How to hire a good home improvement contractor

Thu May 17 2018

Whether you want to make some small aesthetic updates to your home or have a big remodeling project planned, hiring a good contractor is a must. But how do you know what to look for? What makes a contractor trustworthy? This guide will help you zero in on the traits of a quality contractor.

Where to Search for a Home Improvement Contractor

Ask your neighbors, friends, and family for their recommendations. If they’ve hired someone to do a home improvement project in the past, they can tell you from firsthand experience if they were satisfied with the work and what you can expect. They can also tip you off on who not to hire, in some cases.

If your network doesn’t have recommendations for you, explore potential candidates online. Platforms like Thumbtack and Angie’s List can give you insight into the contractor’s experience, licensing information, past projects, and customer satisfaction.

Give yourself some options so you can compare offers on your project and leverage lower bids. A pool of three contractors is usually a good starting point.

Contractor credential checklist

Once you have a list of contractors, prepare some interview questions so you can learn more about who the contractor is and why you should trust them with your home. For example, you might ask:

  • Do you have a license? A license insures the contractor knows the appropriate codes and processes to safely and effectively work on your home. Write down your contractor’s license number and look it up on your state’s license board.
  • Are you bonded and insured? The Better Business Bureau lists whether your contractor is insured and bonded. You can also ask to see their certificate of liability insurance (this document is readily available to insureds). This protects you if the contractor doesn’t finish the project because you can make a claim on their coverage to reimburse you for losses.
  • What kind of work do you specialize in? Contractor may specialize in an array of trades, from electrical work or carpentry to roofing or landscaping. Make sure your potential contractor has the expertise your project requires.
  • Can you provide a list of previous clients? A reputable contractor is usually happy to share their references.
  • Where are you based? Look for a local contractor – their ties to the community may mean they will care about maintaining a good reputation. Ask for their business address for proof of their location.

Project-specific questions to ask your contractor

In addition to asking questions about their professional background, licensing, insurance, and expertise, you should ask logistical questions about the project. For example:

  • Do you take on projects of this size? Some contractors only have one or two workers so may not be equipped to take on a big project. By contrast, some contractors may only be interested in doing big remodels rather than small repairs.
  • Do you have photos of similar finished work? Most skilled contractors are proud to show proof of past projects, whether that's a full kitchen remodel, underground pool installation, or a new patio deck.
  • How many other projects would you work on at the same time? This will give you insight into whether they will be responsive to your needs and adhere to the project timeline.
  • Are your subcontractors insured? Everyone working on the project should have insurance to safeguard you against financial loss in case they deliver incomplete or subpar work.
  • Can you obtain permits? Contractors may wish to avoid getting permits for smaller projects, but a permit ensures they are able to comply with local building codes. It’s important for their safety and your security.

What a home improvement contract should include

Once you’ve settled on a contractor, it’s time to review the contract. A professional project contract will usually address the following:

  1. The contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number.
  2. A estimated start and completion date to ensure project is completed on time.
  3. The payment schedule to ensure transparency.
  4. Obligation to get permits to ensure legal compliance.
  5. What happens if you decide to make a change in the scope of the project.
  6. Materials and allowances to avoid surprise extra expenses.
  7. Warranties that protect your interests.
  8. Cleanup clauses so you know what to expect after the project is finished.
  9. Your ability to sever the relationship if the contractor violates the rules of the contract.

If you are worried about being able to pay on time, make sure a payment plan is included in your contract. Otherwise, the contractor may be able to take out a lien, or real estate debt, against you for themselves and their subcontractors.

Contractor red flags

Home improvement scammers are prevalent, which is why it’s so important to check references. No homeowner wants work done by an amateur or a fly-by-night operation. Follow the suggestions above and watch out for these red flags to avoid a potential scam:

  • They have lousy reviews or outdated references.
  • They are slow to respond.
  • They ask for too much money upfront.
  • They ask you to get the required building permits.
  • They don’t show proof of their bond and insurance.
  • Their bond and/or insurance is expired.
  • They seem impatient, cut you off, or don’t listen to you.

Hiring the right contractor will have a significant impact on whether your home improvement project is a smooth or frustrating experience. When in doubt, do your research and due diligence, but also trust your instincts. At the end of the day, you have to trust the person you hire, and there’s no one answer for that.

And remember, when you update your home, you may need to make sure your home insurance still adequately protects your property. Plus, if your upgrades make your home safer (say, a new roof with hurricane clips or wind mitigation system), you may even qualify for premium discounts. Talk to your insurer for details.