Do-it-yourself (DIY) home improvements seem like a great idea. But these projects often start out as learning experiences and end up being more trouble than they’re worth. We’ve talked before about why hiring professionals for home repair is a smart and financially savvy move, but hiring the right professional can be a headache, too! For the next two weeks, we’ll review some practical tips for finding and hiring a reliable contractor to get the job done right.

Step One: Narrow Your Focus

Before you can begin the process of hiring a contractor, you’ll need to determine what kind of contractor is best suited to your home improvement needs. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission offers a helpful overview of your options:

“Depending on how big or complex a project is, you might hire a:

  • general contractor, who manages all aspects of a project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, getting building permits, and scheduling inspections
  • specialty contractor, who installs particular products like cabinets and bathroom fixtures
  • architect, who designs homes, additions, and major renovations — especially ones involving structural changes
  • designer or design/build contractor, who provides both services”

Once you have a better idea of the type of contractor you need, you can start identifying potential hires. Let the search begin!

Two Essential Strategies for Your Contractor Search

Being an informed consumer is no easy task, but it’s well worth the time investment to feel assured that you have identified the best candidates for your home improvement hire. Here are two essential strategies for seeking out potential contractors that will bring reliability and expertise to the job:

  1. The most widely accepted piece of advice you’ll find when seeking a reliable contractor is to ask friends and family for recommendations. This allows you to get a sense of not only how reasonable the contractor’s prices were, but of the quality of their work and the relationship they maintained with the homeowners over the course of repairs.

When seeking intel on potential contractors from friends and family, ask questions like whether contractors returned calls in a timely manner, whether the costs were made transparent at the start of the project and as it progressed, and whether the contractors were respectful of the home and its contents. This last item is particularly important for families with young children–inquire about whether work spaces were kept neat and hazard-free. And check out the work, if possible, to see for yourself whether the quality lives up to your expectations.

This Old House general contractor, Tom Silva, offers some additional helpful sources for recommendations: “you can also talk with a building inspector, who’ll know which home renovation contractors routinely meet code requirements… or pay a visit to your local lumberyard, which sees contractors regularly and knows which ones buy quality materials and pay their bills on time.” If you pursue this route, we recommend casting a wide net and not simply relying on what one business or inspector has to say, as you never know where individuals’ loyalties lie.

Many consumers have begun to rely on their social network for recommendations, and this can be an excellent source of referrals. But be wary and always consider the source. Old friends and acquaintances may be quick to offer up suggestions, but their recommendations may be more about drumming up business for their own friends and family and less about helping you find professionals.

  1. Next, you’ll need to do your homework. Recommendations are important, but without the right credentials, your dream contractor could end up creating a legal nightmare for you. This step requires you to begin talking to potential contractors to request evidence of any of the certifications or licenses we discuss below. Much of this information can be gleaned via websites, but don’t feel intimidated to ask for proof of professionalism up front. Before you narrow your list down, you’ll need to be assured that these basics are out of the way.

Beyond keeping a current license (and producing evidence of all sub-contractors’ current licenses), your contractor should possess three important insurances, according to the U.S. FTC: personal liability, worker’s compensation, and property damage coverage. They note that you should, “Ask for copies of insurance certificates, and make sure they’re current, or you could be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project.”

In addition to these basics, you should investigate potential contractors’ Better Business Bureau (BBB) ratings. Reliable contractors will list their rating on their website, and many will also link to ratings from other popular consumer resources like Angie’s List (here’s ours!).

Besides gathering consumer information, US New and World Report suggests using BBB and other resources to investigate complaint and litigation history: “Check the disciplinary boards, Better Business Bureau and local court records for problems.” Even a simple Google search with the contractor’s business name and terms like “scam” or “complaints” can be helpful, the FTC notes.

Armed with quality information from a variety of personal, professional, and consumer resources, you’ll be ready to head into the next stage–hiring a reliable contractor! Check back next week for more tips.