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By Allison Videtti
Since buying our house four years ago, it has felt like my husband and I are always in the middle of a home renovation project. Whether it’s updating our master bathroom, painting every wall in the house or installing a new dishwasher, there’s no end to the home improvements we want to make.
We’re pretty handy, so we can tackle the little projects, no problem. But for the bigger projects (hello, kitchen remodel), we decided to call in a pro. As much as we’d love to take that on ourselves, there’s a good chance a DIY kitchen re-do would turn into a nightmare and/or a few days in the hospital. So we decided that hiring a contractor was the way to go.
Finding a contractor we trust was no easy feat. While most of them seemed like perfectly nice people — only one gave us a bad feeling — there were so many things to consider, like cost, experience, whether they subcontract their work, etc.
After a few months of searching, we finally found “the one,” and we’re excited to get our renovation started. If you’re planning your next home improvement project, big or small, here are a few tips we learned on our search that can help you find the right contractor:
1. Start with recommendations. We started out using online resources, but wound up finding our contractor through my husband’s boss. Do yourself a favor: before you hop online, ask your friends, family and neighbors for their recommendations. While you might find a perfectly good contract online, there’s something to be said for a word-of-mouth endorsement. Your friend or family member likely wouldn’t recommend the person if they had a bad experience. And as an added bonus, you can go to their home and see the contractor’s handy work for yourself, even before you call.
2. Use online tools wisely. Websites like Angie’s List, Yelp and HomeAdvisor can be great tools for finding the right contractor, if you use them right. In the case of my kitchen remodeling contractor, I found these tools to be most useful for doing research AFTER I had a few recommendations from friends and family. Before I ever called the contractors, I went online and researched their customer reviews. If they didn’t have any, they weren’t necessarily out of the running, but those who did have positive online reviews were bumped to the top of the list.
If you’re using a website to find your contractor, look not only at the rating but also at the number of reviews. For me, if a person had a five-star rating but two reviews, that meant less than someone with 50 reviews and four stars. Look also for themes in the reviews. Was the work great, but the clean-up sloppy? Did the contractor do good work, but disappear for a few days in the middle of the job? Common themes in reviews paint a clearer picture than a couple of bad reviews.
3. Ask a million questions. Your contractor is a business partner, of sorts. You should feel comfortable asking questions, and they should feel comfortable answering them. Ask about financials – do they have the cash on hand to purchase the materials they’ll need and bill you later, or do you need to buy them up front? Do their jobs ever go over budget and, if so, by how much on average?
Also, ask about how they’ll go about doing the work. Does the contractor subcontract work, or do they do it themselves? How many other jobs will they have going on while they’re working on yours? Do they only use licensed, insured labor? Will they pull permits, or do you have to do it?
Be sure to check with your state’s licensing board to verify that your contractor is licensed, and ask them for proof of insurance (including liability). Ask for names of subcontractors and do the same with them, too.
4. Get multiple bids. Even if the first contractor you meet seems like the right fit, do yourself a favor and get multiple estimates. Ask each contractor to prepare an itemized bid that includes the cost of materials, labor and other expenses. That way, if you decide not to do a certain part of the job — install a new floor, for example — you’ll know how much your price should come down. And you’ll be able to tell if one contractor is overcharging you a lot for a specific part of the project. You can then either ask that contractor to come down in price, or remove them from your shortlist.
Depending on the availability of contractors in your area, finding the right home remodeling contractor can take a few weeks or a few months. Once you decide on one, make sure to get a contract in writing, and follow up with your homeowners’ insurance company to make sure you have enough coverage. Once you do, you’ll be ready to start turning your house into a dream home.
Allison Videtti is a digital marketing manager at Alliant. In her previous life, she worked in real estate and held multiple positions at a Chicago-based digital marketing agency, overseeing content strategy for a number of financial services clients. Allison's always been a saver and is something of a personal finance junkie. She loves reviewing her spending and updating her budget, and can't get enough of finance-related blogs and podcasts. Her favorites? Wisebread.com and the Planet Money podcast.