Picture this: A homeowner wants to update the kitchen in his or her home, and a contractor is called. Without too much quibbling, the details are finalized and the work begins. But then things start to go wrong.
This scenario doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it often gives contractors a bad reputation when in fact the real issue is that the homeowner didn’t do the homework.
“You can do a Google search for contractors in your area, and you’ll get star ratings and reviews of names and businesses, but that’s just one part of the process,” said Rick McAlexander, CEO of Associated Designs Inc. in Eugene, Ore. “Homeowners have to do a little legwork to really get a feel for who or what is out there.”
The prospect of spending days, if not weeks, finding the right person for the job can be disheartening when all you want is to get the job done. But it’s important to do your research before choosing a contractor. Following these steps will help things go smoothly and keep you (and the contractor) on the level.
1. Ask for recommendations.
You aren’t the only one who has a home design project in mind. Your friends and family have probably all been on a hunt for the perfect contractor. Their experiences could be useful for you.
“The trust you have with the friend or family member means you can also trust that they will provide reputable names and businesses,” said McAlexander.
2. Search the internet for highly rated contractors.
This is not about just doing a blanket search and picking the top two on the list. Filter through the options that Google gives you because it’s possible that one contractor has expertise in a specific field.
For example, if your project is to upgrade the kitchen, a contractor who gets good reviews and has experience remodeling kitchens is a good one to add to your list.
But bottom line is to take your time. Your list of contractors by the end of the first two steps will be anywhere from eight to maybe even a dozen names. And all of them likely perfect for the job.
3. Interview contractors over the phone.
Consider this step to be like a job interview. And the job is the home design project you have in mind. Whether it’s a new home or a remodel, the interview carries the same weight.
“I don’t think you can talk to too many people when choosing a contractor,” said McAlexander.
The reason is simple: You want to get to get to know what they can offer. Telling them what you want, and their responses to your specific questions, will help you discern who has the potential.
Good topics to talk about include experience, project management skills, and more basic questions about references and qualifications.
4. It’s time for a face-to-face interview.
Your list of contractors should be down to about four or five. A face-to-face interview gives you a chance to see them in action, show them the project, and get their thoughts. Not only that, but an in-person discussion also helps you find out if your personalities don’t clash.
The more you talk with them, the more you know whether they have the skills as well as the knowledge to do the project. And whether you can work with them easily and efficiently.
“Now might be a good time to consider getting bids, but if you have the time and there’s no urgency I would wait,” said McAlexander. “The reason I recommend such a vetting process is that the bidding process is time-consuming. The contractor starts investing their own resources into your project. A mistake is jumping ahead to bids with this big list of recommendations. Eventually, they will know they are competing against a half dozen other people, and they won’t offer you a serious bid.”
5. Ask for references and talk to subcontractors.
In this step, you are taking the face-to-face interview to the next level and now checking the contractor’s references and qualifications.
Who the contractor has worked with in the past (electricians, plumbers, etc.) can be a guide to how they manage a project. Good questions to ask subcontractors include whether the contractor was organized, if they paid their bills on time, and were they on time and on budget.
“It’s the final key to the contractor puzzle,” said McAlexander. “Subcontractors can give you an on-the-ground view of a contractor’s work ethic and skills. Doing this before you get bids is almost a must for me.”
6. Set the project details and ask for bids.
You’ve pared down the list to two or three key players, and now the real fun can begin: bidding. Ask for bids from your top prospects.
“You may end up with contractors that are of a similar quality, so it comes down to not so much the money, but which one you like,” said McAlexander. “Keep in mind, you can get a Cadillac contractor, but you may be paying for it.”
With just two or three bids on the table, you can easily pick and choose the one that suits you and the project best.
But, McAlexander says, there is one final step: You’ve done all this research, but before you sign on the bottom line, make sure the contractor has a license number and insurance. The easiest way to do that is to ask them directly and check the state contractors’ board.
Following these steps basically means you don’t have to worry whether the contractor will do the job right. You have vetted them and done the research, so the possibility of problems in the future is minimal.
“And that’s the whole point,” said McAlexander. “If you vet and do all the research before you get the bids and sign off on a contract, you are better off in the long run.”