Hiring a Contractor for Home Improvements

Take these steps to find and hire the right home improvement contractor.

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Hiring the right contractor is the key to the success of your home improvement project. By choosing a good home improvement contractor and drawing up a solid contract, you can ensure the work is done well and to your specifications, avoid payment disputes, reduce problems during the job, and weed out scammers. Although selecting the right contractor can be time-consuming, your efforts will pay off in the long run. Here's how to pick a home improvement contractor and write up a detailed contract for your project. (To learn about options for financing your home improvement project, see Nolo's article Financing Your Home Improvement Project.)

Get Recommendations

Start your search for a home improvement contractor by getting recommendations from friends, family, and coworkers. You can also check with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) for members near you (visit NARI's website at www.nari.org). Or ask a building inspector for the names of local contractors who regularly meet state and local code requirements. No matter whose recommendation you rely on, it's best to gravitate toward contractors who have been established in your community for some time.

Don't get scammed by a shady home improvement contractor. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it's best to steer clear of contractors who:

  • solicit door-to-door
  • offer you discounts for finding other customers
  • just happen to have materials left over from a previous job
  • only accept cash payments
  • ask you to get the required building permits
  • tell you your job will be a "demonstration"
  • pressure you for an immediate decision
  • offer exceptionally long guarantees
  • ask you to pay for the entire job upfront, and
  • suggest that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows.

Interview Contractors

Once you have a list of contractors, conduct telephone interviews to determine whether they're available, can handle the type and size of your project, and can provide you with references. Then meet with at least three contractors in your home. This is your chance to see how well you can communicate with the contractor (an important factor since you'll be dealing with the contractor on a daily basis) and to ask detailed questions about the contractor's business, experience, and your project.

Get Written Bids

Get written bids from at least three contractors. The bids should include a breakdown (by cost) of what work will be done and what materials will be used. Discuss variations in price with each contractor. A bid may be higher because the contractor is using better materials or paying a specialist to perform certain repairs, such as plumbing. As a general rule of thumb, throw out any bids that are significantly lower than the others. An extremely low bid is a sign that the contractor may use low-quality materials, cut corners, or be desperate for work.

Investigate the Contractors' Background

Your next task is to conduct an independent investigation into the contractors and their businesses. Do the following:

  • Ask for a copy of the contractor's license and registration. Thirty-six states require contractors to be licensed. To find out whether a contractor must be licensed in your state, contact your local consumer protection office. If licenses are required, call the state contractor's licensing board and verify that the contractor is in fact licensed.
  • Check with consumer agencies. Contact the Better Business Bureau (BBB), local consumer protection agency, and state contractor's license board (if your state has one) and ask if complaints have been filed against the contractor -- and, if so, how they were resolved. (For information on how to contact your local BBB office, visit www.bbb.org. To find your local consumer protection agency, see Nolo's State Consumer Protection Offices. These offices can also provide you with information on state contractor's licenses.)
  • Contact the contractor's listed references and ask lots of questions, such as: Were you satisfied with the work done? Was the contractor responsive to your concerns or complaints? Was the job completed on time? Were the workers neat and courteous?
  • Visit job sites, if possible. Observe how the workers behave and whether the site is neat and safe.
  • Get proof of insurance. The contractor should have (at a minimum) personal liability insurance, workers' compensation insurance, and property damage coverage. Get policy numbers and call the insurance companies to verify coverage.
  • Check on employee work history. If the contractor is a large company, find out who will be supervising your job and then ask about that person's work history. Has the worker been with the company long? Have any complaints been filed against the worker?

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