How to Hire a Contractor Without Regrets

If you’ve never had a bad experience with a contractor, chances are you know someone who has. Choosing and using the wrong contractor can turn an adventure in repairing or expanding your home into a miserable experience. The news seems to be full of stories of Remodeling or Home contractors who disappeared with the money, and yet these problems could have been avoided by following ten simple guidelines. Bob Kenne, a resident of Clearwater, Florida, with over 25 years experience as a General Contractor, who also serves as a Construction and Litigation Support Consultant to the insurance and legal industry, offers the following advice when hiring a contractor to work on your property:

1) Talk to more than one contractor. Take a minimum of three bids on the work. This allows you, the customer to compare not only pricing, but a variety of other general factors, such as the contractor’s appearance, knowledge, advice, ability, etc. It helps you find the right contractor for the job.

2) Observe. Always meet the contractor in person. Observe as much as you can about him. Did he show up? On time? Is he driving a truck? Is it clean? Does he dress like a professional or in cutoffs, sandals and a tank top? Does he shake your hand, look you in the eye, speak clearly and distinctly, answer your questions? Does he interrupt you? Does he ask you what you want or tell you what he wants? It’s a pretty good bet that the way a contractor handles himself is an indication of how he will handle your project or repairs. Make a list of these types of things ahead of time. Grade the list after the meeting. Low marks are a sure sign you need to keep looking.

3) Hire someone with a good reputation. Is the Contractor licensed? Ask to see it. Ask for references and call them. Ask him who he does work for on a repetitive basis, companies? Contractors? Businesses? Has he ever written any articles? Been published? Is he a member of any professional associations? If he’s just recently moved here and has not established a reputation, or can’t provide you with anything to back his reputation, it might be a good idea to keep looking.

4) Hire someone qualified. When you meet the prospective contractor, ask him how much of this type of work he’s done. Ask for phone numbers of clients he’s done this type of work for and call them. Ask them what was best and worst about the experience of the contractor. Ask the prospective contractor how he would handle the project from start to finish. Then shut up, listen and observe. Does he sound knowledgeable? Can he explain the sequence of events? Does he answer your questions or brush them off? Does he help you understand or create confusion? An important part of a contractor’s job is to ensure you understand the work or project to be done.

5) Get a detailed, written estimate. You can tell an awful lot from a contractor’s estimate. A brief estimate with a lump sum total does little to tell you the specifics of the job and what you are getting for your money. A detailed estimate can and should be used to measure the progress of the job. With a detailed, line item priced estimate, you can see if the contractor is due a payment, based on completed work.

6) Get insurance certificates. The State of Florida requires that licensed contractors be insured. At a minimum, a qualified contractor should have General liability and worker’s compensation. General liability pays for anything of yours the contractor damages or breaks. Worker’s compensation covers the workers that work on the project. Without these two coverages in place, you might be exposed to unwanted problems if something gets damaged or someone gets hurt on the job. Sometimes the homeowners insurance will cover such occurrences then pursue the contractor for reimbursement, but why take the risk? Get the contractor’s insurance certificates.

7) Use a written agreement or contract. Ask the contractor to submit a contract prior to starting the work. Read it. Does it spell out the scope and pricing of work or attach the estimate as a working document? Does it spell out a payment arrangement? How will changes to the work be handled? Does it have a time or schedule for the work? Anything that’s not in writing is open to interpretation by both parties. A contract defines the rules and lets you know what to expect.

8) Document changes in the work. I’ve never seen a project that didn’t have at least a few changes along the way. Changes in the scope of the work often change the price of the job up or down and sometimes change the time needed to get the work done. Ask the contractor to submit a written form for each change to the original work, commonly called a Change Order. Make sure you know the cost of the change and approve it before the changed work is started. Make sure you get and keep a copy of each change order. Use these to keep a tally of the project’s adjusted cost.

9) Front money. This is a tough one. The industry is full of stories about the contractor who took the money and disappeared. However, construction is a cash flow business. The contractor may also be sizing you up as a customer and want to know he can and will get paid. I only give front money if I know the contractor or subcontractor well, have verified his references and reputation, and know that the money is needed to purchase materials for MY job. Even then I try to limit the initial job advance to ten (10) percent of his work, or less. With a new subcontractor, I will only advance payment when he has delivered a comparable value of his materials required to the job site.

10) Payments. I’ve already addressed the issue of the initial payment above. After that, pay the contractor based on completed work. The contract should spell out a payment schedule based on finished work, not time. Ask the contractor to submit an invoice, as well as a schedule of work completed, based on the estimate. Have him walk you through the job and show you the work that is complete. Pay by check, never by cash. Generally, the larger the size of the job, the larger the number of individual payments. The final payment is usually 5-10 percent of the total job, often called retainage. Don’t release the final payment until all work has been completed to your satisfaction.

These guidelines are offered based on many years of hard won experience and are intended to help. They may or may not apply to you or your project, as every job and project is different. The author assumes no liability resulting from the use of these suggestions. The choice to use and benefit from them is solely the responsibility of the party who chooses to do so.