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Choosing a Contractor

Choosing a contractor can be a stressful experience. As one participant in the 2013 Working with a Contractor workshop put it, “They’re the experts. They know, and I don’t.”

It is true that the contractor will almost always have more technical knowledge than the homeowner. But that doesn’t mean that the homeowner should consider him- or herself powerless. Boston Building Resources staff member and workshop instructor Paul Kiefer advises interviewing potential contractors in the same way you might interview a job candidate who has applied to work for you at your place of business. An in-person meeting will give you the opportunity to ask questions and to get a feel for the contractor’s personality, with the goal of ending up with a relationship of trust. “You may not be able to judge their expertise, but you can learn a lot based on personality,” he said.

List your expectations

As you begin your project, Paul advises, make a list for yourself of the issues most important to you. Quality of work is certainly important, but also consider communication skills, maintaining a clean jobsite, environmental consciousness, and experience with reused materials. Such a list will help you clarify for yourself the qualities you feel most strongly about and those that are less important. If an issue is important to you, it is worth voicing during the interview process. “It is within your rights to forward any need you have,” said Paul.

Working with a Contractor workshop participants came up with this list of specifications for a bathroom remodeling project.

Working with a Contractor workshop participants came up with this list of specifications for a bathroom remodeling project.

In advance of seeking contractors and bids, Paul recommends drafting a detailed specification sheet of the work you want done. Spell it out in as much detail as possible, and give the list to each contractor to minimize the chance of misunderstanding or faulty assumptions and to be sure all contractors are bidding on the same work. Make sure to include your time frame.

Find some names

Obtain at least three written bids for the work to be done. Names of contractors may come from the Boston Building Resources referral list (current BBR members only) as well as from family, friends, neighbors, and referral/rating websites. If a contractor is recommended by a family member or friend, do not skip any steps in the evaluation process. Too many people have been burned by placing their trust in someone whom they did not adequately vet beforehand. No source of referrals is foolproof. As the old adage says, a contractor is only as good as his or her last job.

Meet in person

During the in-person interview with each contractor, the homeowner should take a position of confidence, said Paul. “You are the one vetting, the one in a position to decide. “ Here are some good questions to ask:

  • How will you go about doing this job?

Ask the contractor to explain his or her approach. How long do they expect it to take? Will the contractor be doing the work him- or herself, or will others be doing it? How often will you be on the jobsite? How will you handle the punch list (list of remaining tasks as the job is nearing completion)?

  • Will you be pulling a permit?

If the answer is ‘no,’ this is a huge red flag. While permits and inspections can be inconvenient, they are important safety checks to be sure the work has been done according to the building code. Skipping this step leaves the door open for hazardous and faulty work. Keep in mind, however, that building inspectors will not flag problems with paint, caulk, hardware, and other things considered “cosmetic,” but which can be a significant part of the job. The homeowner must point out any problems in these areas.

  • Are you licensed and insured?

The contractor’s insurance agent should email a certificate of insurance directly to you. Coverage should include liability with a limit of at least $1 million to $2 million, as well as workers’ compensation. Each contractor should have a valid Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor license. You can confirm that a contractor’s license is valid (not expired) through the Commonwealth’s Office of Consumer Affairs. Plumbers and electricians should have valid licenses for their respective trades, which can also be verified from the Office of Consumer Affairs.

  • How will my space be affected?

What time of day does work begin and end? Does the contractor expect to work on Saturdays? Will a lot of dust be generated? Will workers be passing through living areas? Will the work affect your pets? Do the workers smoke? Will they be using the homeowner’s bathroom? Will they be making phone calls throughout the day? Depending on the level of disruption, you may want to separate the work area from the living area with plastic dust barrier walls.

  • If we have a problem, and the job is going in a direction that I did not intend, how will you help me solve it?

You might ask the contractor to give an example of a past situation where there was a touchy issue, and how it was resolved. An unsatisfactory answer to this question is another red flag.

Check references

Paul recommends asking for references for the person’s last three jobs. This will help avoid “cherry picking,” or choosing only positive references. It is also worth asking if these jobs were finished on time.

Keep in mind that any contractor doing business the right way, with proper insurance and licensing, will not be the cheapest. “You need to be prepared to pay for professionalism,” said Paul. “If a contractor is cutting corners or not being honest and giving you a low bid, you will end up paying the price in other ways.”

Taking the time to define your expectations, thoroughly evaluate contractors, and choose one who shares your values will go a long way to ensuring a successful renovation project.

This article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of BBR's HandsOn newsletter.