractor should be able to effectively communicate your wishes to the people working for him. For larger remodels, the general contractor will not be able to do all the work and will frequently hire subcontractors or learning journeymen and apprentices to work with him. If you want an outlet in a specific spot in the kitchen, your contractor needs to tell that to his subordinates.

Good Working Relationship

It is important for a contractor to have a good working relationship with the people under him in order to protect you. The work being done on your home is being done under the license and direction of your general contractor so it’s their license at stake. If you choose a contractor at odds with his people, they may do sub-par work to make that contractor reflect poorly. Not only that, but I’ve talked to numerous homeowners and general contractors that had a subcontractor leave in the middle of a job if they weren’t happy. That can set your timeline back and delay the completion of your project.

Communication With Neighbors

I know it doesn’t sound like a major thing, but your contractor’s ability to communicate with your neighbors is vital over the course of a project. If your neighbor’s parking will be taking up by a dumpster or trucks, it is polite to tell them. I talk about communication with your neighbors in depth in this article. Please check it out before starting a big job on your property because it will save you a lot of heartache.

Choose A Contractor For Their Abilities

You know how you are able to bake a great cake but your best friend can’t bake to save her life? She makes the best fried chicken though, which you can’t do. It’s the same with contractors. You need to make sure that your contractor has the right skills and abilities to do the work that you want. But how do you know if they do? Ask them! Ask their references!

What Type Of Projects Does The Contractor Normally Do?

Different Contractors

I completely understand your confusion. Why can’t a contractor do anything related to construction? Just like the rest of us, contractors tend to specialize in one type of project or another. You don’t really want to have a guy who is really great at roofing working on your drywall. Choose a contractor who is familiar with your type of project. The best way to do this is to search for them specifically.

For example, if you need a roof replaced, do a search for a “roofing contractor.” If a contractor doesn’t specify a certain type of project, don’t be afraid to ask what their experience level is with your type of project. If they don’t have a lot of experience but you know them from past jobs, you can still have them do the work if they are comfortable with it. Usually, they are going to do a good job or they’ll tell you to find someone else if you have already developed a relationship with them.

Have Customers Liked The Contractor's Work In The Past?

Reviews of these professionals are invaluable. There are several review sites, such as Angie’s List, that you can go to that can provide you reviews of contractors for a price. However, I have found every contractor I’ve dealt with by reading the reviews on google and I’ve had great luck. It’s easy and it’s free. If a contractor does work in several areas, try to find reviews of their jobs in your specific project.

Another great source of reviews is simply word of mouth from friends. I found somebody to trim my trees once because I saw their truck in my neighbor’s driveway. They did an excellent job and I’ve referred more business to them since. I’ve never had an issue with a contractor someone else recommended. You can also ask the contractor if they have any referrals. Most of them will be happy to give you people you can check with about the work the person does.

Choose A Contractor For Assurance

You are hiring a contractor because you may not be sure what you are doing. Now is a good time to find out that contractors are required to have a license in order to operate. The license requirement varies by state but you can find each state’s requirements at Home Advisor.  It is important again to note that handymen are not legally required to have a license but I’ve met several that do great work. It costs money to get and renew a contractor’s license and some people prefer not to go that route.

Licenses

Contractor's License

The main license of a contractor is their General Contractor License. This license may have different names depending on your location but it’s the same basic thing and it protects the homeowner in two ways. A contractor gets this license only after passing tests to make sure they are competent in construction techniques and code requirements.

The second protection the homeowner gets is the ability to track the record of the contractor. Any state will have the ability to look up a contractor’s license number to see if there are any complaints that have been filed against them. This record gives the homeowner somebody to report to if the contractor does sub-par work and prevents a contractor from taking advantage of multiple homeowners.

Choose A Contractor For Hazardous Materials

Hazardous Materials License

There are some specialty licenses that your contractor may need depending on your location and your job. Make sure that if you are going to have hazardous materials, you choose a contractor that is able to handle them.

Asbestos Abatement License

Is there anything worse than opening up your walls to find that you have asbestos insulation in them? It feels like the end of the world. Your contractor will need to be certified to remove the asbestos if this happens to you. This means that they are knowledgeable in the safety protocols of that removal.

Mold Abatement License

Yep, you found the one thing worse than finding asbestos. There’s something about mold on the walls which is just so much grosser than asbestos. If you have enough mold, your contractor may also require a special certification in order to handle it and get rid of it.

Lead Based Paint License

A specialty type of license that may be important to your situation is a lead based paint license. While this is becoming less and less common, there are still some homes with lead based paint in them. Lead abatement, like other hazardous materials will need a special license to deal with.

Home Energy Assessor

I know, this is under the hazardous materials section, but it is a specialty of some contractors. If you are looking to make your home more energy efficient it wouldn’t be a bad idea to choose a contractor who specializes in this area.

Insurance

A contractor’s insurance coverage is incredibly important to having a job go well. Any good contractor will be happy to present you with proof of coverage if you ask them to provide it so don’t hesitate.

Choose A Contractor With Insurance

General Liability

One of the most important insurance policies for a contractor to have is general liability coverage. If, for example, your contractor damages your neighbor’s window, are they covered for that? You need to make sure that any damage to property is covered under your contractor’s insurance policy. If it isn’t and you still want to hire that person, ask your homeowner’s insurance before you begin work what your policy will and won’t cover.

Worker's Compensation

I’m sure we’ve all hit ourselves with a hammer and thought our finger was broken. For those times that somebody working for your contractor actually breaks their finger, make sure to choose a contractor that has worker’s compensation, or workman’s comp, insurance. Otherwise you could end up paying the medical bills.

Asking Contractors For License And Insurance

Like I said already, any good contractor should be happy to provide you with proof on insurance. There’s no need to make it a big deal, just ask that the contractor provide that with their bid. If they seem averse to the idea of giving you that information, I would hesitate before hiring them.

Choose A Contractor For Their Bid

Alright, we’ve finally reached the meat of this meal: the money. Everybody loves to find out how much a project will cost but the nitty gritty of the payment details are rarely fun to sort out. This part is important though, so pay attention!

Overall Price

How Many Contractors Should Bid?

ALWAYS get at least three bids for every project. You can get more, but this tends to water things down and just add unnecessary confusion. Never get fewer than three though or else you won’t get a clear picture of what details to consider or what the job should cost. I’ve also used one bid to request that a contractor add an additional material or service to their bid.

Most professionals give free or very low cost estimates for projects. Some will come and take down information and then get back to you. Others will take a couple of days and send you a printed estimate. I’ve actually had a contractor or two come out to give me a free bid only to tell me they didn’t think they could do the job well enough and suggest another contractor or method.

What Should The Price Include?

Contractor Bids Should Include

The price of your home improvement project should include a few key things. Always choose a contractor that includes the price of clean up. I have learned that contractors actually clean up a job site fairly well and it means you don’t have to worry about fasteners and debris still in the area afterwards.

Also, if your work requires permits, the bid should include that as well. Make sure that the time to get the permits is accounted for, since it can take a long time, as well as the price of the building permits and inspections. You don’t want to pay $5,000 to have your home rewired only to be hit with additional charges for inspections and permits.

Bids should always clearly explain what the materials are and what the charges are for each. For example, when I got my roof redone, my initial bid showed the underlayment brand and type, the shingle brand and warranty, and the color of the vents. When I asked it to include a ridge vent, I got an updated bid that showed how much extra the ridge vent would cost and what its specifics were as well.

Payment Expectations

Payment is a sticky matter.  For starters, don’t pay the entire cost of the project up front.  Sometimes, if expensive materials are necessary, a contractor will require a portion of the payment up front.  Or they may ask that you pay in installments so that they don’t have to pay for the materials up front. For instance, if your kitchen remodel costs $20,000 you may be asked to pay each month with a portion of that or to pay for materials along the way.

For your protection, wait until the job is done to make full payment.  You should NEVER pay the whole amount for a job until the job is completely done and you are happy with the results. Let me repeat that slower for you just in case. When the job is completely done and the contract has been completed to your satisfaction, including the clean up, the materials, and the finishes, then you should finish making payment. If you don’t feel like the job is complete, don’t fully pay.

However, take a deep breath because this may hurt, if you are being unreasonably demanding (for those of you with white gloves next to the dust spec) or if you are requesting things outside of the contract that you signed with the contractor, you CANNOT withhold payment once the job is complete. If you do, that’s when a lien is placed on your property. Basically, it means that you didn’t pay for work done and, depending on where you live, you cannot ever sell the property. This protects the contractor from lack of payment.

Do They Accept Payment Plans?

If you don’t think that you can make payment for your work in one lump sum, it is important that you are upfront with your contractor. If this is the case, make sure the choose a contractor that accepts payment plans. Most of them, if you are up front from the beginning, are willing to work with you on expensive projects. If they say that they cannot accept a payment plan though, and you cannot pay in one lump sum, I wouldn’t recommend continuing the relationship. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Should You Pay The Full Cost Up Front?

I know we went over this already but it’s important. NEVER pay for the full cost of the contracting work up front. This opens you to being taken advantage of. Again…NEVER pay the full price of your work up front. Have I nailed this into your brain enough?

Final Thoughts

When you choose a contractor to do work on your home, make sure that you find someone who can not only do the work required but also works with you personally and financially. All of these factors are important for having a good relationship with your contractor and a good overall satisfaction with how things went.

Always look for reviews and costs from several sources.  Ask your friends and look online to see what reviews your professional has received.  Don’t be afraid to ask too many questions when you are meeting with the contractor to go over your project.  You are the customer and it is your home that is involved so you can never over-communicate.

Make sure that you can contact your contractor or get information from them at any time. Remember though, contractors are humans too. They should be professional but don’t expect everything to go perfectly. They are at the mercy of the home improvement store and the supplies they can get. If they experience delays you will too. If you communicate well and they communicate well, you will never have an easier home improvement project.

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Head Homeowner

Hey everybody! I'm Sydney, the head homeowner here. Let me know if you have any questions you didn't find the answer to. Tell me what projects you're working on. I love to hear from all my readers.

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