How to Find a Good Contractor

Contractor Extending Tape Measure To Measure Angle Of Board With Straight Edge Lying On The Floor, Ontario
 Amy Kay / Getty Images

When building a new home or embarking on extensive home renovations, the services of a contractor are invaluable. Contractors coordinate the moving parts in complicated building and remodeling processes. They find and manage subcontractors, deal with payments to vendors, work with an architect if needed, purchase materials, and in general act as much-needed guides through the complex process of home building or remodeling.

While contractors are easy to find, you want a good contractor—one who is not only legitimate, fair-dealing, and honest but one who is easy to work with and will carry your creative vision through to completion. Finding a contractor who is well-suited to both you and your project is key to the successful completion of the job.

Signs of a Good vs. Bad Contractor

Good Contractor

  • Clean record, within reason
  • Responsive and punctual
  • Listens to your ideas
  • All hired work is accompanied with written contracts
  • Provides written estimates

Bad Contractor

  • Contractor licensing abnormalities
  • Habitually late or doesn’t return calls
  • Avoids permits, zoning, and building codes
  • Speaks poorly of clients or associates
  • Many lawsuits against the contractor

The Process of Finding a Contractor

Define Your Project

Before contacting any contractor, begin by defining the project in precise terms. For example, if you wish to build a house addition, drill further down into specifics that will help match the perfect contractor to this job. Is it meant to be a small addition such as a room bump-out? Or are you planning on a full-scale addition with bedrooms, bathrooms, and living areas? 

General contractors have areas of special expertise or interest that are often apparent when you research portfolios, photo galleries, and before-and-after images. The contractor may have a website featuring this information or third-party sites may feature the contractor, as well.

Online Contractor Matching Services

Online contractor-matching services can be reliable sources of contractors for homeowners, with algorithms that precisely match contractors with potential projects. Matching services often have a wealth of information about contractors on their service, including criminal background checks, license verification, client reviews, and photos.

Recommendations from Neighbors and Friends

Word-of-mouth recommendations from a trusted source is an excellent way to find a good contractor. Begin with family, friends, or neighbors who have used a contractor recently for advice about the contractor that they hired.

Signs of a Good Contractor

At a minimum, a good contractor will have a reasonably clean record with state and local licensing boards. If there is a record, negative matters are not extensive or of a troubling nature, and all matters have been closed out.

Checking online, do you see that a contractor is involved in an unusually large number of lawsuits? Because of the nature of their business, contractors often are the subject of lawsuits. So the fact that a contractor has been involved in lawsuits should not be viewed as a red flag. Outstanding demands on a contractor’s bond will usually be available on state and local licensing sites.

At your meetings, the contractor should be attentive and listen when you describe your goals. The meeting is a dialogue, with each side freely and equally trading ideas. The contractor does not have to agree with everything you say; in fact, one value of hiring a contractor is that you are paying for their experience.

A good contractor will be forthright about all regulatory matters associated with your project: building codes, permits, inspections, and zoning. These issues are a major part of any extensive build or remodel.

While it is acceptable for a contractor to verbally give you non-binding cost estimates, any firm cost estimate should always be written and signed.

Contractor Red Flags

State licensing boards maintain publicly viewable lists of contractor licenses And let you know if they are in good standing. Often, you can see details about administrative actions taken against contractors.

Online contractor-matching services usually have a background screening service that contractors must pass in order to be accepted into the system. If the contractor is part of the matching service and in good standing, you can be assured that the contractor has passed that minimum level of screening.

Contractors often are busy people, juggling many balls at the same time. So arriving late at an appointment or even missing one is not the ultimate black mark against that person. However, if the contractor is habitually late to preliminary appointments or does not return phone calls, you can be certain that the contractor will continue the same habits after you have hired that person.

Contractors who bad-mouth clients, vendors, subcontractors, or employees, especially during your early conversations, should be avoided.

The word contract is part of contractor. So if you have a contractor who wants to proceed without written agreements between the both of you, this is a major red flag. Other than early introductory meetings, your relationship should be one that is defined by a contract signed by both of you. In fact, during the process of building, all variations to the contract should be in the form of change orders.

Contractors who show up at your door unsolicited often are running scams for roofing, driveway, and siding repairs. Such door-to-door contractors may say that they have leftover materials that they are willing to use on your property. You should always seek out the contractor and not the other way around.

Most contractors will not ask you for full payment before starting the project, and instead should ask for an initial payment and identified progress payments throughout the process.

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