A Reliable Contractor? It doesn't have to be a Contradiction

Hiring a contractor? Just the thought of it can elicit a stomach-sickening premonition about getting taken advantage of. One imagines the horrors of a three day job lapsing into a multi-week drag. In fact, it's enough to make some people consider dusting off the "How To" series for the home project in question. But don't despair. There are ways to find reliable contractors, and we're here to walk you through it.

The easiest, and generally best, way to choose a contractor is to get a reference from someone you trust. If your neighbor's carpenter did a great job building her porch for a fair price, you might want to put that person at the top of your list. But don't rush into commitment too quickly, even if you feel you'll ultimately choose that person. A good rule of thumb is to call at least three contractors for small jobs and up to six for large jobs. If your friends only have horror stories to share, there are other options out there for locating a contractor. One can always start the old-fashioned way by hauling out the yellow pages, or you might spot something in the local classifieds. In today's world, you can jump online and pull up a list of area contractors in a matter of seconds.

With your list in hand, start calling to discuss your project. If you have to leave a message, make a note of how quickly the contractor returns your call since this could be an indicator of work habits. When you're on the phone with a prospective contractor, take the time to ask a few general questions up front. Ask if estimates are free, inquire about general price ranges, make sure they do the kind of work you need, and find out if the contractor is licensed. Based on this conversation, you can decide whether or not you want them to come out for a written estimate. After all, if you're being rushed off the phone with one sentence answers, you might not want this person working for you.

The next interview will be face-to-face as prospective contractors visit your home or business. So there aren't any unpleasant surprises later, be clear and comprehensive about what you want done. Before you sign a contract, make sure you know what the estimate covers. For instance, what is the specified amount for parts and labor? Ask about things like overtime charges that might not be mentioned. Make sure a start date and approximate date of completion are discussed and written into the contract.

If the contractor's ideas conflict with yours, ask him why he would prefer to do it another way. Consider if these reasons make sense or if the contractor is simply motivated by increasing his fee and/or decreasing the workload. This is when input from multiple contractors is so useful. See if anyone else suggests or supports something similar. Friends, neighbors or relatives who have had similar work done may also be helpful.

Since money, or losing money, can be a primary fear in contractor relations, let's consider payment options. First of all, never give a contractor any money until he starts the job. If he requests money for materials, tell him you will pay for the materials once he delivers them and provides you with a detailed bill. A contractor can always return materials for a refund, but by paying in advance, you run the risk of losing your money if he disappears. You can go to small claims court if you feel at any time that your contract has not been honored. However, laws tend to favor contractors. Even a successful outcome in small claims court means you still have to hire marshals to go after the contractor if he refuses to reimburse you. Let these potential long-term headaches serve as a reminder why you shouldn't rush through the selection process. Make sure you find someone you feel comfortable with and want to work with to reduce the chances for a courtroom ending.

The good news is that you don't have to build that addition, renovate the kitchen, or add that fireplace yourself. Following this "How To" for locating a good contractor is the only step you'll need to follow.