If you plan a major renovation to your home – anything from updating a bathroom to adding a master suite – you'll need a remodeling contractor to do the job. Who you choose may be the biggest decision you've made since you bought your home.
Choose the right person and your project will go smoothly and you'll be delighted with the results. Choose the wrong one and it will be a nightmare, and a costly one at that. There is no margin for error.
It's not that there are a lot of crooks in the industry. There may be a few but probably no more than in any other line of work. The problem arises when the project exceeds the contractor's level of competency.
You can't rely on a contractor looking for work to tell you that a particular job is too difficult for them. In most cases they'll think they can give you what you want but once into the project, realize they're over their heads. By then, it's too late.
So you have to be the one to decide if a particular contractor is up to the job and four steps can help you make a good decision.
First, ask for referrals. If someone you know has recently done a similar renovation, find out if they were happy with the results. If possible, visit their house and look at the results for yourself. Compare their job to the one you have in mind, making sure the same knowledge and skills are required.
In addition to inspecting the finished work, ask what it was like to work with the contractor or company. Remember, you are going to be living with this person for an extended period of time, often in the middle of a construction zone.
If they tend to be messy, noisy or disruptive, that's something to take into consideration. Someone who sings off-key all day long is likely to get on your nerves after the first hour or two. A remodeling industry consultant once said that the happiest the homeowner is with the contractor is the day they sign the contract – it's all downhill after that.
Once you have a few candidates, do some legwork to check them out. A good place to start is with the contractor's website. That's where the contractor will list all their selling points. You should be able to find out if they hold all the required licenses from the state and local municipality. Membership in industry associations can also be a good sign.
The industry provides opportunities for remodeling contractors to take advanced courses and earn specific certifications. If they have a certification in bathroom remodeling, and your project happens to be a bathroom upgrade, that might be a point in their favor.
When a contractor lists certifications and credentials, do a little research to see what they actually mean and what's required to earn them.
Once you have a list of candidates, schedule in-person interviews. Prepare a list of questions in advance, including start and stop times for the work day, timeline for starting and completing a project, as well as more general questions.
The object of the interview is more than gaining information; you're taking the measure of the contractor as a person. Pay attention to their general demeanor and attitude. Do they strike you as someone you can get along with? Remember, you're going to be in close quarters with them for quite a while.
If there is a conflict or misunderstanding along the way, which can happen, how do you think they will be to deal with? What kind of questions do they ask? A prospective contractor who asks a lot of questions is a good sign.
You've probably already checked out the candidates with family and friends but you should still ask the contractor to provide references. These will be jobs the contractor believes went well and is proud of.
Make sure you are comparing apples to apples, however. If the references all seem to be for exterior work, such as decks or outbuildings, this contractor may not be the right choice for a kitchen remodel. It's not that they can't do the work, but there may be someone else who can do it with better results.
The contractor should give you names and contact information so that you can talk to the references directly. Sometimes people are reluctant to give a negative review – especially if they like the person – so ask, “Is there anything about the job you wished was done differently?" The answer will often reveal a hidden problem or concern.