A Crash Course for Hiring a Contractor

Katy Willis
Written by Katy Willis
Updated January 21, 2022
a homeowner and contractor look at renovation plans in an empty house
David Sacks/DigitalVision/Getty Images.

Finding the right contractor can make your next home project a breeze.

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Even if you've got serious DIY skills, at some point, you'll need to hire a contractor for a job you don't have the time or ability to handle. Maybe you want to remodel a kitchen that's more than a bit past its prime, landscape a neglected yard, fix up your driveway that’s covered in cracks, or rewire your house. 

Whatever the task, you need to find the right contractor: someone who'll do the job to your specifications, on time, and on budget. With just a few tips and tricks, you’ll be well on your way to confidently hiring a contractor and making your home feel like new again.

How to Find a Contractor

Finding a good contractor involves having a solid understanding of your project, checking permits, verifying references, and more. Once you start your search, you need to interview candidates, get quotes, and review contracts. Don't make a hasty decision. Take the time to follow these steps to find the right local contractor and make your project go smoothly from start to finish.

Plan Your Project for Accurate Quotes

When you're trying to find a home contractor, you need to get accurate quotes. To give potential contractors the best chance to do so, you need to take some time to properly plan your project. Need siding installed? Work out the external square footage of your home. Want your kitchen remodeled? Measure the space, plan what appliances, countertop material, flooring, and accessories you want. 

Be as specific about your plans as possible so that you receive accurate quotes. Don't be afraid to be a little bit nit-picky. Contractors would rather have too much information than not enough, because the more info you give them, the more likely you are to receive an estimate that reflects the final cost.

To make sure you're getting the best information, get at least three bids before hiring a contractor and make sure you talk to the candidates and get a cost breakdown.

You can even go a step further and take your itemized quotes and call suppliers to verify the cost of materials so you can be confident you're not getting overcharged by a contractor.

Check Prospective Contractors' Qualifications and References

It's vital that you make sure the contractor you choose has all the relevant licenses, qualifications, and permits. An unlicensed contractor can cause you significant issues down the line. Plus, an unlicensed contractor may not be qualified for or capable of doing the job, leaving you with an expensive mess to fix. 

A contractor license check tool allows you to lookup license requirements for contractors and professionals in your state. Once you know what paperwork your contractor should have, ask to see it. Check for proof of certifications, permits, state registration, and comprehensive insurance.

Certifications are important, but they aren't the only important factor involved in selecting a contractor. References are crucial. Make sure you ask for multiple references and follow up on them. Ask the contractor’s references relevant questions, including what type of work they had done, how satisfied they were with the end result, whether there were any hiccups throughout the process, and if they'd hire the contractor again. If the references agree, make time to visit and see the completed project yourself.

Questions to Ask Potential Contractors

To find someone who can complete your project successfully, you need to ask the contractors plenty of questions and make sure you're satisfied with the answers. These types of contractor interview questions help you avoid pitfalls and narrow down your selection.

  • How long have you been in business?

  • Can I see your state contractor license?

  • What kind of insurance coverage do you have and can I see your certificates?

  • Do I need any permits for this project? And can you obtain them for me?

  • What's the timeframe for completion?

  • What are the payment terms and schedule?

  • What are the warranty terms for the materials and project?

  • Can I see a cost breakdown?

  • What steps will you take to protect my property?

  • Will you use a dedicated team for this project?

  • How can I get in touch with you?

Hiring a Contractor

When you're at the hiring stage of any home reno project, be sure to get all your ducks in a row before the project starts. Get and check the contract, determine the contractor’s downpayment, and agree on a payment schedule. Make sure you keep detailed records of the project as it progresses and, before you sign anything, know your rights and obligations. If you're not feeling totally confident, then don't commit.

Get a Contract and Arrange Payments With Your Contractor

Once you've chosen the contractor you want to hire, you need to carefully review the contract before you sign. A good contract protects you and the contractor and covers all potential outcomes. Here's what the contract should include:

  • Detailed project brief with clear scope and limitation information

  • Complete breakdown of project cost

  • Description of homeowner responsibilities

  • Description of contractor responsibilities

  • Detailed project timeline with milestones and completion date

  • Rewards and penalties for early or late completion

  • Circumstances that allow the contractor to stop work

  • Circumstances that allow the homeowner to withhold payment

  • Change orders

  • Warranty information, including circumstances under which the warranty is void, for materials and the final project

  • Breach of contract rights and remedies pertaining to both homeowner and contractor

  • Damages and liability limitations

  • Clauses relating to acts of God and exceptional circumstances

Once you're happy with the contract, make sure both you and the contractor sign and date it and that you retain a signed and dated copy.

Keep Records

Once the project is underway, even if things seem like they're generally going well, it's smart to keep a record of the progress. Doing so gives you certainty in case you need to enforce the contract regarding delays or penalties or, in a worse-case scenario, take the contractor to court. You'll also need a record of what's been happening in the event that the contractor stops working and is in breach of your contract. 

Keep track of as much as possible, including the following:

  • Hours worked

  • How much progress is made

  • When the contractor turns up late or finishes early

  • Whether they are on schedule

  • Any excess mess or damage the contractor causes

  • Problems that arise

  • Unforeseen delays

contractor and customer shaking hands
© Rido - stock.adobe.com

Make a Checklist

Make a checklist of everything you want to see to ensure you're satisfied with the project. You'll use this checklist to confirm that the project is completed to your specifications before signing off and making the final payment. Don't be afraid to be picky. After all, you're paying for the work and you should be happy with the results. 

Just remember that you can't add in or complain about anything you left off of the contract or scope documents. Things to add to your checklist include:

  • Each element of the project finished to a high standard

  • Example 1: Light fittings you chose installed and plastering finished

  • Example 2: Windows replaced and sealed and sills and surrounds repainted

  • Example 3: Kitchen counters and backsplash installed

  • The job site is clean and your property is undamaged

  • Have physical copies of warranties

  • Have proof that everyone involved with the project was paid or that you have lien releases or lien waivers from all suppliers, contractors, and subcontractors

Know Your Rights and Avoid Contractor Scams

If you've done your due diligence, you should already have avoided any potential scammers, but it pays to be careful. Check the contract before you sign so that you're aware of your obligations and what recourse you have if the person you hire breaches the terms of the contract. Know when you can stop payment or call a halt to the work.

Be aware of these telltale signs of a potential scam:

  • Asking for full payment upfront

  • Asking you to pay in cash

  • Offering to waive your insurance deductible

  • Attempting to do additional work without adding to the project scope

  • Offering a discount instead of producing a valid state license or permit

  • Offering to provide financing through a lender 

  • Trying to convince you to sign blank papers or hurry you into signing papers without reading

After Your Contractor Has Finished

Once the job is done, use your checklist to make sure you're satisfied and you've got all the relevant paperwork. If you're happy, you can make the final payment and sign off the completion agreement. Assuming the work went smoothly and the project is every bit as good as you hoped, you can agree to be a reference for the contractor to show your gratitude for a job well done.

Once the job is done, regardless of your satisfaction, you should leave an honest review. A good review helps the contractor's business, and a neutral or negative review serves as a warning to other potential customers. 

In the unfortunate event that you're unhappy, try to first resolve your issues with the contractor. Often, some honest, open communication is all you need to sort out minor problems. It's also smart to follow up any one-to-one conversations with a certified letter that includes a return receipt. Add this to your project records. If this doesn't work, your local home builders association may be able to help. If not, you can file a report with the Better Business Bureau and get the local consumer protection office or the state attorney general involved.

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