Start by assessing the scope of your project
"Is it going to be a small renovation or a total gut? There are a lot of excellent home remodelers out there, but some may have a niche like a kitchen or bathroom project," Rick Scherek, a realtor in Edina, Minnesota, says. "To go into a home and really gut it might be beyond someone's expertise."
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Ask for referrals
Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock "The best way to begin your search for a contractor is to ask your neighbors and friends," says Justin Krzyston, president of California-based Stonehurst Construction and Design, Inc.. "A referral will help you feel safe and secure, especially if you are trusting someone to repair or build back your home."
Set up in-person interviews
Gina Gutierrez, lead designer and founder of San Francisco-based interior design firm Gina Rachelle Design, says she frequently interviews potential contractors in the very spaces where renovations will occur. She says this allows her to gain a sense of their familiarity and comfort with the space—and, ultimately, how that contractor will translate plans on paper into real, physical results. "Do you have an idea of what that space is going to look like? Is it going to have a lot of detail or tile work? Even if you don't have the material and finishes picked out, it's important to have an idea of what's going into the project before hiring an outside contractor," she says.
Review previous work and testimonials
"Ask for testimonials and examples of past projects," Gutierrez recommends. "Also, get to know their niche. Are they an expert in structural engineering if we're knocking down any walls?" Here are questions to ask yourself before you renovate.
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Syda Productions/Shutterstock "I request a minimum of three references," Rita Wilkins, interior designer and president of Design Services, Ltd. says. Wilkins has hired—and fired—contractors for her clients for more than 35 years. She says the big-picture questions—timeline, budget, quality of work and project outcome—are all certainly important, but it's also crucial to ask how a potential contractor dealt with the more mundane, day-to-day logistics of previous projects. "Did he or she show up every day? Were they punctual? Did they have all the materials needed to do the work? Were the right subcontractors with them at the right time? One of the things we frequently hear is, 'I thought their trucks would never leave our driveways,'" she says.
Confirm licensures and pull permits
"Contractors need to prove proper licensing for the state, the city, and the county," Wilkins says. "Also, make sure they sign a release of liens." Scherek also says it's important for contractors to pull the proper permits for proof of inspections cleared with past work. "If there was plumbing or electrical work done, you have to make sure it was done up to code and inspections were run," he says. Both Scherek and Wilkins also recommend calling the Better Business Bureau to cover all your bases by checking against any formally filed complaints.
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Pay attention to how they treat their subcontractors
"A contractor's timeline and drawings should be posted visibly at all times, both on and offsite, for the owner and subcontractors to see," Wilkins says. "And, when problems occur, a GC (general contractor) will not point fingers. They need to be troubleshooters and problem solvers."
Ask about their approach to privacy
Veles Studio/Shutterstock "The contractor and his or her team are often in the most private parts of your home (e.g. bedrooms and bathrooms) so you want to make sure they are respectful of your space," Jerry Carrifiello, owner of New York-based Rivertown General Contracting, says.
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Can they speak in lay terms
"Can the contractor explain to you what's going to happen without using too much technical jargon? If they can, that's usually a signal they understand the overall complexity of the project at hand," Mark Clement, a home improvement media personality and Pennsylvania-based residential remodeling contractor, says.
Wait to talk money
If you disclose what you can pay upfront, Scherek says some contractors will tell you they can match your budget—but only to earn your business. "You don't want to be romanced early on," he says. "Things will inevitably change and come up with every project. You're going to uncover someone's integrity by going through all the steps and building that relationship with them before you say, 'OK, now let's see if this project falls within this budget range and go from there.'"
Pay as you go
kudla/Shutterstock Once you've landed on a budget that works for all parties, "Only make payments as the work is completed," Krzyston recommends. "Do not pay all of the money upfront. Contracts and payments should always be subject to milestones in construction—such as X amount for demolition, X amount after framing, foundation, drywall, etc."
Go with your gut
Logistics aside, Scherek says it's important to trust your instincts. After all, it's proof in the little things that often represents the strength of an honest, reliable, and trustworthy relationship. "Ask yourself, is this person telling you what you want to hear or what you need to know? Transparency is key," he says.
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Don't settle—and welcome changes with open arms
MIND AND I/ShutterstockTaylor and Mark Gauger, Minneapolis homeowners who recently completed their first residential remodel, initially chose a contracting team recommended by their interior designer, but "after a few in-person meetings, that contractor came back with a number that was way too far outside our budget. So we did not continue with them," they say. They wound up scratching plans and going with a different contractor. "After a few meetings and plenty of discussions, the new contractor was able to give us everything we wanted within our budget."
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