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How to Find a Contractor

Nine Tips for Finding a Quality Contractor

For most homeowners, the hardest part of any renovation project isn’t the work itself, it’s finding a competent, reliable, and trustworthy contractor to do the job. It’s a big decision, because the wrong contractor can make even the simplest projects your biggest nightmare. After conducting interviews with local contractors, they shared the following nine steps you should consider when hiring a contractor.

1. Define your project + specific needs

Before you approach a contractor, you need to determine what type of project you’re doing and find your contractor based on that task. For example, if you’re having an outdoor patio built, there are contractors who specialize in that specific project. Or if you’re having your kitchen remodeled, don’t hire a contractor who mainly focuses on outdoor projects. Knowing what you want is an important first step toward finding someone who can make it happen.

2. Do your due diligence

Doing your research is the next most important step. Starting with organizations like the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and Rochester Home Builder’s Association (RHBA) can give you an indication of who’s a reputable contractor to work with. Contractors want people to know that they’re accessible and working to provide a good service. For example, if something goes wrong, you can’t file a complaint with the BBB if the contractor is not a member. These organizations keep the checks and balances for contractors.

Although these organizations are a good place to start, you have to be careful of online sources and ask yourself, “What is the person’s motivation for gathering the information?” For example, many websites ask contractors to pay an advertising fee before being a featured source on their site. Use the internet as a guide, but not the deciding factor for finding contractors.

3. Always ask for referrals

Your research shouldn’t stop with an internet search — it also has to include talking to people. Word of mouth is a valuable resource, especially in a city the size of Rochester. Bad news travels fast, and our community is too small for contractors to do bad business and retain a good reputation.

In fact, some successful and experienced contractors don’t solicit or advertise — they operate fully on referrals and word of mouth. The best way to ensure your contractor’s reputation is to talk to a friend who’s a satisfied customer. It’s safer for you as a consumer to get an honest review from a source you trust.

If you don’t have any friends or family who recently worked with a contractor, go to a local supplier and ask who they work with. If you know what kind of patio you’re getting — a paver, for example — go to a local paver supplier to ask who they recommend you should work with.

4. Request multiple quality estimates

After you’ve narrowed down your search to a handful of contractors, you should get multiple estimates to evaluate potential partnerships. Healthy competition shouldn’t scare a contractor away if they have nothing to hide. Do your homework and don’t settle — contractors ultimately want an educated consumer who isn’t left with buyer’s remorse.

When you go to get an estimate, make sure you’re getting a quality evaluation.

If you’re planning a remodel, go with someone who is going to provide a design service. Some designers will charge you a design fee, which is like putting a payment toward a contract should you decide to work with them. If you elect not to move forward, then they’ve been compensated for their time and effort.

Contractors do give free estimates, but when your project is more complicated than a driveway repave or other similar trade work, free estimates don’t allow contractors to visit their customers’ homes and spend a lot of time coming up with a solid plan. Anyone can put together a quick estimate, but an accurate one takes time and effort.

5. Understand your numbers

Once you receive your estimate, make sure the contractor is giving you a fair price. Contractors could budget for the least expensive bathroom tiles, for example, when the more expensive tiles are what you ultimately want. Look carefully at the allowances you’re getting from a particular contractor — they should tell you right up front, “I’m giving you this number because that’s what you will ultimately spend.”

Quality contractors want to provide you with a realistic budget ahead of time, so if the price seems too good to be true, it usually is. Ideally, you’ll work with your contractor to select the features you want, and you will know the exact cost of the project before it’s started. That way, everyone involved can make sure the budget is realistic.

Knowing the breakdown of your contractor’s budget can help you determine where you’re willing to spend, and how much. If you can’t pay for what you’re looking for out of pocket, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise quality. There are plenty of ways to finance home improvement projects, and ESL Home Equity Solutions are a great place to start. Use our HELOC Credit Line Calculator as a first step to see how much you can borrow.

6. Be clear on the terms of your contract

You should work out in advance when you’ll be paying your (mutually agreed upon) budget to your contractor. If you elect to move forward, the budget becomes your contract — a handshake. There’s usually a percentage due at that time. The formal contract should be clear and concise and include the who, what, where, when, and cost of your project. Before you sign a contract, make sure it includes: the contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number (if required); an estimated start and completion date; the payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers; the contractor’s obligation to get all necessary permits; a detailed list of all materials, including each product’s color, model, size, and brand; information about warranties covering materials and workmanship; and what the contractor will and won’t do.

7. Go with a contractor who’s busy

When it comes to contractors, the busier the better. If a contractor is available immediately, that could be a red flag. Consider why they may not have many jobs on the docket before you jump at the chance to get the job started.

New York State requires by law that contractors give estimated start and end dates, but make sure your contractor gives you a realistic schedule — and plans to finish your project before they move on to the next. Anyone can promise a start date, but will they prioritize your job until it’s complete? How will they handle delays that may result in jobs being pushed back? You want a contractor who will ensure that your job is done right before moving on to the next.

8. Build mutual trust

In the contracting world, trust goes both ways. You should have enough trust in your contractor to allow them to hire their own subcontractors and manage their job. If you do feel the need to research subcontractors and other staff beyond the initial hiring process, the contractor you’re working with is the wrong one; they haven’t done one of the most important parts of their job, which is earning the confidence of their client.

There are flags you should look out for when bringing a contractor on board for a job. Being incorporated, having insurance, and employing staff (if they’re a bigger company) are all indicators that the business is legitimate . If a contractor doesn’t have insurance, they can’t pull a permit for building. You should most certainly ask for proof of insurance, which the contractor must be able to provide. Additionally, if a contractor offers you, the homeowner, a position as certificate holder on the project, it demonstrates they most definitely have insurance and the proper permits. If they don’t, that’s a big red flag.

9. Communicate effectively

Finally, once you begin a project, don’t be afraid to let contractors know when you’re unhappy. A contractor can fix most mistakes in their work, but they can’t fix the reputation behind their name. If you have any questions or concerns, you should be able to communicate directly to your contractor. In fact, try to work with a company whose leadership is easily accessible. You should ask your contractor “What is your structure? Who owns the company? Who is on your staff?” to get a full picture of who you’ll be interfacing with.

Should you decide to make changes along the way, they need to be communicated in writing. Know up front what the change is going to cost, and outline it in detail in an updated document. That way, there’s no chance for miscommunication.

Finding a great contractor doesn’t have to cause anxiety. Knowing what you want, doing your research, relying on referrals, requesting (and understanding) many quality estimates, building trust, and communicating well build a solid foundation of a great contractor-client relationship. Follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to a smooth and successful project.