Shopping for a Contractor

We've all heard nightmare stories about contractors. Indeed, in many circles the very word carries a connotation of vulgarity and hatred. The truth is, as in any other trade, there are good contractors and bad contractors, and—believe it or not—there are even a few great contractors!  

Following a few basic rules while shopping for a contractor could mean the difference between complete disaster and total success.  

Look for...

Keep in mind that you are going to be in very close contact with your contractor for several months or more; anything about him or her that you find quirky or unusual is going to be downright maddening by the end of the project. Does he/she have some nervous tick that makes your blood pressure race? Do they return your calls at odd hours of the day? Do they talk with their mouth full? If so multiply the intensity of what you’re feeling by a hundred to get an idea of what you'll be going through by the end of the project!  

Track Record
Has the contractor successfully completed a project similar to yours in size and complexity before? If so, how many times? Who was that customer or those customers? Where are those projects? Try to visit the projects and the people.  

Is your contractor forthright regarding all aspects of the project? Do they tell you bad news up front and bring up important issues and potential problems from the start? Are they thorough and careful? Does their primary interest seem to lie in completing a successful, quality project? Do you feel that all the cards are on the table, and that ANY questions you may have are answered confidently and honestly? Do they give you their complete, undivided attention? Do they listen to what you have to say without burying you in schmooze?  

This is the area where most contractors drop the ball. Does their office show signs of consistent, systematic organization, or does it look like something’s been swept under the rug? Do your meetings follow a logical thought process and leave you feeling reassured?  

Solid paperwork
Good contractors know that good record keeping is essential to the success of any project. Solid, fair contracts and accurate, concise material descriptions are as important to a successful project as the actual hands-on work. Is your prospective contractor's correspondence detailed enough for you to know exactly what you can expect in all instances and all scenarios? Do you feel that your entire agreement will be provided in writing with no verbal agreements necessary?  

Watch out for...

Bad Press
Everyone makes mistakes, but when it's your money, your time, and your project, the person making mistakes better not be your contractor. Ask around. Be aware that people are generally hesitant to say negative things about others to strangers, even if a negative assessment is deserved. In-depth questioning at the Lumberyard, local building departments, and even on-line at the Department of Labor and Industries should get you started. Be persistent. Time spent researching a contractor’s reputation is invaluable.  

Instant Promises
Be wary of off-the-cuff estimates, the ubiquitous, "No problem!" response to all questions, and the all-time classic, "We can get going on this right away!" If, after any meeting, everything seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.  

Again, this is danger area number one. If you notice a truck dashboard crammed with drawings, business cards, broken pencils, banana peels and scratched up safety goggles or a pick-up bed full of smashed soda cans and fast food wrappers, proceed with utmost caution!