After 19 years of operating my Homeowner Referral Network (HRN) business, I (humbly) consider myself an expert on the art of finding a good contractor. The number one complaint I hear from homeowners nationwide is that a “good contractor is hard to find”. Believe it or not, reliable contractors do exist–it’s simply a matter of knowing where to find them and, more importantly, how to screen them. 

Whether you’re planning a large home improvement project or need to hire subcontractors to handle small repairs around your home, below are a few strategies to help you find a contractor you can trust.

Where to find them?

When looking for a contractor, many homeowners ask their friends and family for recommendations but in my experience, getting a contractor referral from another tradesperson is far more reliable. While your friend may have been satisfied with a contractor he/she used once or twice, their project may be very different from yours. Trades people (i.e. contractors, painters, plumbers) deal with other contractors repeatedly, over a long period of time and in a variety of projects. In my opinion they are therefore in a better position to offer a contractor referral. And, if a recommended contractor tells you that he’s too busy to take your job, ask him to refer you to one of his colleagues who may be suitable.

How to screen them?

Once you’ve found a potential contractor for your job, ask the contractor for the names and phone numbers of three to five customers for whom he has completed a similar project in the past two years. This will make it more difficult for a contractor to “hand pick” only his best references. Call each reference and ask the homeowner what they liked and didn’t like about the contractor. Ask him if the final cost of the job exceeded his estimate and if he completed the work in a neat and timely fashion. Most importantly, ask them if they would hire the contractor again for another home improvement project.

How to check their credentials?

Before checking to see if the contractor you’d like to hire is adequately insured and licensed, you’ll need to contact your county offices to research what credentials are required for home improvement contractors in your state and in your county. I also recommend that the contractor you hire have a minimum of $1 million in general liability insurance. Be sure to get a copy of his license and insurance for your records.

How do your personalities mix?

Are you the type of person who likes to be involved in every decision or do you prefer to “leave your job to the experts”? Believe it or not, your contractor’s personality can make or break the success of your project. I have contractors in my network who prefer not to be micromanaged and others who want the homeowner’s input on every aspect of the job. The best way to find out if you and your contractor’s personalities are a good fit is to be upfront about how involved you’d like to be on your renovation. And, ask your contractors to tell you how comfortable they are with customer involvement. If your approaches aren’t compatible, it’s a good sign that he might not be the right person for the job.

Did you get it in writing?

If your contractor is hesitant to put the details of your job in writing, I would be concerned. Also, in addition to getting a written cost estimate for the job, ask the contractor to document details about the type of materials he plans to use, his anticipated start date, project schedule and completion date.

Once you’ve signed a contract, most contractors will request a down payment ranging from 10-30%. The remaining balance will be paid in increments in stages throughout the remodel and a 10% balance should be held until the final details of the project are completed to your satisfaction.

Also, I wouldn’t necessarily disqualify a contractor if he warns you that the cost of the job could exceed his estimate. There’s always the potential for unexpected surprises in general contracting projects and it’s good to allow for a 10% cushion (at least) before beginning any project. If there is an added expense, ask the contractor to provide you with documentation that justifies the additional material and labor costs.