Picking A Contractor

By Ginny Frizzi

December 31, 2009 5 min read

Most homeowners, at one time or another, require the services of a contractor. If a job involves replacing an old roof, building an addition, fixing the porch or rewiring the house, a contractor most likely should be hired.

So how does the average homeowner find a reputable contractor?

The first step is to define the scope of the job to be done, according to Jamie Goldberg, independent kitchen and bath designer in Florida (http://www.JGKitchens.com). This means the same information will be shared with all contractors bidding on the job.

Check with friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers to see whether they have any recommendations. Some people go online or look through the phone book to find local contractors, although caution is needed in order to find reputable contractors.

Brent Grohman -- managing director of Contract Smart (http://www.ContractSmart.com), a Denver-based company whose mission is to improve the homeowner's experience when working with a contractor -- recommends the homeowner visit the Better Business Bureau's Web site (http://www.bbb.org) to identify contractors that are accredited with the organization.

"But don't stop with a simple accreditation check. Be sure to check that the contractor has maintained a solid grade with the BBB," he says.

Also, check contractors' licenses.

"When you check on the license, make sure you are looking for the right type," according to Debbie Farson, owner of Home Solutions Connection, a referral service in the Washington, D.C., area. "Just because a contractor says they're licensed, it doesn't mean they have the license the state requires for the work the homeowner needs done," Farson says. "The contractor should also have insurance -- several coverages should be in place -- and the homeowner should also check the length of time in business, complaint histories with relevant agencies and organizations, and references."

Have each contractor meet you at the job site to review and discuss the project. When scheduling the visit, request that the contractor bring a copy of his license(s), as well as proof of liability insurance and property insurance and a list of homeowner references.

You also should note how a contractor presents himself for the job site visit.

"First impressions are still important. Was he or she on time for the first appointment? If not, did they call ahead to let the customer know they would be late? Are they a known quantity in the area? How long have they been in business? References and a portfolio of pictures illustrating the work they do are important," says Ian Sopko of Sopko Landscape Design Build, in Buck Hill Falls, Pa.

He adds that insurance is an important topic to discuss with the contractor. Make sure the contractor has not only liability insurance, which costs almost nothing, but also a workers' compensation policy -- confirming that the contractor is not using "subs," who usually are paid under the table.

You should inquire whether the contractor has handled projects like yours in terms of locality, scope and budget. It is a good idea to visit homes where the contractor has done similar work.

The contractor should supply a list of references for you to check. Questions to ask the references include: What type of work did the contractor complete? How long did the job take compared with the contractor's original estimate? How satisfied were they with the quality of materials used and the workmanship? Were there any changes or disagreements during the job? If so, how did the contractor handle them? Would they use the contractor again?

Ask the contractor how long it will take to prepare an accurate, detailed bid. Most contractors can respond within three days, so if he fails to submit a bid within a reasonable amount of time, it could be a sign of a busy workload or a general lack of responsiveness.

Provide the contractor with detailed plans of the job, and share your budget. Contractors usually leave some room in their bids for negotiation, so if you believe the estimate is too high, he may be able to negotiate the price down.

You also can save time by arranging for a referral service to conduct contractor checks for you.

"Homeowners need to be careful that they go with the right service -- one that doesn't charge them any fees, one that doesn't ask contractors to pay lead or membership fees, one that is local, one that can confirm licensing and other factors for each contractor, and one that follows through on every referral to ensure the homeowners' satisfaction with the job," Farson says.

Also, seriously consider whether you are comfortable with the contractor's communication style and professionalism.

"As you'll be having that person in your home for a while, this can be important," Farson says.

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