How to Hire a Contractor

Your home is your biggest asset, and keeping it in good shape can keep you safe and provide big returns when it’s time to move. You can’t and don’t have to do everything around the house, but finding help can rank right up there with going to the dentist or going bra shopping. I get it. You have no “extra”time in your day to learn how to fix random things at home. And you have even less time to chase a contractor who won’t return calls. Finding the right contractor can be easier than you think if you do a few simple steps upfront.

How to Hire a Contractor

It’s easier to keep a home organized if it’s not falling apart. And it’s easier to keep a well-maintained home organized, too.

  • Start by contacting three to five businesses for bids on your job. Many contractors and service providers are just terrible at returning calls, so it may take several calls to more than three companies to actually get three estimates. Knowledge is power, and options are good. Insurance companies often require three written estimates for good reason; estimates can range thousands of dollars on even a relatively simple job.


  • Ask for references from friends and neighbors. People love to brag about great or awful work, and your friends usually have much better information than public directories or Google. More importantly, local service providers are just that…local. The best painter in your area might not be the best painter in the next town over.


  • Ask for license, proof of insurance and at least three referrals. Don’t start work until you have proof of current insurance from the contractor’s insurance company. Seriously, it’s easy to get caught up on this one. The contractor shows up at 8 am on Monday to work, and says they forgot to call their agent, or their agent doesn’t open until 9, or says their agent doesn’t do email (what???), or they just give you the name of their agent and say you can call him or her. Nope. Not good enough. Get actual proof of insurance emailed to you directly from the insurance agent. It’s a one-page document that actually names you on their policy for the duration of the project. Without this contact and documentation, if something goes wrong, who are you going to call??? But if  the contractor drives over your sidewalk and breaks it, and then the township requires that you pay to fix it, you’ll already have the information you need to make a claim on your contractor’s insurance. (Yep, true story.)


  • Call all referrals. If a contractor can’t drum up three happy clients willing to be references…beware! If the thought of a cold call makes your blood run cold, just start with, “Hi, my name is So-and-so and I got your name from XYZ Contracting. I understand they did some work for you, and I just wanted to check their references before I hired them to do work for me.”  People are happy to tell their story, and you’ll feel better hearing about it.


  • Pay only a nominal deposit. Deposits usually range from 10-33% of the total project cost, and this allows the contractor to pay for materials to get started. Any more than one-third of the estimate is just robbery, and could signal that your contractor is headed to the Caribbean with your deposit. Sadly, one of my clients had this happen just last year, when they gave their painter half of the estimate as a deposit, and he never finished the job. If this happens to you, you might have recourse by contacting them many, many times (as my client ultimately did), doing more research to find their insurance agency to make a claim, and ultimately filing in small claims court. But who wants to go through all of that?


  • Insist on a written estimate. No ifs, ands, or buts! A written estimate on your contractor’s letterhead is a written contract, even if it doesn’t say “Contract.” More importantly, it allows both you and the contractor match up your expectations before work begins.  If you specified in writing that the painter will paint the ceiling, you’ll have something to back you up if the contractor later says he thought you meant you didn’t want the ceiling painted! (True story, again.)


  • Sign off any changes with your contractor. When projects get rolling, changes do happen. Just take the time to document any changes so you won’t be surprised with either the outcome or the cost, and the contractor develops a happy customer willing to give a good reference in the future. Even a simple email requesting a change to installing three light fixtures instead of one, and asking for the estimated change in price, will make things clearer for your contractor, and will allow you to follow the money when the bill is issued.


  • Go with your gut. Shy away from contractors you just don’t feel comfortable with, for any reason. As your mama always said, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Better to delay the start of a project than be left with a half-done project and an abandoned front-loading tractor parked in your backyard all summer. (I have seriously experienced some of the strangest contractor situations!)


  • Remember that you are in control. You can withhold final payment if issues persist or the job isn’t completed. Don’t pay until you get your work completed. My bathroom contractor refused to hang my shower rod until I paid the bill because he was “too busy” to come out to just take care of that one last little detail. Guess how that one ended? (True story.)

A contractor who can meet all of the above items is more likely to complete your job in a professional manner and be the contractor that you love to refer.

As of December 31, 2005 many types of contractors (but not all) must register with the state of NJ as a Home Improvement Contractor and display their license number on their business materials.  Pennsylvania also has a license process, and you can check to see if your PA contractor is licensed here. An unlicensed contractor may not carry adequate insurance, which could signal trouble for you, and they are also operating outside the law.

Once you’ve found them, here’s how to really know that you can trust your home contractor.

Whether you are tackling a spring update to your home, or you are taking care of a little leak before it becomes a big leak, hiring a contractor doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it’s a whole lot less scary than seeing your biggest investment lose value!