So you’re ready to put in a new bathtub, or you finally picked out that new tile for your kitchen. If you don’t want to do the work yourself, or you don’t have the time or skills to tackle a DIY home improvement project, hiring a contractor is the way to go. But choosing a home improvement contractor can be a headache: How can you tell if someone is good at a job you don’t know how to do?
When you choose a contractor, you’re hiring a new employee for a job. You wouldn’t hire the first applicant for a job at your business, so don’t choose your home improvement contractor without narrowing down the best candidates. Examine portfolios of previous work, check licensing, listen to referrals and gather competitive bids before you make a final decision.
The first step in finding the right home improvement contractor is to create a list of 10–15 local contractors who have the right expertise. You’ll gradually narrow down this list to the top contenders and ultimately use it to select your contractor, so it’s best to include more names than you’ll need at this point.
There are several ways you can compile your starter list:
Successful contractors will make it easy for you to get in touch with them and see examples of their work. Be cautious of home improvement contractors who lack basic information, such as a website, social media presence and reviews.
Choose a contractor who specializes in the type of remodel you need; someone who specializes in remodeling kitchens might not be ideal for your bathroom renovation. A home improvement contractor with a creative eye can also be helpful for certain projects. For instance, if you want to lay a tile entryway with a detailed mosaic or paint a room with a faux finish, you’ll need a contractor who does that type of work well.
Ask each contractor on your long list for a portfolio of their projects from at least the last year. They may have a physical portfolio, or they may direct you to a website with images. A good portfolio should contain at least ten projects. It should include photos of each space before work began, during the remodel and after project completion. It helps if there are pictures of blueprints, sketches or other plans so you can get an idea of how the contractor approaches a project.
Look out for a portfolio with too few projects, no photos before the remodel or grainy, hard-to-see images of the final product. Also keep in mind that home improvement contractors only include their best work in their portfolios. If any completed project is not up to your standards, it’s likely their average work is even worse. Take that person’s name off your list.
At this point, your list should have around six to eight names. One easy way to narrow it further is to ask for contractors’ licensing and certification. The specific licenses or certifications your home improvement contractor should carry will depend on the project. Since legal requirements vary by state, call the licensing division for your community to ask for specific requirements.
In addition to making sure contractors have the correct licenses and certification to complete the job safely and legally, make sure anyone on your list has liability insurance in case they damage your home. The contractor and any other workers should also be covered by worker’s compensation. Ask for a copy of their insurance policies and check that they’re up to date.
Cross any contractors off your list who don’t have the right credentials. I also recommend marking off names of anyone who is hesitant or takes too long to get this information to you.
Now that you’ve narrowed your long list down to five or six top contenders, it’s time to start checking references. This is a common practice, so any reputable contractor will expect you to ask for a list of references. A typical contractor reference list includes ten or more jobs with the name, address and telephone number of each customer. It helps if there are dates for each job; if dates aren’t on the list, ask for them.
Now it’s time to call each reference. If the list is very long, select a few recent projects and a few older projects. Keep detailed notes during your phone call; you’ll need to ask some references if you can visit their home to see the project in person.
Some questions to ask include:
Some red flags include too few references or significant time gaps between references. Ask about these before assuming the worst. A hole in the calendar doesn't necessarily mean trouble; maybe they were injured or taking time off. The contractor's openness and willingness to give you more information can help ease your mind.
If a client had a good experience overall, they’ll be positive and upbeat about the contractor even if there were some small problems. If the experience wasn’t good, you may notice the person hesitating or answering indirectly. Try to read between the lines of what the person tells you; they may not want to say anything unkind. As you talk with each contractor’s references, eliminate any contractors that get bad or ambivalent reviews; you should be down to three or four contractors at this point.
After you’ve called your contractors’ references, cross out any contractors who received poor reviews. Then decide which of the remaining references to visit in person to see their contractor’s completed project. Choose people who seem open and forthcoming, whose projects are similar to yours and, ideally, who live close to you. It’s particularly helpful if the work was completed at least a few years ago so you can see how it has held up. Visit at least one finished project from each of your remaining top contenders.
As you visit the projects, take a close look at the contractor’s work. Ask the person if it has ever needed servicing or repairs. Check out the overall feel and the specific details.
Depending on the type of project, there are a few red flags to look for:
By now you’ve eliminated anyone from your list who does subpar work. The next step is to price the job with all of the remaining contractors on your list.
After a thorough consultation, each contractor will present you with a brief proposal and estimated cost for the project, called a bid. Depending on the type of renovation, this might include details on the timeline for the project, the types of materials they recommend and the total cost of the project. It’s best to get bids from the top three or four contractors on your list. You will select your contractor from among these bids.
Remember, it’s not always best to go with the lowest price. Sometimes the materials or amount of work will differ from one contractor to another; for instance, a contractor who uses prefab cabinets will charge much less than a woodworker who makes them by hand, but you’ll notice a major difference in the look and feel of the finished kitchen. Think about your overall goals for your renovation when choosing which proposal is best for you.
After you’ve chosen your home improvement contractor and accepted their project bid, they will draft a contract proposal with more details about how they will complete the project, the timeline, materials, cost and more. Once you’ve reviewed and signed the proposal, your project will be underway.
Be wary of any contractor who tries to pressure you into accepting a bid. Some contractors will try to pressure you into signing right away by saying their bids are only good for a limited time. You always have the option to think about the bid for a few days or longer. Quality contractors will let you take your time deciding which bid to choose, and they’ll act graciously if you decline their bid. The same is true of the final contract; be sure to review all of the details, and don’t sign anything right away.