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In a world where every guy with a truck full of tools is a "contractor", how do you weed out the good from the bad?

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15 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

A few ideas:

  1. Ask for references. This can work nice, but since the contractor can choose which references to give you, doesn't always give an accurate picture.

  2. If they are in a regulated trade (electrician, plumber, builder, etc.) ask your local city code inspector. They know all the contractors and know which ones do good work and which ones do just enough to pass inspection.

  3. Check with your local building/plumbing/electrical supply stores. They know the contractors and which ones are good or bad.

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Ask for references AND then go look at their work (and talk to the owner that had them do the work). –  Jeff Widmer Jul 29 '10 at 13:17
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+1 for recommending a local store. Best electrician i found was recommended by the owner of a local hardware store. –  Vitalik Jul 29 '10 at 13:42
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If you know people in related industries, ask for referrals. For example, a friend of mine from our church is a high-end builder, and I've had "his" electrician and roofer out before to look at various issues. –  GalacticCowboy Aug 12 '10 at 20:03
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I don't know of any contractor who will quote a job by the hour. On the contrary a knowledgeable contractor knows exactly how long a given job will take and will do his best to finish the job within that time frame. He will also do his best to do it right to avoid call backs which cost him time and money. A good contractor will provide a punch list, that is a list of things which need to be corrected before final payment.

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Ask for proof of insurance that covers you if something happens while they are doing the job. Even painters we've hired gave us a copy of their insurance.

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My Significant Other owns a small millwork shop dealing in interior and exterior remodeling projects. I have worked for him for the past 10 summers doing finish work. We both know many, many other contractors; the good and the bad. Here are some guidelines from the inside:

  1. If the price seems really steep, the contractor doesn't want your job. He's busy, but since many contractors live from job to job, they feel compelled to bid on jobs and give you a "go away" price. This means you will have to take a number and wait for him to finish whoever was ahead of you. So ask: If you can't do this job, who would you recommend?

  2. Asking for money up front is NOT a no-no in big remodeling jobs or expensive custom projects.The traditional rule is: 1/3 up front, 1/3 halfway through (this is where you check for change orders, mistakes, add-ons, etc.) and 1/3 upon completion. Good independent contractors get stiffed all the time. The contractor plans on the payment schedule to cover his costs for special materials, such as custom wood or hardware for your cabinets, colored pavers for your driveway, special order paint or finishes, or special historic houseparts. The contractor cannot always front you for your expensive tastes or special orders that may exceed his estimates when transportation costs rise suddenly. If you have concerns about itemizing, ask for daily receipts or a work journal.

  3. Show the contractor pictures of what you want. Be specific. It is easier for a contractor to try to match a picture than try to read your mind. If you want a tree cut down, did you ask him to haul the wood out, too? If he's putting in a furnace, who's taking the old one out? The old adage about not assuming rings true.

  4. Plan ahead. Don't call someone to make a mantel for Christmas stockings in November.He has customers who called in October and put down a deposit. If he does manage to fit you in and get your rush job done, pay him in cash.

  5. Don't judge a book by it's truck. "Work trucks" should look like that. Ours is about 15 years old, with a trailer hitch for the tool trailer and materials. Look for solid carrying racks, good tires, and a trailer hitch. A rusted-out junker, however is a pretty good sign that he's a hack. Any kind of sedan means it's his first job.

  6. Engage in a planning meeting when he comes to do the estimate. Talk to him.Share your budget. Ask questions like: What are the steps in this remodel? How long has he been in the business? Does he have an area of specialty? If you have a timeline, ask how realistic it is. Ask about disruption to the household- for example, will he have to shut a water main off? What material will he put in the windows when they are being repaired?

  7. Be flexible to minor setbacks. If you're getting a new shower installed, and a problem with your plumbing arises, realize that every additional thing that needs to be fixed within the range of the job pushes your original deadline back.

  8. Speak up if it's not going right. If the cabinet doors aren't flush, the hardware is wrong, or the trim colors look ugly, say something. Don't wait until he's done. If you're not happy, speak up ASAP- don't wait until the end of the job, when he has to rip it all out or start over.

  9. Finally, many left-brain, handy guys are not super articulate or chatty- they focus on the job. Super chatty, charming guys are going to take longer on the job, but you'll have some nice conversations.

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I rarely post on any forum, but I think I can provide some helpful suggestions, due to years of experience. I hope you find my suggestions more useful.

Often the quality of the contractor or more importantly, the quality of the work, is a direct reflection of who controls: the timing/amount of payments and who controls when the job ends.

  • I agree 100% with other posts, never, ever pay anything up front, the peace of mind alone is worth any possible discount or benefit the contractor could offer. If he refuses and demands upfront payment, he just did you a favor, you know to move on.

  • Craig’s List is great to post your needs, its free and typically generates 10-20 very motivated contractors or laborers. Many can be screened via simple emails asking for pictures of work or asking them how they would address your problem. Dealing directly with the person doing the work not only saves $$$ the quality of the work will be better (unlikely to sub out to someone you haven’t interview).

  • Perhaps surprisingly, I believe contracting by the hour is your best bet. You can dictate the rate ($15-$25 an hour) or you can allow the rate to vary by market. Because the contractor will likely add $$$ to his “by the job quote” to cover any unknown issues (regardless of the likelihood), paying by the hour will typically result in tremendous savings to you. A by the hour arrangement allows for a sharing of unknown risks, in a “by the job” quote, the contractor effectively transfers the risk of the unknown to you.

  • Not only will a by the hour arrangement be cheaper, the quality will also likely be better. In a “by the job” quote, the contractor/worker is incented to take as many short-cuts (reductions in quality) as possible to get the job done and get paid. Paying by the hour better aligns the contractor/laborer’s interests and yours – both want the job to take as long as necessary to create a higher quality result. Of course if you can’t check in to ensure he/she isn’t standing around texting, paying by the hour can be less beneficial, however it still might be cheaper than a bloated for uncertainties in a "by the job" quote.

  • Control of the when payments are made also results in more of the contractor/ laborer and thus higher project quality. The contractor/laborer will be encouraged to provide high quality at a minimum of hours – he doesn’t want to jeopardize payments or future work.

  • The old adage "you get what you pay for" not longer applies (if it ever did). Just because someone charges you a higher price doesn't mean they are better. Accepting the lowest price is also not a guarantee of lowest quality.

  • Lastly, by the hour is a lower risk strategy, if they are not performing, you can easily fire them, you're not stuck for the duration of the job with a low quality resource.

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+1 for the suggestion to pay by the hour and fire them if they aren't performing –  alx9r Dec 8 '12 at 2:32
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I've learned from dealing with contractors recently that I have to define exactly what I want done so that there is no misunderstanding or room to scale back on the required work.

For example, if I want a tree removed I have to describe whether or not I want the roots removed, stump grounded down, etc. You don't want to have to say, "I just assumed you were going to do X, Y, and Z." Consider all of the details you can think of. This can be difficult if you're not familiar with the various approaches and don't know all of the details involved in a job (it's why we hire professionals in the first place), but the more you can research and document the better.

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However, you can use this to your advantage in making a decision. A good contractor will ask you about these specs. up front. Do you want the roots removed? Do you want me to haul away the wood? Would you like the trunk cut up for firewood? All these questions would indicate to me that this contractor has done this type of work before. As a software developer, it is contingent on ME to draw the requirements out of the client, as I am the expert. I expect the same from a contractor. –  Chris Cudmore Dec 10 '12 at 16:38
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I always try and get 3 or 4 different quotes.

You'd be amazed at that difference in price and analysis of the problem/work involved. I have had differences, major differences; one person quoted £1,500, another £6k.

The major thing I have learnt is that you have to manage contractors - don't assume anything, every little detail. And get it all written up. And obviously don't pay for time, pay for a job, and of course don't pay until yr happy with the work.

If anyone starts quoting a daily rate I run a mile.

People have mentioned looking at peoples cars etc I don't think this is useful, who cares what car etc. As logn the work is up to standard and the price is reasonable - I expect a decent worker to make a healthy profit, so why not ?

If the work is not up to standard or there a various problems call a stop to the work, I guess you could even include that in your original contract.

The other thing I have learnt, try and do things yourself, some of these things are not that hard. Its just having the confidence to do them. Even if you do make a mistake it can normally be rectified.

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  1. If he's the lowest bidder, watch out.
  2. If he (or she) promises too much, watch out.
  3. I agree with the post above that said "Get it in writing". Get changes in writing too.
  4. If you make the deal with the Dad and then he drops his son and son in law off to do the work, you might have a problem, although the phrase "Don't make me call your Daddy" is helpful in this case.
    1. Money up front is a no-no.
    2. As for cars, if a contractor is driving a shiny new Linconln Navigator (think Radon guys), then I think he's ripping me off. I want to see an honest work vehicle, but no junker either.
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Talk to at least 2.

Every contractor does things differently. Each will bring up concerns and ideas that others do not. You will learn a lot from these conversations that will help you make a good decision.

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2 ? Why not 3 or 4 ? –  NimChimpsky Oct 8 '10 at 8:21
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3 or more will get you more good info, about prices, "bedside manner", etc. That's great. The essence of my advice is to make sure you talk to more than one. It's easy to get woo'd by the first one you talk to. –  Jay Bazuzi Oct 9 '10 at 4:23
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@Eric's list is great. I'd add a few more:

  1. Ask what they do to keep up with developments in their trade. Most will give you a blank look but some will be incredibly excited to tell you about the latest issue of FHB or Journal of Light Construction.
  2. More of a negative thing, but if anybody "helps" you by telling you how to get around permits, etc., then move on to the next candidate.
  3. Look at the condition of their tools and vehicles. The don't have to be new, obviously, but I've found that respect for tools goes hand-in-hand with good work.
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On the other side of things, if it looks like they just loaded up their toolbox down at Lowes, they probably don't have much experience either... –  GalacticCowboy Aug 12 '10 at 20:05
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Find out the payment terms. If they want all or most up-front, it is generally a bad sign.

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Never do this. I can't believe people even ask for it. –  NimChimpsky Oct 8 '10 at 8:27
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In the US, check their status with the Better Business Bureau. Also, if you hire contractors frequently, you should probably look into subscribing to Angie's List, which crowdsources customer reviews of contractors and other service providers.

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There are a number of good ideas already given, I would add to check their license. I know Florida keeps a nice online presence http://www.myflorida.com/licensee/

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Ask to see some of their work and talk to previous clients. The good ones will put you in touch with previous clients straight away. The bad ones will prevaricate.

Don't employ the ones that come round touting for business. If they have the time to drive around looking for "damaged" roofs, driveways in need of repair etc. then they can't be that good. Having a full schedule is usually a good sign.

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Because I didn't know that word: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/prevaricate –  Jay Bazuzi Jul 29 '10 at 12:45
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I typically ask around at work for referrals - we have a junk mail board that's a great place for posts like that. You could also look at the Better Business Bureau for your area, or look at a site like Angie's List. You could also ask the contractor for references.

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