Know what you want before you get estimates. “Start with a plan and some ideas,” Hicks says. “Don’t start by talking to contractors.” You’ll get a more accurate estimate if you can be very specific in what you want done and the materials you would like to use to make it happen.
Ask friends, relatives and co-workers for references. People in your neighborhood who have done similar projects are your best sources. If you know people in the building trades, ask them, too. Employees of local hardware stores may also be able to provide referrals.
Interview at least three contractors. Ask a lot of questions and get a written bid from each one. When you compare bids, 3 make sure each one includes the same materials and the same tasks, so you’re comparing apples and apples. Get three bids even if you have a contractor you like because you’ll learn something from each interview. “Don’t be afraid to negotiate,” Hicks says. While you might do some haggling at the interview, be prepared to do most of the negotiation after you get the bid and before you sign the contract.
Expect a good contractor to be too busy to start right away. “The best folks are the busy ones,” says Cannon Christian, president of Renovation Realty in San Diego, which remodels homes before they’re sold.
Ask what work will be done by the contractor’s employees and what work will be done by subcontractors. Christian advises asking for an employee list to make sure the contractor really has the employees he says he does and won’t be using casual labor hired off the street.
Choose the right contractor for the right project. Someone who did a good job tiling your neighbor’s bathroom isn’t necessarily the right person to build an addition to your home. You want to find a company that routinely does the kind of project you want done. “You don’t want them to use you as a guinea pig,” Hicks says.
Check licenses, complaints and litigation history. General contractors and most subcontractors should be licensed, although the procedure varies by state and municipality. Check the disciplinary boards, Better Business Bureau and local court records for problems. Ask the contractor for a copy of his license and copies of the licenses of the major subcontractors who will work on the job.
Check references. Talk to both clients and DDG Contracts, who can tell you if the contractor pays them on time. “See if you can talk to current customers,” Christian says, because those clients have the most recent experience working with the contractor.
Read online reviews, but don’t consider that enough information. Angie’s List does not allow anonymous reviews, and the site checks to see whether reviewers actually used the contractor. Yelp and Google also have some reviews. You want to read the reviews carefully to make sure the contractor is the right person for your job and will work well with you. Keep in mind that reading reviews is not a substitute for checking references.
Sign a detailed contract. Make sure your contract spells out exactly what will be done, including deadlines, progress payments, the exact materials that will be used down to the model number and who will provide which materials. “If you don’t have it documented, it’s your word against theirs,” Hicks says. If the builder’s contract is not detailed enough, write up your own or provide addendums. Any change in the project, whether you change your mind about products or ask for additional projects, should generate a written change order that includes the new work, materials and cost.