Choosing the Best Contractor for Home Improvements

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

By choosing a good home improvement contractor to begin with, you can avoid all kinds of later disputes and dissatisfaction: for example, ensure the work is done well and to your specifications, avoid payment disagreements, reduce problems during the job itself, and weed out scammers. Here's how to do that.

Get Contractor Recommendations From Friends

Start your search for a home contractor by getting recommendations from friends, family, and coworkers. If your social networks include local friends and contacts, check with them as well, and on websites that provide customer ratings and reviews, such as Yelp or Google.

You can also check with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) for members near you. Or ask a building inspector for the names of local contractors who regularly meet state and local code requirements.

It's best to avoid contractors who haven't been established in your community for some time or who:

  • solicit door to door
  • offer you discounts for finding other customers
  • just happen to have materials left over from a previous job
  • accept only 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, or
  • suggest that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows.

These are all red flags indicating that the contractor's business is rocky, perhaps after having been fired from previous jobs.

Interview Prospective Home Contractors

Once you have a list of prospective home contractors, conduct telephone or in-person interviews to determine whether they're available, can handle the type and size of your project, and can provide you with references from recent customers.

It's wise to meet with your top three choices of contractors in your home. This is your chance to test whether they show up on time and see how well you can communicate (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. Then again, realize that the first person you meet with might be mostly delegated to lining up new customers; be sure to ask who you'll actually be dealing with when the job begins.

Get Written Bids for the Work on Your Home

Get written bids from at least three contractors. These should include a breakdown (dollar by dollar) of what work will be done and what materials will be used.

Discuss variations in price with each contractor. A bid might be higher than the others because the contractor is using better materials or paying a specialist to perform certain repairs, such as plumbing.

As a general rule, throw out any bids that are significantly lower than the others. An extremely low bid could be a sign that the contractor uses low-quality materials, cuts corners, or is 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. Most, but not all states require contractors to be licensed. Contact your local consumer protection office to find out more. If licenses are required, the state contractor's licensing board website should have a way to verify that the contractor is in fact licensed, or you might contact it directly.
  • Check with consumer agencies. Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), local consumer protection agency, and state contractor's license board (if your state has one) to find out whether complaints have been filed against the contractor—and if so, how they were resolved. These 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 clean 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. Remember, if a worker gets injured and the contractor doesn't carry the appropriate insurance, you could be on the hook for some major medical bills.
  • 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?

By taking these steps, you'll help ensure that the contractor you hire is reputable and right for the job.

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