Choosing a Contractor

How to Choose a Contractor

The internet is filled with horror stories about home renovations. One couple laments that their contractor took half their money and ran out on the job. Another renovation took three months too long. And don’t even get us started on homeowners who decide to tackle huge home reno projects themselves — armed with only a YouTube video and a bucket list from Home Depot.

Every major remodeling project comes with a few proverbial bumps in the road. Timelines need to be at least slightly flexible, since even the best contractor may find something that they weren’t expecting to see hidden behind your home’s walls. (Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be $23,000 in cash, which is what this lucky Cleveland couple found inside their walls!) By taking a few precautionary steps, you can minimize the home renovation headaches and ensure a smoother transition from construction zone to happy new home.

  1. Ask Around: The best recommendations come from people you trust. U.S. News & World Report writer Teresa Mears suggests contacting friends and family members to ask if they have a particular contractor that they’ve used and would recommend. Did their gourmet kitchen project end on time? How high-quality is the craftsmanship of their bathroom cabinets? If someone you know and trust is happy with the results of their project and the speed at which it was completed, chances are that you will be too.
  2. Do your research: Before you get started with a serious renovation, check your expectations at the door. Conduct research online and over the phone to determine what a reasonable price (including parts and labor) will be for your reno project. Be sure to ask for estimates on project duration as well as pricing, so you can start with realistic expectations of the time and money involved in it.
  3. Look at the Stars: When it comes to online reviews, it’s best to look at the big picture. Check out sites such as Yelp and for consumer feedback on local contractors and repair companies. While some reviewers may be company shills doling out 5-star ratings like gumdrops, or net “trolls” hoping to tank the competition with poor ratings, the overall online rating for a company can give you a good idea what to expect. Look for sincere, well-written reviews that document a particular project with specifics on timeline, work ethic and satisfaction.
  4. Check the BBB: The gold standard for business accreditation over the last hundred years, the national Better Business Bureau helps consumers make informed choices about their business dealings. BBB-approved businesses are expected to adhere to an ethical code of conduct. The organization doesn’t compare businesses to each other; rather it evaluates whether a business meets their ethical standards. Choosing a BBB-accredited contractor won’t guarantee that you’ll have a perfect home remodeling experience, but it is a great place to start. Look for an accredited business with few to no consumer complaints filed against them.
  5. Get EVERYTHING in Writing: Many homeowners make the mistake of formalizing a contract for home renovations with a verbal agreement. Ideally, after interviewing various contractors and getting bids for your project, you will select a contractor whose word is his (or her) bond. Contractor Tom Silva of This Old House recommends that every home remodeling contract include the provision that the contractor obtain lien releases prior to the start of the project. This means that, in the event that your general contractor fails to pay his subcontractors or suppliers, you’re not liable. Don’t feel guilty about requesting a contract that specifies every detail of the project — from payment terms to dates and timelines: a trustworthy contractor will have no problem putting it all down in writing.

The bottom line? Research everything about your renovation project up front, find a contractor you trust, and get a written contract that specifies a timeline and costs. There are bound to be a few snags — homeowners who’ve been through a major remodel cringe every time they hear such phrases as “Well, we didn’t expect to find this” or “This is going to cost more/take longer than we expected.” Just breathe. And keep in mind that on the day that your sparkling new bath/kitchen/addition is finally completed, all those little hassles that you had to endure throughout this process will have been well worth it.