How to Find the Best Contractor for Your Construction or Remodeling Project
If you are a homeowner or business person who is looking for guidelines about how to find the best contractor for your project, this is for you.
I have been working for contractors, been a contractor myself, and hired many contractors over the past 22 years. Most of my experience is in building construction, remodeling, renovation, and repair, so those are the main types of contracting which are addressed in this post.
Define Your Project
You’re starting with at least a general idea of what you want to be done. You may have a collection of bits and pieces, photos, sketches, etc. Be prepared to share those and expand upon them to create a more detailed description.
Consider this old saying that many contractors use, which is not completely accurate for every situation, but may be somewhat useful as a simple thought process to figure out priorities;
You have to figure out your priorities. Ultimately you need to define the scope of work including sizes, locations, product specifications, and any other details that may be helpful for the successful completion of the project.
It is important to describe things in measurable terms, especially when it’s time for a contractual agreement. How specific or how vaguely things are defined may be to the advantage or disadvantage of either party.
Some contractors will be more helpful to design your project than others. For example, a specialty contractor such as a fence company usually will come out discuss your ideas with you, show you some standard options to choose from, measure the site, draw a diagram along with a quoted price, and may also quote prices for optional upgrades.
An especially complicated project may require the involvement of professional designers, such as an architect, engineer, interior designer, etc. You may contract with them directly, or some general contractors have these personnel in their company or can work with them as part of their scope of work.
Use a General Contractor or Specialty Contractor(s)?
Depending on the scope of your project, you may need a general contractor or a specialty contractor. A general contractor may hire various specialty subcontractors and manage a complex project for you. A general contractor usually has a network of subcontractors that they prefer to work with based on their experience, and those subcontractors may provide preferred service to that general contractor.
If you have some management experience and knowledge of project issues, you might consider acting as your own general contractor by hiring various subcontractors. If you do not have sufficient experience and expertise, this will likely be challenging and risky. Some subcontractors choose to work only for general contractors, not directly for homeowners, so your pool of available contractors will be fewer and likely less responsive than those that regularly work for general contractors.
Do you Need Licensed, Bonded, and Insured Contractors?
I often hear people say they or someone they know is a “contractor,” though they’re sometimes not really that, except maybe by some loose definition. A contractor is a legal entity which has authority to make contracts for provision of certain services and/or products.
Legal requirements for contractor license, bond, and insurance vary in different locales. You can probably find out by doing an internet search for “contractor requirements” and your state, county, city, etc. to determine what is and is not legal. There is probably a phone number that you can call to ask questions, or you may be able to visit an office for a consultation. Some places offer classes for the local residents to learn how to deal with contractors.
Licensing in some jurisdictions, for some types of contractors, involves strict requirements that include verified work history and competence tests. In some areas, a license just means that forms were filled out and fees were paid, adding no substantial value to a contractor’s credentials in regard to competency, other than just being legal. Other jurisdictions allow a more laissez-faire way of contracting, with little or no licensing requirements.
Bonding is essential so that a customer can conveniently recover losses if a contractor fails to fulfill an agreement. Again, legal requirements for contractor bonds vary in different jurisdictions. A bond is an amount of money from the contractor that is held by a 3rd-party, such as a local government authority, and may be awarded as compensation to a customer in case of a breach of contract.
Insurance is crucial in case of an accident or negligence, whether it results in property damage, personal, injury, or death. There are various forms and limits of insurance that are appropriate for different situations. Working with an uninsured “contractor” can be especially risky. If something unfortunate happens, the homeowner and their insurance could be held liable. You don’t want to pay for someone else’s fault, but it can happen.
Knowing about those issues, plus considering the size, scope, and potential risk of your project, can help you decide whether a licensed, bonded, and insured contractor is what you need.
Check Customer Reviews
Pre-screening contractors includes checking reviews from their customers. The best sources of customer reviews may be among your peers. Ask your friends, family, and co-workers about their experiences and recommendations.
Some contractors do not advertise; they get all their business from word-of-mouth recommendations. I’ve found some of those to be the best contractors for providing high value at reasonable cost.
Some sources of online reviews may be more reliable than others. I don’t use Yelp or Home Advisor for anything after finding out how much their results are manipulated by companies paying them for promotion and giving incentives to their customers for reviews.
That is more or less similar to how many online review sites, including the Better Business Bureau and others, adjust their listings for money while trying to appear objective. Their business is selling advertising. Be aware.
Get Competing Bids for Your Project and Compare Proposals
Whether a contractor calls it a bid, proposal, or whatever, you should know the difference between an estimate versus a quotation. Some people use these interchangeably, but in my experience, an estimate is rough and subject to change, whereas a quotation is definite according to detailed specifications.
Get 3-5 bids and compare. Keep in mind that you may not be comparing apples to apples. The cheapest price on the bottom line might not be the best deal. Consider requesting contractors to clarify certain points and ask why there are differences.
You could also consider getting a trusted 3rd-party to review and give you feedback about the bid proposals before you proceed.
Evaluate the Competency of Contractors
Remember the old “good – fast – cheap: choose two” saying. Consider your priorities. A common priority is to hire the cheapest contractor, and maybe that’s one of your priorities. Working efficiently and providing high value for low cost is a great competency for a contractor, but you should verify that.
Be cautious about outliers whose price is way below the other prices. A general rule of thumb that I recommend is not to always hire the cheapest contractor, as my experience has shown that choice can be troublesome and sometimes more expensive in the long run.
After you have narrowed your choices down to 1 or 2 and are getting ready to make a final decision, dig deeper into the contractor’s project history and customer reviews. Most companies have a portfolio of projects and a list of some previous customers who you may be able to talk to about their experience.
You could also visit a project site with work in progress, which may be helpful if you’re considering a remodeling project while you’re living in your house, as organization and cleanliness are especially important in that case, not only the finished product.
If you’re hiring a general contractor, consider checking with some of their subcontractors for reviews too.
You should search for court cases, judgments, credit problems, and other past negative issues that may concern you.
All of that will give you a reasonable indication of a contractor’s competency.
Negotiate an Agreement and Sign a Contract
In addition to previously mentioned issues above, some other important considerations for a contract include;
- Specify the time frame for when the project will start and duration for when it will end. Work days and hours, too.
- Specify payments schedule with clear terms for deposit or down payment, progress payments, and final payment.
- Clarify issues such as who will provide what. Who is responsible for water, electricity, toilet, etc.?
- Is everything that you expect included in the detailed scope of work?
- Does the contractor guarantee to provide complete service, or is there wiggle room that might result in incomplete work or change orders?
- Specify procedures for corrections during the project, as well as penalties for failure to fulfill the agreement.
I use a short-form contract of 1-2 pages for small jobs, and for big jobs I use a long-form, very detailed contract with various attachments to clarify details. Long-form contracts can have several dozen pages, if not more.
You might be comfortable signing a short-form contract, but especially with a long-form contract, I recommend that you pay a lawyer to review it before you finalize it with your signature.