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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. To help you know the ins and outs of hiring a contractor, we talked to two experts in the field to get their expertise on what to look for. Here are nine steps they say you must take when hiring a contractor.

1. Define your project (and get a specialized contractor)

Before you approach a contractor, you “need to determine what type of project you are doing and find your contractor based on that task,” says Kevin Morton, owner of Renovations by The Morton Group Inc., a Fairport-based contractor. For example, if you’re having an outdoor patio built, there are contractors that specialize in that specific project. Or, if you’re having your kitchen remodeled, don’t hire a contractor experienced in outdoor projects. Knowing what you want is an important first step toward finding someone who can make it happen.

2. Do your due diligence

Both Kevin and Steve Walsh, owner of Walsh Custom Concepts in Rochester, agree that doing your research also is an important step for selecting a contractor. Starting with organizations like 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, according to Steve. “We want people to know that we’re here, and we’re working to provide a good service,” he says. 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 us.”

Although these organizations are a good place to start, Kevin cautions that you “have to be careful of online sources. [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 end all be all for finding contractors.

3. Always ask for referrals

Kevin reiterates that your research should not stop with an internet search. “Research has to be done by talking to people,” he says. “Bad news travels really fast. [Rochester is] too small of a town for contractors to start doing bad business.”

“Research has to be done by talking to people.”
– Kevin Morton, owner of Renovations by The Morton Group Inc.

In fact, some successful and experienced contractors don’t solicit or advertise—they operate fully on referrals and word of mouth. According to Steve, the best way to ensure that your contractor won’t do shoddy work is to talk to “a friend that’s a satisfied customer of a contractor.” It’s safer for the consumer, he adds.

If you don’t have any friends or family that 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 you should work with,” Steve says. “They’re not going to associate themselves with a shady company.”

4. Request multiple (quality) estimates

Once you narrow down your search to a handful of contractors, Steve recommends you get multiple estimates to evaluate potential partnerships. “Healthy competition should not scare a contractor away if they have nothing to hide,” he says. “You never want a customer to not do their homework and settle,” he adds. “An educated consumer is preferable to me—I don’t want you to have buyer’s remorse.”

“You never want a customer to not do their homework and settle.”
– Steve Walsh, owner of Walsh Custom Concepts

When you go to get an estimate, Kevin adds, 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,” he says. “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, he says, but when your project is more complicated than a driveway repave or other similar trade work, free estimates don’t allow for the time to “go out to peoples’ homes and take the time and effort to come up with a 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,” Kevin says. “I tell my clients right up front—I am 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 is too good to be true, it usually is. “I’ll have you pick everything out, and you will know the exact cost of the project before we start,” Kevin says. “I want to make sure the budget I’ve given you is realistic.”

6. Be clear on the terms of your contract

You also should work out when you’ll be paying your (mutually agreed upon) budget to your contractor. According to Kevin, “if you elect to move forward, the budget becomes your contract—a handshake.” Then, he says, 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, what the contractor will and won’t do.

7. Go with a contractor that’s busy

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

“Anyone can promise a start date, but will they prioritize your job until it’s wrapped?”
– Kevin Morton, owner of Renovations by The Morton Group Inc.

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

8. Build mutual trust

In the contracting world, trust goes both ways. First, you should have enough trust in your contractor to allow them to hire their own subcontractors and manage their job, Steve says. “If someone feels they need to do their homework [on subcontractors and other staff beyond the initial hiring process], I’m not the right guy for the job. I haven’t done my job because I haven’t won the confidence [of my client],” he says.

However, Steve notes that there are flags you should look out for when bringing a contractor on board for the job. “Being incorporated, having insurance, employing staff (if you’re a bigger company), they’re all indicators that the business is not a shady fly by night,” he says. “If you don’t have insurance, you can’t pull a permit for building.” You should most definitely ask for proof of insurance, which the contractor must be able to provide. Additionally, if a contractor offers you, the homeowner, to be a certificate holder on the project, then they most certainly 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, Steve says. “I can fix bad drywall, but I can’t fix my name,” he adds. If you have any questions or concerns, you should be able to communicate directly to your contractor. In fact, he recommends going with a company whose leadership is easily accessible. He recommends that you 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.

“I can fix bad drywall, but I can’t fix my name.”
– Steve Walsh, owner of Walsh Custom Concepts

Kevin adds that, 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,” he says, 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.