The Ultimate Guide for Hiring a Reliable Home Improvement Contractor

the ultimate guide for hiring a reliable home improvement contractor

Maybe you just bought your first house, or maybe you upgraded and are ready to create your dream home. Either way, nothing strikes excitement and fear into a homeowner’s heart like renovations.

Choosing a contractor for home improvement can be nerve wracking, but with the right team at your side the process can be smooth — and even enjoyable. With tips for hiring a contractor, checklists for negotiating contracts, and tips for home renovation, our how-to guide for hiring a home improvement contractor will teach you everything you need to know.

Hire the Right Contractor for Your Job

Before you start looking for a home improvement contractor, it’s important to know what kind of contractor you need. Different crews have different areas of expertise, and finding a contractor who is a good match for your project is equally as important as finding a contractor who does quality work.

It’s not unusual to meet a carpentry crew that handles everything from reframing walls to tiling floors to installing cabinets. Do you have a small project that involves a lot of odds and ends? Consider hiring a versatile crew, so you can minimize the logistical struggle of working with multiple crews. When a job requires a major component such as full siding replacement, new gutters, or all new flooring, hire a contractor who specializes in that part of construction to complete that part of the job. Someone who installs James Hardie siding all day every day can probably install your siding faster, better, and less expensively than a generalist who hangs siding a few times a year.

different crews have different areas of expertise, and finding a contractor whois a good match for your project is equally as important as finding a contractor who does quality work

Most renovations will require work to be completed by a few different crews. If your renovations include any of the mechanical aspects of your home, expect to hire licensed electricians, plumbers, or HVAC specialists. You might have to hire a plumber, for example, to uninstall a toilet before having a floor tiled and reinstall it when the job is finished.

For bigger jobs like a full home renovation, consider hiring a general contractor who can help you obtain the proper permits and manage subcontractors. Many homeowners think they’re capable of overseeing a large-scale home renovation, but later find that they’ve taken on an additional full-time job.

Will your job involve a complicated permitting process or multiple crews of workers? Do you expect your renovations to go on for more than a week or two? Are you confident in your ability to catch mistakes that a subcontractor might make and insist when work must be redone? Do you have a flexible daytime schedule to field phone calls, check in on workers, and unlock your door for inspectors who may give you a daylong window of times when they may show up? There’s a ton of invisible work necessary to making a large job run smoothly and efficiently. Hiring someone to take this headache out of your hands might be money well spent.

Find a Contractor

Now that you know what kind of company you want to hire, how do you find and choose the right contractor for the job? You’ve probably heard horror stories of incompetent contractors causing more problems than they solve, or worse: fraudulent contractors who take your money and disappear with a job half completed.

If any of your friends or relatives tackled a similar project on their own property, ask them what contractors they hired and whether or not they would recommend them to you. Friends and family are likely to give you an honest review, and they can give you an opportunity to see what a contractor’s work looks like months or years after completion.

If you’re new to the area or don’t have friends who have undergone similar renovations, try searching for contractor reviews on a site like Angie’s List or Yelp. If you know anyone who works in the building trades, try asking them for recommendations, as they may have insider knowledge about which contractors run an organized, professional company. You can also ask city building inspectors or your local hardware store or lumber yard owner for recommendations, as they may have some insight into who buys quality materials and pays their bills on time.

Choose the Best Contractor

Now that you’ve identified some possible contractors, it’s time to vet them. First, you should weed out contractors who have a criminal history or a hard time managing money. It’s a good idea to check local disciplinary boards, court records, and the Better Business Bureau to weed out contractors with a history of complaints and litigation.

Let contractors know that you expect to see a copy of their license before beginning the job. Don’t be afraid to let potential contractors know that you expect to play by the rules and obtain all legally required building permits. A contractor who tries to convince you to forgo permitting may cut corners elsewhere on the job.

a contractor who tries to convince you to forgo permitting may cut corners elsewhere on the job

Next, offer the contractors a brief description of your project and schedule a time to meet with them in person. Don’t be discouraged if a contractor can’t meet with you right away. A busy contractor with projects scheduled far in the future probably has a good reputation and the ability to think long term.

Try to meet with contractors at your job site, and show them a copy of your plans, written with as much specificity as possible. Ask them what they think about your plan. As you talk to them, imagine how you would feel negotiating a contract or addressing a problem with them. Remember that you will invite this person into your home for a possibly extended period of time, so it’s essential that you can work well with them even in stressful situations. Do they seem pushy, arrogant, or noncommittal? Take first impressions seriously, as they may be amplified over your time working together.

Remember that a good contractor is not a miracle worker. If a contractor tells you, for example, that a beautiful wooden exterior door won’t last more than a few years in a wet location or that you shouldn’t invest in aesthetic work before addressing underlying structural concerns, don’t search until you find a yes-man who will do whatever you want. When contractors are hesitant to do a certain type of work, they are likely talking from experience and a desire to take pride in their work.

Ask potential contractors how much of the work they intend to do in-house and what parts of the job they plan to subcontract out. This is important because a contractor’s quality of work is only as good as that of their least-qualified worker. You can often save money by subbing out large portions of a job to companies who specialize, for example, in one kind of flooring or siding.

Keep in mind, however, that each subcontractor adds a link in the chain of communication between you and the people working on your house. Ask your potential contractors how long they’ve worked with the subcontractors they plan to hire, and make it clear that you expect to see proof of liability insurance for all subcontractors. It’s important to make sure that every person who works on your property is covered by workers comp and liability insurance. The last thing you need is to get saddled with bills if someone gets injured or damages a neighbor’s property when working on your house.

Finally, ask potential contractors to see examples of their previous work. Seeing photographs may be enough for smaller jobs, but if you’re doing a full renovation, try to stop by a current jobsite. Checking out work in progress is a great way to not only see the contractor’s quality of work, but also the level of professionalism and respect that workers show on the job.

A good jobsite is clean and free of safety hazards. Good workers make even the invisible parts of their job look good. Seeing that the spaces between studs in an open wall are clean and that blocking is installed neatly and squarely shows that workers take pride even in the parts of their work that won’t ultimately be visible to the customer. Consider also asking for references from both previous customers and financial institutions.

a good job site is clean and free of safety hazards

Determine Your Price Point

After you find a few contractors you like, it’s time to ask for an estimate. The cheapest estimate isn’t always the best choice. Sometimes the less expensive contractor may cut corners that lessen the value of service you receive. Estimates that seem too good to be true might turn out to be just that — and nobody wants to be surprised when the final cost of a job is higher than the quote.

Ask for a line-item estimate that breaks cost down by each kind of materials and each step of the job. If contractors are willing to specify products, take a peek at their choices online or at a local retailer to see if extra costs will actually give you higher quality. Generally, materials will account for 40 percent of the total cost. The rest covers overhead and a typical profit margin of 15 to 20 percent.

Keep in mind that a contractor’s estimate won’t necessarily be the price you’ll pay at the end of the job. Smart renovators leave room in their budget for potential problems. Even the most honest contractors can’t see through walls. You never know when you’re going to remove drywall only to find serious structural damage that must be addressed while the wall is open. Most professionals recommend adding 10 to 15 percent to your contractor’s estimate to cover unforeseen costs. If you get lucky with a budget that doesn’t swell throughout the job, you can always spend your extra cash to upgrade the finishing touches.

There’s no getting around it: quality work can be expensive. Try discussing with potential contractors how you might cut costs on a job without making sacrifices you’ll regret. Skimping on structural repairs will only hurt you later, but are there certain high-end finishes you could live without? Could you break down renovations into a few logical stages in order to give yourself time to save for your dream house?

Manage Jobsite Expectations

Most people worry about how renovations will affect your day-to-day life. Have you heard horror stories of friends being woken up at 7AM by a crew of loud men blasting the radio and tearing siding off the house? Have any of your friends been kicked out of their own kitchen or bathroom for weeks at a time while a contractor works?

Renovation projects can mean giving up on some privacy. You should be prepared to negotiate house rules before arranging for a contractor to do work on your home.

Renovation projects can mean giving up some privacy. You should be prepared to negotiate house rules before arranging for a contractor to do work on your home. When you meet with a potential contractor, it’s a good idea to ask the following questions:

  • What time does your crew begin and end their day? If these times are too early or late for you, is the contractor willing to be flexible with their schedule?
  • Do you expect to be at the house while work is completed, or will you arrange for contractors to let themselves in?
  • Will the crew be using your bathroom, or will they be arranging for a port-a-let on site? This is especially important if workers will be getting their boots muddy outside and your hallways have white carpeting.
  • If workers will be painting, do you have a garage sink for cleaning paintbrushes, or would you prefer for them to wash brushes outside?
  • Who will move furniture out of the rooms being worked on? Some contractors may not want to be responsible for moving fragile or valuable objects or protecting wood floors from moving-related damage.
  • Will the contractor leave large tools inside your house overnight, or will they bring them home every day or arrange alternative storage, such as a mobile pod or shipping container, outside?
  • How will trash be disposed of? Will they put it in your trashcans for municipal pickup, or will they arrange a dumpster or hire trash haulers?

Figuring out these details at the beginning of the job can save you the headache of negotiating house rules later in the process. You can often save money by letting crews work long hours, or foregoing a port-a-let or storage pod, but these savings will come at the expense of your convenience. Be honest with yourself about which disruptions you can live with and which you’d rather avoid.

Write a Contract

After you settle on a contractor, it’s time to write up an agreement. Don’t be shy about getting specific — a good contractor knows that a clear contract will help your job to run smoothly. Your contract can include:

  • A list of all work that will be done with as much specificity as possible with regards to materials
  • Any drawings of floor plans
  • A payment schedule
  • A request for proof of liability insurance and worker’s compensation payments
  • A date to start the project as well as a proposed completion date
  • A constraint that the contractor acquire lien releases, so you’re protected if he doesn’t pay his bills
  • A warranty on work done, if applicable

Large jobs frequently require payment to occur in several phases as the job is completed. You can expect to pay 10 percent when you sign the contract. Then, it’s typical to make payments of 25 percent throughout the project cycle. You can then expect to pay the final 15 percent when you’re happy and satisfied with how the work has been fully completed. To ensure the final parts of the job don’t drag on, don’t complete payment until the job is finished 100%.

Contact Sunshine Contracting

Contact Sunshine Contracting to see if our company could be right for you. Recognized as one of the Top 200 Exterior Remodelers in the Nation since 2008 by Qualified Remodelers Magazine, we’re proud to have provided high-quality, professional services for more than 20 years. Contact us today, and join more than 7,500 happy customers!

Schedule Your Free At-Home Consultation