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Paul Bianchina, How to find the right contractor

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I’ve always been a big supporter of anyone who wants to undertake a DIY project.

Doing things on your own has lots of advantages, from controlling your schedule and choice of materials, to the pride of a job well done. And of course, there are financial savings to be had.

But some projects simply need to be handled by a pro. It could be that it’s too big or too time-consuming, or it’s simply outside your skill level.

So when that time comes, how do you go about finding the right person for the job?

Know what you want and what you need.

It sounds obvious, but before you pick up the phone, you need to really understand what it is you want to have done. Because the simple fact is, if you don’t know what you want, then the contractor certainly won’t, and that will inevitably lead to misunderstandings, disagreements and, ultimately, disappointment with the finished product.

Determine as much as you can about your project beforehand. Go online, take a home tour, look through magazines, and walk through a home center or design store. The more details you have ready for the contractor — from room sizes and their intended use to the types of materials you think you’d like to use — the better the contractors will understand your needs and your vision. That will greatly improve communication, as well as your chances of getting the finished product you’re hoping for.

Who does the type of work you need?

Different contractors have different specialties. You can save yourself some time and ultimately some money if you understand the type of contractor you’re looking for. If you want a contractor to remodel your bathroom or landscape your backyard, then look for those specialties, as opposed to firms that design and build new houses.

There are also times when you need a general contractor, and times when you need a specialty contractor. A general contractor is typically one that oversees three or more trades on a project. For example, if you want to have a room addition built, you would use a general contractor, rather than hiring five or 10 individual specialty contractors and trying to coordinate each one.

On the other hand, if you want to have a new heating system installed, you’d typically hire a heating and air conditioning contractor to handle that.

Referrals.

Next you want to find the right company. The single best way to do that is through a personal referral from someone you know and trust. If you know anyone who’s had work done on their home, that’s usually the ideal place to begin. Ask them for some feedback about the contractor’s skills, pricing, on-time performance, crew and subcontractor performance, general cooperation and anything else you can learn.

There are other sources of referrals, as well. Maybe you’ve seen a plumber’s van or an electrician’s truck at your neighbor’s house. Perhaps you drive by a room addition under construction every day on your way to work.

Stop and introduce yourself, and talk to the homeowner. As long as you’re not asking a lot of personal questions, especially financial ones, most people are more than willing to share their experiences. You’ll usually get some great first-hand information about the contractor, both good and bad.

Material suppliers also are great sources. Ask the people at your local lumber yard or tile store if they know of anyone who’s particularly good at the type of project you have in mind. Like contractors, retailers have a reputation to protect. They want to keep you happy and coming back as a customer, so they’ll typically only refer contractors they know are honest and will do a good job.

One word of caution here. If you ask for a referral from a home center or a large department store, the salesperson may not know anything about the company they’re recommending; they may have been told only to refer specific contractors that have ongoing contracts with the home office, and that person may not be the best choice for you.

The initial call.

Except for small projects, I always encourage people to talk to at least two different contractors. That gives you a chance to learn about and compare different perspectives on your project, as well as see different personalities and price structures.

When you make your initial call to the contractors you’re considering, ask the following four questions before setting up an appointment for a site visit:

• Do you do the specific type of work I’m looking for? It could be they no longer do kitchens or room additions, or they now do new homes and have stopped doing remodeling. Clarify that up front.

• Can you provide me with referrals? Most companies are more than willing to provide you with names and phone numbers of past clients. If they can’t or won’t provide you with referrals, don’t hire them! Between the time you call the contractor and the time they come out to your home, be sure and follow up on a couple of the referrals and get some feedback from the homeowners. For larger projects, ask referral you’re calling if you can come out and view the contractor’s work.

• What’s your schedule like? If you have a project that has to be done within the next month and the contractor can’t even begin for two months, there’s no point in wasting your time or theirs.

• What is your exact business name and license number? Get the contractor’s full business name, address and business phone number, as well as their contractor’s license number. Before meeting with the contractor, call the proper state or local licensing agency to verify the status of the license and that any required bonds and insurance policies are in place. If there are any problems with the contractor’s license, bond or insurance, DO NOT DEAL WITH THAT CONTRACTOR.

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For your sake and for the sake of the construction industry, never deal with an unlicensed contractor.

Have a home repair or remodeling question for Paul? He can be reached by email at improvingyourhome@ykwc.net.

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