How to Choose a Contractor for Your Remodel

Every major home improvement 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.

Step One: Ask Around

The best recommendations for a great contractor come from people you trust, whether it is your best friend or a respected interior designer. 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.

Step Two: 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 home redo. 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.

Step Three: 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 HomeAdvisor.com for consumer feedback on good contractors in your area. 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.

Step Four: Check References (and the BBB)

It's a no-brainer to check references for your contractor before they get started on the job site. However, a few great past remodeling projects doesn't always mean you have the right contractor for your job. Does the company you're looking at specialize in minor bathroom remodeling? That might not be the best option for completing your full kitchen overhaul. If you just bought a house and don't know where to start, ask your real estate agent for info on contractors they recommend. You can also look on the BBB website for complaints. The gold standard for business accreditation over the last hundred years, the national Better Business Bureau helps consumers make informed choices.

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.

You may also want to check with the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, a local group that deals with contractor licensing. At the very least, you'll want to make sure that the company you hired doesn't show up on their Most Wanted list, which profiles the worst contractors in the state.

Step Five: Get EVERYTHING in Writing

This is perhaps the most important, yet overlooked, item on our list. Many homeowners make the mistake of formalizing a contract for home renovations with a verbal agreement. The main problem with this is that you could easily get stuck paying a lot of money for renovation costs that weren't in the verbal deal. Even if you have money flowing from a home equity line of credit, you don’t want to pay more than you anticipate.

Ideally, after interviewing various contractors and getting bids for your project, you will select a contractor whose word is his (or her) bond. You’ll need some proof of that, though. 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.

Typically, the final payment is made to your contractor once the job is completed to your satisfaction. Don’t feel guilty about requesting a contract that specifies every detail of the project — from payment schedule 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.

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The material presented here is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to be used as financial, investment, or legal advice.