Hiring a contractor is no easy task. Today, contractors are busy, there is a shortage of materials, and a shortage of labor just to mention a few issues facing a homeowner ready to hire a contractor for a renovation or major repair. But you are investing a substantial amount of money in your home, and you want the job done correctly, on budget, and on time.
A reputable contractor will understand how important your home and renovations are to you. They will know you have a lot of questions and want to be able to trust the company working on your most valuable asset. If they cannot or will not answer your questions, they are not the contractor for you – move on to another!
1. Ask for references. Yep, word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family are always a good idea and when hiring a contractor, you want opinions from people that you already trust. A good question to ask others is what questions they forgot to ask in the beginning. Also, take this a step further by talking with neighbors that you may not know but have recently hired a contractor for a significant project. General contracting work is done at the local level with local labor and mostly locally purchased materials. Local contractors need to be familiar with local building codes and should be close by if an emergency comes up.
With recommendations in hand, check references, online reviews, and BBB ratings. Ratings don’t have to be perfect, but the vast majority should be top tier. If there are enough ratings, you can expect a few lower ratings from people that can never be satisfied. Once you have a shortlist, make phone calls before scheduling face-to-face meetings for estimates. You want to ask questions about other projects they have done like yours and the size of those projects. You may want to ask if they can provide financial references for suppliers and banks that back their work. It’s also a good time to ask how busy they are and if they can adequately add your project to their workload. This is an appropriate time to ask them to send pictures of work they have done like yours. You can also ask how long they have been working with their subcontractors.
Next, meet face-to-face. Pick three or four contractors to meet for estimates and further discussion. A contractor should be able to answer your questions satisfactorily and in a manner that makes you comfortable working with them.
2. Expect timeliness. Not showing up when expected and not completing projects on time are near the top of the complaint list for contractors. This begins with a face-to-face meeting. If they don’t show up or call ahead of time with a legitimate excuse for rescheduling, don’t give them a second chance. If they show up more than 10 minutes late, they better have an incredibly good reason. If you let timeliness slide from the beginning, you can expect it while they are working on your project, and it will become worse the more you allow it to go on.
When you meet, take notice of their appearance. If the person you are meeting is also a worker, you can expect them to be in work clothes and to be a little dirty. But did they take the time to clean up a little or are their hands unwashed and their feet dragging debris into your home? The vehicle they drive is also a good hint about their organization and attention to detail. If it is full of trash, fast-food containers, and has paperwork scattered everywhere, you can expect the same when they are working on your home. Take your time to thoroughly vet each contractor during the interview process before deciding or signing any paperwork.
3. Be prepared with a fully defined project. It may take a meeting or two to discuss the design and scope of the project but don’t formally hire a contractor until the project is fully defined. If he or she needs to check on the availability of a particular material or the schedule of a contractor, let them do that before you commit. If you are thinking that if everything goes well with the kitchen remodel, you’ll follow up with a master bath remodel, it’s fine to discuss this with the contractor but make it clear that the second project will be a new project with a separate contract after the first is satisfactorily completed. You may need to make some minor changes after the project is started but the better it is defined in the beginning, the better your working relationship will be with the contractor.
4. Know who any subcontractors will be. It is good when the contractor has all the skills needed for the entire project on his/her team. This gives them the most control over the budget and timeline. If there will be subcontractors, you want to know who they are, that they are licensed, and that they are insured. Also, insist that the contractor obtain and provide you with lien releases from all subcontractors and suppliers. Lien releases protect you if they don’t pay their bills.
5. Ask about other projects they are currently working on. This is going to be relevant to the size of the company, but you want to have this discussion. After you have a feel for how much work they can handle simultaneously, ask the specific questions “How will you handle my job at the same time as these other jobs?” Schedule delays add to your costs and inconvenience. Even if it is just having to eat out for every meal while your kitchen is torn apart.
6. Take the time to review the contract. Don’t ever start a project or make a payment without a written and signed contract. Many small contractors don’t want to bother with contracts. These are often the same contractors that don’t bother with being licensed, bonded, or pulling permits. And don’t just sign whatever the contractor puts in front of you. Expect to go through a couple of drafts for a large project. If the contractor writes the contract, you should assume it mostly protects his/her interests. Read and understand those parts carefully. Everything in a contract is important. It needs to cover materials, schedules, quality, warranties, etc. Penalties and pay schedules need to be clear and easy to understand. If appropriate, have it reviewed by your attorney.
7. Verify proper licensing. Get any applicable license numbers. Most can be verified online with the issuing government agency. If they are not licensed, they will not be allowed to pull permits at most locations. But that is just the start of potential problems. Without a license, they aren’t necessarily up to speed with local building codes and the work will not pass inspection (even if you pull the permits). Ultimately, you will pay for any repairs needed to meet the code.
8. Use proven payment practices. You never pay the full price upfront. Once the contract is signed and work is ready to begin, paying about a third of the estimated costs is good practice. All checks should be written to a company name and not to an individual. In some cases, when specialty materials are being ordered, it might be necessary to pay for these when the contract is signed. After the first payment is made, there should be a clear schedule for any milestone payments. Intermittent milestones should be clear in the contract. For instance, a second payment is due after demolition and the new kitchen floor has been installed but before plumbing begins. Final payment is only made after you are satisfied, and all inspections have passed.
9. Have unique questions about what is important to you. Your specific project and expectations should create unique questions that you want answered before signing the contract. You may want details about how the work site will be cleaned at the end of each day and the end of the project. You may want to know what days specific subcontractors will be in your home. You may want to know that background checks have been done on everyone that comes to your home. You may want to know who will have keys to your home. If you didn’t specify certain materials, you may want to know what will be used as industry standards. You may want to set certain boundaries to where they can go inside your house.
10. How will communication happen before, during, and after the project? Do you want a daily or weekly written report? Or will occasional verbal updates be enough? Do you want 24-hour notice and the names of any subcontractors that will be there? How often do you want to inspect the work and progress? How will any work order change or unsatisfactory work be communicated? Expecting the unexpected should be part of any home remodel. You want to know who and how these will be communicated throughout the project.
What tips would you add to the list? Please share by leaving a comment.
Also, our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions, inquiries, or article ideas to [email protected].