Finding a Good Contractor

Here's what we've learned and strategies we follow to locate and hire a professional contractor for a home improvement project. Take the time to investigate and you'll be happy with the results.

By Gene And Katie Hamilton

Finding a Good Contractor

We've remodeled 14 houses and in the process worked with many professional contractors - from independent handymen to large builders - and learned that finding a good one is not always a speedy process. But investing the time to find the right contractor for the job is time well spent so here's what we learned about separating the pros from the semi-pros.

Many contractor tell us their best advertisement is "word of mouth" from a satisfied customers because there's nothing more convincing than someone delighted with their freshly finished hardwood floors or the new family room addition to their home. So begin the process by asking friends and relatives if they know a good a tradesman they'd recommend.

Look around in your neighborhood and don't be bashful. When you see a dazzling new deck that transforms a house, knock on the door and ask the homeowners if they're pleased with the results. Choose houses under renovation that are similar in style to your own. Some contractors specialize in old house restoration, others work in newer homes so look for a pro who has experience doing the type of remodeling you plan. Today most contractors make it easy to find them with contact information right on their trucks.

Paul Winans, a contractor who runs Winans Constructions in Oakland California says, "Talk to neighbors and watch the progress of the job in your neighborhood." If the project moves along and the site is well maintained, the company is probably well run. Winans is also president of NARI, the Nationa Assn. of the Remodeling Industry, a trade group of professional remodelers. Their web site features "Find a Professional Remodeler" where you type in your zip code and get a list of their members who are contractors in the area.

The Internet offers another global approach to finding a local contractor. Just type "contractor referral" in a search engine like Google and you'll find a host of web sites designed as a matchmaker for homeowners looking for a plumber, remodeler, builder or many other home service pros. Contractors use these lead generator networks to connect them with qualified consumers in a specific geographic area as an alternative to traditional advertising. The pros pay a fee for leads but the service is free to customers.

If you're a home center shopper you can let them act as your general contractor and find a tradesman for a job. Walk the aisles and you'll notice "Installed Price" signs on many of the building materials, appliances and fixtures they sell. For example, a tag on laminate flooring reads: "Installed $4.50 square foot." This service is particularly helpful if you're trying to decide to do it yourself or hire a pro because it puts a dollar value to the labor cost. However it usually doesn't include the cost of preparation work needed i.e. removing an existing floor before a new installation. The turnkey service is popular for consumers short on time and for a retailer it creates added revenue and the ability to control the delivery and installation of products sold to their consumers.

Don't overlook materials suppliers where the pros shop. For example, stop at a plumbing supplier if you need a plumber and ask if they know a good one. They may not recommend someone specifically, but they will probably tell you what plumbers are their steady customers, a good indication of a plumber who has a lot of work. A tradesman with plenty of customers is most likely a good one.

When you make contact with a contractor ask a lot of questions. Ask for a list of clients in your area and call them. Look at samples of their work. If yours is a large remodeling project ask to see comparable work the contractor has done. Ask to see their state and locally issued contractor's license and how long they've been in business. If they check out then get everything in writing before any dust flies.

Finding a good contractor requires a lot of preliminary footwork but the payoff is you'll hire a pro who does the job right and on time and on budget.