We love a good DIY project around here, but even the most seasoned DIY-ers still need to call a professional from time to time. When that happens, you’ll want to hire someone who’ll get the work done without too much hassle.
Contractor stories seem to fall into one of two categories: It’s either “Look at what a great job they did!” or “Let me tell you about the time this guy put a backhoe through my garage—and I paid him for it.” Avoiding the second category is always the goal, and usually all it takes is some legwork on your part. Here are our best tips for hiring the best contractor for the job, every time.
Get a home inspection
You don’t want to be forced to pick a contractor hastily because an emergency repair is breathing down your neck, so your best defense is to check for problems before they crop up. Make a list of all the systems in your house and how old they are: When was your roof installed? How old is your furnace? What about the wiring? When was your HVAC last serviced? Then, have a qualified home inspector come check things out so you know which repairs to prioritize.
How to find a reliable contractor
Once you’ve identified your home’s biggest problem areas, the real work begins: Research. This will take some time and effort, but will be well worth it in the end.
Get word-of-mouth recommendations
Word of mouth is king, so personal recommendations should always be your first step. Ask family members if they know a good contractor in the area. Ask your neighbors, too—they likely have similarly constructed homes of a similar age and are probably dealing with the same problems you’re facing. Stop by local businesses and ask for recommendations. (If you need an electrician, for example, head to the local electrical supply shop and ask around.) Don’t ask who to avoid—although some people may volunteer that information willingly—ask who they’d love to work with again.
Check for complaints
A list of recommendations is just a starting point. Your next move is to see if any of the businesses you’re circling have complaints lodged against them. The best way to do this is to by searching complaint databases via your state’s Department of Consumer Affairs or Consumer Protection. If you’re not sure where to start, this website has a list of consumer rights offices in all 50 U.S. states. Some city and county Chambers of Commerce will have complain registries, but you may have to email or call someone at the office for assistance. Whatever you do, don’t look up a contractor’s Better Business Bureau rating and call it a day—while BBB complaints can provide useful information, ratings alone rarely tell the whole story.
Look up licensing and permit requirements in your area
Before you start calling contractors, you should be familiar with what credentials a contractor needs to perform work in your area. This one is kind of a doozy: Some U.S. states require all contractors and construction workers to be licensed by the state’s construction board, while others only require state-level accreditation for certain types of work. Some counties and even cities have their own licensing requirements, too.
HomeAdvisor.com has a quick-and-dirty guide to contractor licensing practices in every state, and it’s a good place to start—but you may still be confused. In that case, find the contact section of your state, county, or city construction licensing board’s website and ask them questions. Keep it simple and direct; the person minding the construction board’s email inbox probably gets the same four questions over and over.
Make some calls and get some quotes
If you’ve done your research, you should now have a shortlist of contractors who have passed the recommendation and checkup stages. Now’s the time to start calling. Don’t be afraid to ask lots and lots of questions—most of the issues that could blow up in your face later in the game can be prevented altogether by asking lots of questions early on.
Get proof of insurance
You can’t afford to let an uninsured contractor work on your home. If they get injured—or put a backhoe through your garage—and they aren’t insured, the bill comes to you.
Don’t feel bad being firm with your request for proof of insurance. Ask how many employees they have and who will be doing the work. (Depending on the field and the kind of work being done, it’s possible the supervisor is credentialed but the workers aren’t.) You should be able to verify a contractor’s insurance policy with your state licensing board—and if you get stuck, someone at the board should be able to help.
Meet contractors in person
Have multiple contractors come out to see where the work will be done and what you expect. Communicate what you need as clearly as possible to decrease any chance of miscommunication and wasted time and money.
This is also the time to do a thorough vibe check. If you get a bad feeling about any part of the meeting, don’t move forward. I once told a contractor I needed a quote for my insurance company, and his immediate reply was, “So are you actually going to get the work done or what?” If he’d had let me finish, I would have said that I wanted the quote today so the work could get started. That comment cost him the job.
Get quotes in writing—and keep track of them
Always get quotes in writing, with as much detail as possible. Never accept anything like, “It should run you about [insert price here].” Should things go terribly wrong, verbal contracts are worthless in court. In some fields it’s impossible to perfectly estimate cost, especially if the contractor won’t be able to get a better look at the problem until work has started. But it’s not unreasonable to get an over-run percentage in writing, which basically states that if the job does run over, it won’t be more than 15% of the estimate you’ve been given.
Spreadsheets are enormously helpful during the quote-gathering stage of the game. The larger the job, the more costs you’ll have to track, and different styles of quoting can be confusing. A simple spreadsheet that lists things like parts, labor, and time estimates can help you easily compare apples to apples when you’re reviewing quotes, and help you ask important questions—like “Why are you using 50% less materials than the other three contractors I’ve gotten quotes from?” On your end, be consistent when describing the job to each contractor so they’re all working with the same information.
Ask for references
If a contractor can’t give you at least three people who can vouch for the quality of their work, you’re in trouble. Photos of past work can also be helpful for things like landscaping and large-scale remodels, so ask to see some. Be sure to actually contact the references; if the size and cost of the job merits it, you can even ask if they’ll let you see the work in person.
Avoid the biggest red flags
At this point, you’ve done all the research, checked up on the licenses and permits, gotten—and checked—references, which means the chances of you getting scammed are nearly zero. Still, it pays to be aware of the big danger signs when it comes to home-repair scams:
- If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is: Either you’re about to get ripped off, or they’re using such sub-par materials that you’ll wish they’d just taken the money instead.
- Beware high-pressure sales techniques, like insisting that a price on new siding is only good for the next 24 hours.
- No contract, no deal: Never hire anyone who won’t sign a contract.
- Never take out a permit for a contractor: Generally speaking, the person who takes out the permit is the one responsible for compliance. If your name is on the permit and the work crew totally screws up, you’re the one who will be slapped with all the fines.
What to do while the work is in progress
Once you’ve found a contractor that checks out and you feel good about, it’s time to get the work started. There are several key things you can do during the actual getting-things-done phase to make life easier and protect yourself if things go wrong.
Check in early and often
You know when the wrong time to tell the construction crew that the stone is the wrong color is? Right after they’ve tapped in the keystone and handed you the final bill. Stay on top of the project: If something doesn’t look right, bring it up as soon as you notice it. There isn’t a construction process around that is easier to fix later rather than sooner. Frequent check-ins will ensure the work is done just the way you want it.
Track the progress
Every day, make note of the work that’s been done—and not done—and take some photos. Not only is it fun to have pictures of a big project as it unfolds, but should things sour between you and the contractor, a clear photographic record is invaluable.
Get proposed changes in writing
If any major changes are made to your project, ask to get them in writing. Little things like moving some outlets or changing the type of sealant used usually don’t merit a new contract—but if you decide to add a new level to a deck halfway through, definitely get the new plan in writing.
Pay as you go
Reputable contractors do not demand all the money up front. If a contractor insists that you pay a large deposit or even the total bill before the work starts, then she or he is not a good contractor. A 10–15% deposit to start the job is reasonable, but you should never be asked to pay for raw materials. A reputable contractor will have good credit and an account with his suppliers.
Don’t be afraid to shut it down
People have a strong aversion to firing contractors, but they really shouldn’t. If your contractor is violating the terms of the deal, you can and should fire them—in writing, of course.
This isn’t necessarily an easy process because it involves contract law, which varies by state. According to Bankrate.com, you’ll want to make sure there’s a “material breach of contract” before terminating a contractor mid-job. Basically, you need to be able to prove that the contractor violated the terms you agreed upon when you hired them. (This is where those photos and written changes come in handy.) It’s much better to cut your losses when things are still salvageable so you can get someone else to finish the job.
Be a dream client
The golden rule definitely applies to the contractor-client relationship. This means you should be courteous, ask plenty of questions—while respecting their wisdom and expertise—and generally treat the people working on your house like people.
When I had a new roof put on my house in searing 90-degree Fahrenheit heat a few years ago, I made sure there was a cooler with water and sports drinks out on the driveway every day, packed to the top. The guys on the roofing crew said I was the first homeowner who had ever even asked if they were thirsty, let alone made sure they had anything to drink. Sure, you could argue that staying hydrated is their responsibility, but the cooler and the sports drinks cost me next to nothing and showed I cared about providing them a safer work environment.
Once you’ve made it this far, you’re as ready as you’ll ever be to sit back while someone else takes care of your home improvement troubles. Remember to keep logging and photographing the work, stay in communication with your contractor, and be nice—your efforts will no doubt be rewarded.
This article was originally published on July 2, 2010. It was updated on June 8, 2021 to reflect Lifehacker’s current style guidelines, and to add updated information, new links, and a new photo.