plumber and couple looking at consruction plans

Checklist for choosing a contractor

How to research, what to document and when to communicate

You’re finally ready to tackle that home improvement project you’ve had in mind, but how do you make sure you’re hiring the right person? Your brother-in-law has tools, so can’t you just have him come over to fix your leaky faucet and replace the vanity around your sink? Maybe. Can he replace your windows? Maybe not.

Choosing a contractor can be a daunting task, and it’s hard to know who to trust. But in just a few steps you can avoid scammers and find the right business for the job, for everything from small repairs to big renovations.

First things first. Are your repairs and renovations related to a claim you’ve filed with your home insurance company? Before you even get started, if you’re having home repairs done after storm damage, your insurance carrier can tell you if the work must be completed by a licensed contractor. Your insurance company may also require photos, receipts and other documents when you file a claim. You will also need to give permission to whoever is handling your claim to discuss that claim with your contractor.

In instances of smaller repairs, your insurance carrier may not require a licensed contractor to fix cracks in your driveway or trim your trees but would still like proof of the repair and a chance to verify compliance via photos of the finished work. Your insurance company might also have a managed repair program. If they do, they can provide you with a list of approved and vetted contractors to complete the necessary work, while taking some of the research burden off your plate.

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1. Determine the scope of your project

Make a list of everything you want done and then prioritize. How involved are your projects? This will help you decide whether you need a handyperson, contractor or several specialized contractors and a general contractor to oversee them all. It can seem overwhelming, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

If your plan will likely take several weeks to complete, you would benefit from hiring a general contractor to oversee the permitting and supervision of other subcontractors like plumbers, electricians and masons. These are bigger projects such as full room renovations, building an addition on the back of your house or converting a damp basement into a finished living space.

Smaller, less involved projects can be completed by specific contractors or even a handyperson. Replacing an old dishwasher with an upgrade is a simple task for a handyperson. Installing a dishwasher where there wasn’t one before is a good time to call a licensed plumber.

Tasks that require basic tools and some elbow grease are ideal projects for someone handy — tasks like replacing a light fixture with a ceiling fan. But any time your home repairs involve in-depth plumbing, electric or altering the structural integrity of your house, you’ll want licensed professionals completing or inspecting the work to make sure it’s been safely done up to code.

2. Start your research

Word of mouth goes a long way! Talk to your neighbors about who did their new roof. Ask your friends if they’re satisfied with how their kitchen remodel went. If you’ve worked with a great electrician in the past, ask if they have a preferred carpenter who can bring your new deck and patio vision to life. Look to neighborhood social media groups for recommendations and warnings.

Then, dig a little deeper. Reading online reviews is a good start, but you’ll want to double check anyone you’re considering with the Better Business Bureau. The Federal Trade Commission Consumer Advice department says “Check with the local Home Builders Association and consumer protection officials to see if they have complaints against a contractor. Also search online for the company’s name with words like scam, review or complaint.”

Consider how long that bathroom retrofitter has been in business and if they have a good reputation for service and value. Ask the company about to pour your concrete for pictures of projects they have completed that are similar to what you’re asking them to do on your property. An honest business won’t bristle at providing references if you want to talk to prior customers. Reputable contractors rely most heavily on referral business and won’t come knocking on your door to hit you with a hard sell.

3. Gather quotes for your project

Get at least three quotes to find out what’s reasonable and what might be too good to be true, in terms of both time and budget. The Federal Trade Commission Consumer Advice department warns, “Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder. And ask for an explanation if there’s a big difference among the estimates.”

The cost of doing ethical business is often somewhat higher, but it’s worth it. You want to make sure your home, family and the people you’ve hired are all protected if an accident, injury or further property damage occurs — and you don’t want to be the one held liable.

If your project requires the work of a licensed contractor, get their license number. No matter who is doing your work, ask to see a certificate of insurance to make sure their coverage, which should include general liability and worker’s compensation, is current and up to date. If the repairs and renovations you’re planning are part of an insurance claim, discuss that with the contractor up front. Some contractors do not accept work that is associated with an insurance claim.

4. Communicate and document as you go

Once you’ve chosen who you’re excited to work with, you will want to clearly establish the scope of the work you want done, expectations, preferences, schedule and budget. Your contract should clearly state a start and finish date, along with a detailed listing of the work and materials to be used, including warranties, and a payment schedule. Be wary of anyone who insists that you pay for the entire project up front. Also, your contractor is also responsible for securing any necessary permits required for your project.

As your home improvement project progresses, keep up open communication with your contractor throughout the process. Bring up any concerns or changes as they arise. Maintain your own documentation of hours the crew spends on-site, if tasks are carried out as you agreed to and whether the job is staying on schedule and on budget. You are the paying customer, the one who has to live with the finished product, and a good business partner will want you to be satisfied.

If you’re undertaking a large renovation requiring the services of a general contractor, make sure a lien waiver is in place. This is an agreement that your general contractor is responsible for paying all subcontractors so you aren’t hit with surprise costs after the fact.

5. Don’t forget to tell your insurance company!

Even if your renovations weren’t related to a claim you’ve filed, it’s still a good idea to tell your insurance company about them. Why? Because your new bathroom, sunroom or roof may have increased the value of your home and you want your insurance policy to reflect that value. Remember, your homeowners insurance is based on the cost to replace your home in the event of loss or damage. That number is accounted for in your policy’s Coverage A, not the market value of your home. In the event of future catastrophes, you want to be sure your home is properly insured to value so that coverage adequately compensates you for damages.

Choosing a contractor doesn’t have to be intimidating, whether you’re hiring a handyperson, a general contractor or someone in between. With a little research ahead of time and clear communication throughout the process, you can find the right person for the job, big or small.