How to Hire the Right Contractor for the Job

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You Work for Me!
Finding a Contractor Who Gets the Job Done

Remodeling your house, whether you are replacing a countertop or adding another level, can be a nerve wracking experience. There are so many people to hire and details to plan that you can get overwhelmed. First, take a deep breath and remember that people have been remodeling their homes for a very long time. With a little patience, a lot of research and some advice that has worked for others, you can do this!

"Two years ago my boyfriend and I bought a house that we thought needed a little TLC," writes Lisa Tarlow, one of our contributing Janes." But soon that TLC became a house that needed to be completely gutted and redone up to code. Needless to say, it was an experience like none other. I've learned so much about home building but more importantly, I've learned about who I am as a person and what I'll accept in the rest of my life."

Home remodeling projects often start out as one job and wind up as something much more complicated, time-consuming and expensive—which was Lisa's experience. "Due to the fact that our house wasn't up to code, we basically tore our house apart and then needed to hire all types of different contractors," explains Lisa. "In the end we hired contractors for just about every part of the house: specializing in everything from structural supports and roofing, to electrical and even foundation work. Considering this, I would say my specialty now is hiring contractors!"

Your home is your most valuable asset and it is important to be cautious when hiring people to work on it. Although you never really know what to expect (do you really know what is living inside your walls?) it always pays to be prepared and take precautions. To help, here is a checklist for finding the right contractor and working with him or her to your advantage.

  1. Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. Never hire anyone who solicits work over the phone or door-to-door. Be wary of anyone who only accepts cash payments, pressures you for an immediate decision, suggests a financial lender he knows or asks you to pay for the entire job up front.
  2. Don't go by the ads you see in the Yellow Pages. The best contractors do not need to advertise. If you can't get a recommendation from a friend, check out Angie's List, an online collection of home owner's experiences (over 15,000 a month) with local service companies all over the country. Contractors cannot pay to get on Angie's List and any consumer complaints land them in the site's Penalty Box.
  3. If they're late, never hire them. If your contractor is late on his first appointment when he's trying to get the job, he'll never be on time once he has it. What's even worse, he might take your money and never show up at all!
  4. Ask a lot of questions. Don't be bashful! If you feel like you know something and you are getting the wool pulled over your eyes—don't just take it. Challenge them based on what you know. Don't be intimidated. "The first time I hired a contractor I wasn't sure if I'd asked the right questions or even if I'd hired the right person for the job," says Lisa. "If you feel that way, don't worry, it's perfectly normal. I think that comes from the fact they're the supposed 'expert' and you've come to them because you need their help. I'm here to say that the good news is you don't have to be at their mercy."
  5. Find out if the contractor will be hiring sub-contractors. If so, ask to meet them and check their current insurance policies and licenses.
  6. Make sure you feel comfortable with them. Remember this person will be spending a lot of time in your house and may, at some point, have a key. Listen to your gut reaction. If you think someone is lying or if they don't seem to be listening to what you say, walk away. As in every other area of life, you should always trust your intuition.
  7. Get quotes from at least three contractors. Avoid contractors whose estimate is a number written on the back of a business card. You want a detailed estimate that is meticulously itemized so everyone is clear on what is expected.
  8. Check the credentials of your contractor. Call the people he uses as references. Go to see his work first-hand; look at projects that are completed and ones still under construction. Speak with his former clients. Verify that the contractor has a valid license and that his insurance is up to date. Call the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints against him have been registered.
  9. Sometimes it's worth paying a little more. Never go for the cheapest bid; you always get what you pay for. Sometimes the little bit of difference in price can make a big difference in quality. Remember when they're finished you're the one who has to live with it not them. "The contractors that I chose were a little bit pricier than others but I knew the job would get done right and on time," explains Lisa. "I felt safe leaving them alone in my house and typically they would put up with changing my mind a million times."
  10. Demand a well-written contract. The contract should include the contractor's name, address, phone, and license number (if applicable.) It should also detail a list of all materials, the start date and the completion date, the financial terms and any cancellation penalty. Make sure you establish how change orders in the original plan will be handled. A change order is a written authorization to the contractor to make a change or addition to the work detailed in the original contract that could affect the final cost and schedule. Some contractors require payment for change orders before work begins.
  11. Limit the down payment. All payments should be contingent upon completion of a defined amount of work. Don't make the final payment or sign an affidavit of final release until you are satisfied with all the work and confident that all of the subcontractors have been paid. Unless you have approved any cost overruns, some state or local laws limit the amount by which the final bill can exceed the estimate.
  12. Keep careful records and save everything! Keep all your paperwork relating to the project in one place, including contracts, change orders and correspondence. Keep a log or journal of all phone calls, conversations and activities. You may also want to take photos of the work in progress. These records will prove invaluable if there are any disputes during or after construction.
  13. Be aware that your project will probably take more time and cost more money than you anticipated. Make sure you create a price range and time line but be aware it will probably take longer and cost more. (It is not unusual for projects to go 50% over budget and take twice as long as projected to complete!) The two most common factors causing cost overrides include the rising price of materials and surprises uncovered during construction. It happens in every project (even when you do it yourself!) When it happens it won't be the exception, it will be the rule.
  14. Remember that YOU are the Boss. Lastly, however much they might try to intimidate you, never forget that they work for you! You are the person they have to answer to and if they don't do the work the way you want it done, you can always fire them.

In 1999, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tracy Kidder published a non-fiction book called House, a book that should be read and studied by anyone who is beginning a major home improvement project. House is the story of a young couple who decide to build their dream house and follows the day-to-day progress of all the frustrations, crises, tensions, challenges and triumphs that such a task involves. For DIY Janes, there are real lessons to be learned in House. At the start of the project, the homeowners and the contractor argue over a $500 difference in the original estimate. The contractor eventually gives in but, for the rest of the job, he so resents giving up that money that he constantly cuts corners in terms of his time and his interest in the project. Ultimately, the homeowners pay a huge price for their measly $500.

Kidder's book makes the point that during construction, everyone has their own vested interests and they are almost always in opposition to each other. The homeowners want great work but do not want to pay for it. The contractors want to do good work but also want to be paid well and the architect only wants everything to come out exactly like his drawings. The point of the book may be that when starting a big home improvement project that will require hiring contractors, it is always best to focus on the end game. This is a learning experience and, in the end, you will be better person for having worked your way through all of the hassles. So be prepared and hang tight! You're in for the ride of your life!

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Learn about the problems of hiring an unlicensed contractor
Think you may not need a contractor? Figure out whether to do it yourself or go pro
Talk to other house flippers about finding a contractor
Join our forum on hiring a contractor

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