by Linda L. Esterson

What to Know Before You Hire a Contractor

It’s spring, a time for deep cleaning and home improvement projects. Many of these projects are too involved for the individual homeowner to tackle, and turning to an experienced company for help is often in the cards. Hiring a contractor can be one of the most important decisions you can make as a homeowner. Before you sign on the dotted line or give a verbal nod to purchase materials, use the following list for some reflective — and sensible — guidance for hiring someone to complete your next home improvement project.

Whether it’s a new kitchen, sunroom or bathroom redo, make sure you are comfortable in all aspects of the job, before, during and after. Then, you can sit back, relax and leave the heavy lifting to someone else.

1. Conduct thorough research.

Before reaching out to contractors, learn about them first. Sites like Google and Yelp and entities like the Better Business Bureau (BBB) offer information, including reviews and comments shared by previous customers. Many of these sources will provide information such as reliability, quality of work, customer service and adherence to estimated pricing. The BBB has an accredited business list that holds businesses to an ethical standard. Part of your research should also include determining a company’s licensing, certifications and liability insurance, plus verifying all company employees and subcontractors. You want to use a bonded and insured contractor licensed through the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Inquire about personal liability insurance, workers’ compensation insurance and property damage coverage. You want insurance protection from accidents on your property, whether to the contractor’s team or your home, if something unforeseen occurs.

2.  Get several written estimates.

Secure at least three estimates for comparison. Get estimates in writing, including all materials and project timelines. This information allows you to compare work plans and usually generates more questions as you evaluate the different work quotes. Ensure the estimate includes information about building permits and associated costs and outlines specifically how the contractor will complete the work and who physically will complete the job. There are reasons for variances in estimates. Higher bids may include locally sourced materials but may take longer to secure. A less expensive bid might have a quicker timeline, but you may be responsible for obtaining the materials needed for the project. A middle-priced quote could seem reasonable for the type of work requested, but the contractor might be unavailable to start the project for six or eight months.

3.  Ask for references and call them.

Always ask for a list of references. Request information about customers who have hired the contractor for a similar project to yours. For example, you wouldn’t want to hire a plumber to build a new enclosed patio. Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about the quality of work, adherence to the estimate, ability to meet deadlines and how the contractor handled any issues that arose. Also, ask about communication at all stages of the project. How a contractor handles communication shows how much emphasis the contractor places on customer service and attention to detail, which is crucial for any job. At the same time, visit the contractor’s website and ask for photos of completed work and images taken during the construction project. Photos of work in progress can give you valuable insight into the organizational skills, neatness and care provided to the project.

4.  Take your time.

Don’t let a contractor rush your decision. Be wary if someone tries to push you to schedule work. Before committing to services, you should feel comfortable and know that you have thoroughly vetted the contractor for the quality of the work and customer service skills. In addition, take note of the required deposit amount. Be cautious if the contractor requests a large amount in advance, especially if you provide the materials. According to the People’s Law Library of Maryland, a contractor cannot accept more than one-third of the contract price as a deposit. Never pay for a project in full before any work gets completed.

5.  Agree on how you and the contractor will handle concerns.

Before providing a deposit and signing a work estimate, discuss the process for handling concerns. Confirm an agreement with the contractor on how you will discuss problems, whether they involve added fees, a higher price than anticipated or delays in the project timeline. You and the contractor should feel comfortable communicating about unexpected issues or concerns throughout the project. This communication includes documenting all changes and problems in writing to protect you and the contractor and indicates that you both agree to any adjustments or alterations to the scope of work.