A successful home renovation is a contingent upon many factors, but none is more important than finding a reliable contractor. The person you hire should be able to do a stellar job without running way over your budget or delaying the project. So what’s the best way to locate someone to tackle your remodel the right way? We went straight to the source(s) and spoke with contractors, builders, and other real estate pros to get their unbiased opinion on how to find a contractor that’s perfect for you. Here are some basic steps they recommend for all homeowners.
Step No. 1: Get a referral from people (and websites) you trust
It’s not uncommon to ask a friend or relative for the name of a good contractor, but you should also look to a trusted professional for their honest referral. “If your real estate agent, attorney, or CPA recommends a contractor to you, they’re putting their own reputation on the line,” says Jesse Johnston of Philadelphia-based HOW Properties. Home improvement listing sites such as Houzz and Angie’s List are also great places to look for unvarnished reviews and ratings from a large pool of people. Be sure to look at photos of contractors’ work to see if their aesthetic falls in line with yours.
Step No. 2: Make sure your contractor has solid credentials
This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t even check to see if their contractor has a license. (For the record, a contractor without a license should be a big, waving a red flag.) “Licensed contractors pay into a state fund that reimburses homeowners if the contractor does not complete the job in a satisfactory manner,” says Morris Katz, owner of Katz Contracting.
Homeowners also need to do a serious background check on potential contractors, says Jody Costello, founder of ContractorsFromHell.com. Search any mechanic’s liens, which are legal claims filed by subcontractors who haven’t been paid, and do a credit check with suppliers. Finally, don’t neglect a thorough search of complaint history, which can be found online with a simple Google search of the company and owner’s name. Costello notes that many homeowners take this step late in the process, and wind up unearthing the history that would have made them think twice about hiring their contractor in the first place. Other online databases to check include the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and trade associations, as membership in these organizations typically indicates a legitimate, reputable business. Make sure they have proper insurance, including workers’ comp, which Johnston says is a sign that they’re established. Finally, check how long the contractor has been in business. “The longer a company has been in operation, the more likely they are to stick around and be there if you need any warranty work performed,” says Katz. He notes that it is not uncommon for many contractors to go out of business in the first few years because they don’t understand the costs involved. An actual brick-and-mortar location, rather than working out of the back of a truck, is a good indicator of longevity.
Step No. 3: Look for a transparent bidding process
The bidding and contract process can be sticky, but it also provides a window into how a contractor conducts business. Your contractor should be comfortable providing a written, detailed bid. Prevent time and cost overruns by specifying deadlines and stipulating every aspect of the project you want the contractor to handle, says Jeremiah Rizzo, founder of Construct-Ed, which runs online construction courses. You can also tie payment schedules to the deadlines to motivate the contractor to keep the project on time. Make sure you obtain multiple bids from different contractors that are true apples-to-apples comparisons of materials and scope, Rizzo advises.
The bidding process should also include details on necessary building permits. “You want a building inspector to ensure that the job is done properly and to code. Otherwise, you could get into trouble when it comes time to sell or refinance the home,” Katz warns. Finally, find out what the warranty entails. “If a company refuses to stand by its work once the bill is paid, that should be cause for hesitation on your part,” says Mark Scott, president, and owner of Washington, DC–based MARK IV Builders.
Step No. 4: Find someone who works well with you
References, credentials, and contracts are key. But equally important is gauging your potential contractor’s personality and communication style. This person is going to be spending a lot of time in your house, so you need to find someone you get along with. “There are plenty of talented craftsmen out there, but not everyone is a good fit,” says Scott, who recommends meeting your potential contractors in person. “Home remodeling can get stressful at times, so if you don’t have a good rapport, it may not be a pleasant experience.” Don’t be afraid to ask them hard questions, says Rizzo. His favorite? “We’re considering three other contractors; what would you say sets you apart?” “Let them have a chance to articulate what services they pride themselves on,” he says.