How to hire a contractor

Consumer Reports News: January 21, 2008 03:09 AM

While most home contractors out there are legit and do quality work, the rogues gallery of bogus builders, careless carpenters, pitiful plumbers, and the like is a vast one.

Some of your friends and neighbors likely can relate cautionary tales of purloining pros, and perhaps you’ve even been the victim of a contractor whose work you cursed.

I’m sure you don’t want to revisit the miserable days when your project got derailed by an incompetent contractor, but “The Pros and Cons,” in the January 2008 issue of Angie’s List magazine, is a worthwhile read. The article (scroll to pages 12-21) features a nationwide who’s who of the top contractors and their sketchy counterparts.

The story won’t make up for any nightmares you’ve endured, but it might reassure you that genuine pros are out there. (Thousands of people use Angie’s List each month to report their customer experience in 250 categories, including home improvement and handymen. A membership fee gets you access to first-hand accounts from members and A to F ratings in several areas, including price, quality, punctuality and professionalism.)

To avoid hiring the contractor from hell, follow our advice:

Plan for success. Get three bids to gauge the going rate for work. But don't jump at the lowest bid; our surveys have shown that people who hired the lowest bidder generally got poorer work.

Get an estimate. It should list product, material, and labor costs and a timetable. Material and product allowances should give prices and quantities. Compare services and prices before making a final decision.

Choose pros you know. Our surveys have indicated that people who hire contractors they had worked with before were happier and had fewer time and cost overruns than those who hired someone new. While readers who hired pros recommended by a friend or neighbor were more satisfied than those who hired strangers, they faced as many delays and extra costs.

Get references from recent and older jobs. Reputable contractors will be happy to provide names and contact information for satisfied customers. Then check the work to see how it’s holding up.

Look for proper licensing and insurance. Make sure the contractor is licensed to do business in your state and that he has proper general liability and workers-compensation insurance. Check with your local government for permit requirements and confirm with the contractor who is responsible for paying for permits. Also visit the Contractor's License Reference Site to learn about licensing requirements in your state and to find out if a contractor is licensed.

Check the Better Business Bureau for filed complaints. Also contact your state's attorney general's office. Look for contact information in your state here. (Should you encounter a problem or fraud later on, report problems or fraud to your state attorney general.)

Do the hiring yourself. Your project is more likely to stay within budget and on time if you hire pros yourself than leaving the hiring and supervising to a general contractor.

Obtain a contract. A written contract will specify what will be done to complete the job, associated costs, and the payment schedule. Never sign a blank contract or one with blank spaces.

Stick with the plans. Making changes to plans after work begins could lead to cost overruns and delays.

Pay by check. Write out the check to the contracting company rather than to an individual. A reasonable down payment is 30 percent of the total project cost to be paid upon initial delivery of materials.

Make final payments only when the work is completed to your satisfaction. A reputable contractor will not threaten you or pressure you to sign documents if the job is not finished properly.—Steven H. Saltzman

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Home & Garden News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more