Choosing a Contractor

This home improvement guide will show you how to choose the best person to work on your dwelling

Inquire about work history. Find out how long a contractor has been in business. “Ask how long they’ve been in the area,” suggests Scott Plemmons, senior vice president of specialty sales at Lowe’s home improvement store. If a contractor has performed poorly in one city or town, they may relocate to avoid a negative reputation.

Ask for referrals. “Do they freely offer references? Do they offer references before you even ask? Pay attention to their level of openness,” says Wallender. Keep in mind that no one is going to give you an unfavorable referral. The best way to circumvent any bias is to ask, “What are two things that you did not like about this contractor’s work or your dealings with him? Did the team stay on schedule?” Even if you receive nothing but positive feedback, you should still contact the Better Business Bureau ( or Ripoff Report ( to see if the company has had any problems, advises Wallender.

Confirm credentials. Various organizations can help you determine the validity of a contractor’s credentials. Your state’s licensing board can tell you whether or not a company has a legitimate license. Another option is to check online at the Contractor’s License Reference Site (, suggests Wallender. This site allows you to look up contractors across the nation. Your state consumer protection agency is another reliable source.

Also verify whether or not a contractor has insurance. The company should have liability insurance, which covers damages to you and your home. It also extends to vehicle coverage. Workers’ compensation provides medical coverage in case a contractor’s employee is injured at your home. In addition, make sure the company has a surety bond, which may be a condition of licensing.

Evaluate skill level. While it’s important to ensure that contractors are licensed, understand that “a license does not guarantee quality, it just means they fulfilled some minimum requirements set down by some municipality,” adds Wallender. It’s important to inquire about additional certifications.

Have open, two-way communication. Don’t just ask questions; be prepared to give information. Clearly explain your goals and expectations. Identify the services that you’re looking for and ask if they have previously completed projects similar to what you want. You may find that you need to hire someone who specializes in the area of renovation that you’re seeking. Also ask if they have a portfolio that you can review and if you can visit homes that they have remodeled. “Remodeling is a service, not a product, and you have to be able to get along with the people providing that service,” says Greg Miedema, president of Dakota Builders Inc., a home design and remodeling company in Tucson, Arizona. Ask when they are available and how long the project will take to complete. “Some contractors have a very long lead time,” says Wallender. “Some may not be able to get to you for a year or more than that, particularly if all they do is big jobs like additions.”

Get it in writing. “Create a written contract,” says Plemmons. “It should include the start date and the completion date, ‘the scope of work,’ the payment amount, and work schedule, as well as penalties for delays.” The scope of work provides details about the work that will be performed as well as the materials needed to complete the project.

Pay attention to red flags. Be aware of the signs that may indicate incompetence. The biggest indicator is the request for a large sum of money up front. Standard procedure is for a contractor to ask for one-third of the estimate in advance. If you’re asked to pay half of the bill or more initially, it is likely that the contractor is illegitimate. Another major signal is a contractor without a license or insurance.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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