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How to Hire a Contractor

How to Hire a Contractor

[ Blog, Contractor - POSTED: March 23, 2013 ]

Homeowners who opt to stay put and improve their current homes rather than moving face a choice: tackle renovations on their own as Do-It-Yourself projects, or hire a skilled contractor to do the work for them? Both solutions have their benefits, but let’s talk about the latter—you want a builder you can trust.

The relationship between a contractor and homeowner can be challenging in many ways, and requires effort from both parties. To quote a wise-but-battle-worn homeowner, “It’s like a marriage—more trouble than anyone lets on, but there are possibilities for true happiness.”

A reliable contractor is worth his or her weight in gold, the “Holy Grail” of home renovations. So how do you go about finding one?

Here are some tips to consider if you want to avoid reenacting troubling scenes from The Money Pit, or worse, Fatal Attraction:

1. Ask yourself what needs to be done to improve the function of your home. Do some quick upfront research from helpful sources to learn more about what you need, whether it’s replacing a roof or a total renovation. These sources should include the Internet, any literature you can find that pertains to the different aspects of your project, local building stores, and friends who have had home repairs done in the past. When I’m looking for a contractor, I Google trade associations and contact them for references, or use Angie’s list to get feedback directly from customers.

Avoid the temptation to bring in an expert early on. They will be happy to tell you that their own methods and materials are superior, which isn’t helpful at this stage of the process. Getting opinions without doing your own preliminary research can be confusing and overwhelming, and can muddy the water. If the research sounds like a lot of work, consider the alternative: being ripped off. Investigate projects until you start to hear the same thing from multiple independent sources—then, when you start to interview prospective contractors, make sure what they’re saying jibes with your preliminary knowledge. At least it’s a start.

For complex projects, you may need to boost your knowledge by investing money and time and consulting with an architect, designer, or structural engineer. There should be no obligation or pressure to hire them if they are paid for advice only, and architects and designers can be great sources for finding contractors.

2. Decide what materials you want. Write a bid specification based on your research to clarify what you want and what you can afford. Include drawings and material or product lists that include model numbers, colors, and installation methods. Eliminate vague guesstimates—if you write down your exact goals on paper, every contractor will get the same information, putting all prospective bidders on a level playing field.

Your research should give you an understanding of the product price and let you isolate the main variable: the labor involved to do the job. Some contractors depend on your ignorance to charge very high labor prices. Don’t be that victim.

3. Narrow down your choices of contractors. To begin, make sure whomever you interview is licensed and insured and has any other appropriate credentials. Don’t be afraid to ask for written proof—I ask what types of insurance they carry and request copies of insurance certificates. Check their business history, and do not hire anyone who has declared bankruptcy. You may also want to ask  about certifications or memberships to  trade associations.

This is important: Go see their work and talk to their references. When you visit a completed project, ask the homeowner specific questions about the quality of their work and how well they stayed on time and budget. I like to ask if they were good to live with—in other words, were they easy to communicate with and accessible when they were needed? If you don’t feel comfortable communicating with that person, you may fail to convey your ideas before problems arise—I make it a point not to work with people who discourage me from asking questions. I also ask references whether the contractor and crew were considerate of their family and pets, and whether they cleaned up after themselves. You may be living in close proximity to the work and it will get on your nerves quickly—like on Day One—if there isn’t some simpatico between you and the builder.

4. Get bids from multiple contractors. To find out what your proposed project will cost, get at least three. It is important to set a clear budget that is hard and fast. Don’t take the lowest bid without an understanding of where the cost savings are coming from.

5. Sign a contract. Make any builder you hire sign a contract—you can download templates online. The contract should cover you, but don’ t be unreasonable, and don’t exact penalties based on timely completion of the project. Though this sounds good on paper, if project is delayed through no fault of the contractor, you don’t want them to feel pressured to cut costs or quality to meet an arbitrary deadline. Trying to rush craftsmen and artisans is foolish, and the final finishes will tell the tale of how the builder was allowed to work. Allow some flexibility on completion—if you plan your life around the completion date, I promise you will lose your sanity. Expect it to be delayed, and don’t be surprised if your requested changes are the reason.

One more thing: Don’t plan to take that long trip to another hemisphere while the work is in progress. Renovation often carries unwelcome surprises, and some are downright nasty! To avoid delays when the unexpected does rear its ugly head, be prepared to make decisions on the spot.

Hopefully your goals will be met within a reasonable budget and on a predictable time frame. Or, you can blow this off and follow the old adage, “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.”

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