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What to know before you hire a Residential Contractor

Updated on July 9, 2017

Choosing a construction contractor can be the first step to making your dreams come true, or tripping down into a living nightmare.  The key to having a good experience is taking your time doing the upfront research on potential contractors.

Decide what you want, BEFORE you call the contractor

Before you set up appointments with various contractors, you need to know the scope of what you want. The size of your project will determine whom to contact. If you have no clue how to make your dream bathroom for example, then you need to choose either an independent contractor or a design/build contractor. The former might be just as capable of creating the space as the later mentioned, but may not have knowledge of computer design programs. The design/build contractors will create drawings or blueprints for you to see and adjust before construction begins. The independent contractor might offer you a sketch or a verbal description, which is sufficient for some people and situations.

Independent, Design/Build and General Contractors

If you are thinking you want to add a second story to a 100-year-old bungalow, you probably want to go with a design/build contractor or an architect and a general contractor.  The difference between an independent and general contractor, is really the size or depth of the organization.  If one or two people are running all aspects of their business, they are more typical of independent contractors.  General contractors, often refer to themselves as paper contractors, because they are corporations that have a slew of employees to estimate, project manage, build, invoice, advertise, engineer, and handle legal affairs.  The later typically has more resources, which means more people on the job.  This can lead to a job being completed faster than with an independent contractor.  There are two caveats to the previous statement: it might be completed faster, but you might need to wait longer, and the price might exceed your budget.

At this point you may have noticed the mention of design/build contractors, as opposed to architects whom work with builders.  A design/build contractor usually has experience with computer drafting programs, combined with field experience.  The design/build contractor might have more field experience and less formal, related education, which might be why they are not billing themselves as architect/builders.  It just depends on the company.  Sometimes architects and builders form partnerships to become design/build contractors.  Typically, architects work independently and are hired separately from the builder or the homeowner.

Due diligence before hiring a Contractor

Once you have decided what you want from a contractor, it is time to start your due diligence.  This is the most important part of this process, because like dating in a big city, you want to know something more about this person than what they have said. 

BBB, NAHB, NARI, are all great places to find competent Contractors

A great place to start when looking for a contractor is by asking your friends and family members for contractors they recommend.  If none of these people have any suggestions, then go to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).  There will be comments from previous clients, and you can see if they are members of that organization.  Once you have gathered some names and numbers there, then check to see if those same contractors are members of National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). If you want to build from scratch, and not remodel, research the membership of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).  All of these associations are specific to residential construction, and not for commercial building.

If the contractor your hair stylist suggested is not popping up in any of the previously mentioned places, not to worry, we don’t want to rule them out yet.  Given that most contractors spend their days in the field, either giving estimates, going to suppliers, or hammering nails, they don’t always have a chance to sign up for various memberships.

Contractors are in the phone book         

The contractors you have not found from your friends, family members, BBB, NAHB, NARI and your hair stylist, might be in the phone book. If so, try comparing these names to your existing list. Then, take this final list, with lots of names, back to the Better Business Bureau, to read as many remarks as possible. All of this can be done online.

Apples to Apples descriptions when requesting estimates

Once you are down to a handful of names and numbers of contractors, it is time to set up appointments. Make sure to collect bids from three to four people. Do not get lazy and think two will do, because this really is not the case. Once these people come over, make sure to describe your plan in a way that is as similar to the previous time you described the details of the job. (Practicing this before meeting with anyone is a good idea. Maybe make sure there are two of you there to keep each other in check). This will ensure that you get apples to apples estimates. If you ask one contractor for a bathroom remodel and a different contractor for a kitchen remodel, there is no way for you to compare and make a good decision.

Compare estimates from all contractors

Once you have collected your three to four estimates/bids, spread out all of them on a flat surface of your choice.  You will notice that each one is unique.  Try to see the specifics in each estimate. Even though you may have mastered your describing what you want, does not mean everyone is hearing things the same way.  This will become obvious.  If one contractor thinks you want two sinks and a whirlpool tub in the new bath remodel, while another thinks you want one sink and a skylight, then you are not getting the apples to apples bids you need.  Figure out what all of the estimates are saying that are similar and try to understand the variations.  Call the contractors whom you need to adjust their bids because they missed part of what you are wanting, and they will understand, because it is better for everyone to get this settled before construction begins.

The bids from contractors, even when bidding the EXACT same thing, may vary a bit.  One might go low because they need the work.  Another might go ridiculously high, to see if they can get it.  There might be the odd contractor who is completely out of touch with current market prices.  The best part is you have collected three or four bids which gives you some idea of what you can expect to pay, plus or minus 20%.

Ask for references from potential Contractors

Maybe all of the bids are close and you are feeling ready to spend your money.  Before you hire anyone, get references from the one or two you are considering.  You want to contact recent clients to see if they endorse or reject this contractor.  Ask these former clients, if the remodel/build took longer than was promised.  If so, how much longer and why?  Did the budget stay the same?  Were they clean or did they leave a mess?  Definitely, call more than one reference because the first one might be the contractor’s wife saying how amazing Mr. Joe is. 

You are ready to hire your favorite Contractor

If you have determined the scope of your job, the type contractor to complete the job and the specific contractor to hire, you are on your way to making something wonderful happen.  If you have followed the steps listed above, you are likely to find a reputable contractor. 

Two more things to research about contractors if interested

If you are still nervous after all of the previous steps, you can go down to your county assessor’s office and search for liens against businesses. You might even be able to find the amounts and why, which may or may not sway your decision. If they have a series of liens or lawsuits, you might want to reconsider.

Another important aspect is to make sure the contractor has insurance. If one of his employees or subcontractors get hurt on the job, or any other calamity occurs, you want them to be insured. You should also take the necessary steps to protect yourself, which might mean adding more insurance.

Good luck and please share your experience.

What do you suggest when looking for a contractor?

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    • Jessay profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from USA

      Hi Tobey,

      Sorry to have replied out of order. Anyhow, hope your home is coming back together. Tennessee was really hit hard in a short period of time, eh? Take your time rebuilding. You probably feel like getting everything done quickly, to return to normalcy, but you do not want to rush things to the point that you overlook a contractor's abilities and promises. Good luck. Thanks for stopping by, Jessay

    • Jessay profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from USA

      Hi John,

      Thanks for this Home Improvement Construction Dispute Resolution. When everything works out, we are all happy. However, when communication breaks down, situations get complicated, money is involved, and we have to figure out what should be our next step, it is good to read reports like your' s. Thanks for stopping by.

    • JON EWALL profile image

      JON EWALL 

      8 years ago from usa

      Home Improvement Construction Dispute Resolution

      By: Jon Ewall

      In this report, we will be discussing ways on how to solve a

      home improvement construction dispute resolution between

      an owner, contractor, supplier or an architect. Most home

      improvement projects end completing the project with the owner

      and the contractors when the final payment is made.

      Sadly, sometimes a small percentage of home improvement

      projects ends in a dispute regarding the performance of the

      contractors, the quality of work, contractor delays, some kind of

      breach in the contract agreement, owner not paying for the work

      as per the contract proposal agreement or the combination of the

      actions by one or both parties.

      Disputes of this nature sometimes may end in litigation by the

      parties. The parties involved in a construction dispute should attempt

      to resolve the problem before contemplating litigation. Litigation

      is expensive, time consuming and delays the completion of the project.

      Many times a construction dispute resolution can be amicably

      accomplished if the parties are cooperative, reasonable and willing

      to work together. For starters, let's broadly discuss the above situation.

      1. Cooperative:

      Cooperative is understanding the situation and that the problem

      can be resolved by being fair, patient and professional to each

      parties concerns.

      2. Reasonable:

      Reasonable concerns are that many times the problem will require

      additional costs. The question is how much and who will pay for

      the additional costs.

      3. Solution:

      It is important that the parties be respectful of each others concerns.

      The parties must reach an agreement as to what the problems are and

      a determination as how to best remedy the construction dispute.

      Lastly, a cost analysis estimate of the work required to rectify the

      problems should be made. Hopefully all the parties are communicating.

      with each other at this stage.

      Should all of the above fail, the next step prior to litigation would

      be to call for a third party impartial construction expert (agreed to

      by all parties) to attempt to arbitrate a solution. The costs of utilizing

      the expert would be shared by all parties as per an agreement.

      This method is highly recommended and is the least expensive other

      then the parties agreeing to a settlement. The parties respectfully

      should try to use all means available prior to litigation if possible.

      Litigation should only be the last resort not the first.

      Should all negotiations fail, litigation may be the only recourse as

      to which party or parties is at fault. Leaving the decision up to the

      courts can be a costly, time consuming venture for all parties.

      Please note that the construction industry is quite complex at

      times and that each project is different. Homeowners when

      contemplating home improvement projects need to do their

      homework. The importance of selecting an experienced contractor,

      construction manager, supplier or architect can and will impact the

      failure or success of the project.

      In closing article 1093 “ Home Improvement Construction Dispute

      Resolution ’’ report, one should note some old words of wisdom.

      "A word to the wise will be sufficient","buyer beware" and "you pay

      for what you get"

      Wishing you all good luck, success and a happy ending.

      Your author Jon Ewall

    • tobey100 profile image


      8 years ago from Whites Creek, Tennessee

      Jessay, this hub is especially helpful since our flood May 1st. Had to come back and read it again. Great advice


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