STEP ONE: Finding The Contractor

When you call a contractor, grill him. You'd never buy a $30,000 car without doing some research - so why would you hand over two, five, even 10 times as much to a home builder without asking some questions? Ask how long he's been in business, whether the business ever carried a different name (a definite warning sign) and if the company has ever been sued. You should also visit a site where he's doing similar work. Is the homeowner happy with how things are going? Try to find a job that's been completed within the past six months too - flaws can take time to show up.

Whatever you do, don't just call the first references the contractor provides. "It could be his mother-in-law's house and his cousin's house where he did the work," says R. Dodge Woodson, a general contractor for 27 years and author of "Tips & Traps for Hiring a Contractor."

Do you need a designer or architect? If you're moving walls, adding on or doing anything that requires detailed plans, you'll probably need one. First however, inquire with potential contractors as many offer design/build as part of their services. This can make for a much more streamlined and cost effective project.



STEP TWO: Get Your Bids In

After you've done your research, it's time to take bids. The rule of thumb is to get 2-3 estimates. "The lowest guy is the one you typically want to run away from," Woodson says. "The typical game is to come in as low as you can so you get the job, and then add extra after extra." Unspecified or nonrealistic material allowances are another dirty tactic builders rely on to get their foot in the door. A good builder will do their best to submit allowances that are in line with your needs, taste and budget. On a kitchen projects for example, material allowances can amount to 25% or more of the project cost so pay specific attention to these line items.

Since one of the main responsibilities of a general contractor is to hire skilled subcontractors (electricians, masonry workers, plumbers), you might wonder: Can't I be my own G.C. and hire the subs myself? Sure, but also ask yourself this: Do I have a job I can walk away from at a moment's notice so I can rush home and take care of a sudden crisis? Do I have the the knowledge and understanding to coordinate highly skilled tradespeople? If the answer is no, you're going to need a professional contractor to take care of things.


STEP THREE: The Contract

Whomever you pick to work on your house, a contract is essential. Every detail about your project should be included, from the brand of fixtures you want to the number of coats of paint on your walls. "Will renovate bathroom" is not enough, EVER!

On larger projects, there should be a deposit as an act of good faith or down payment as you will. If you're dealing with a complex project that has many steps, it's normal to make progress payments in installments as parts of the job are completed. These are the things you need in a contract to make sure everyone's on the same page:

Contract musts:

  • Brand, model, color and size of all materials used (watch out for the "or equal" clause - it could strand you with an "equal" you don't like)
  • Labor to be performed
  • Estimated timeline for the project, including start and finish dates
  • Payment schedule for all parties - contractor, subcontractors and suppliers
  • Warranty covering work and materials
  • Contractor's obligation to get all required permits
  • What the contractor will and won't do - including site cleanup and trash disposal
  • Clause stipulating that no alterations or extra work may happen without a change order

STEP FOUR: On the job

The five things every contractor must have:

  • If required by your state, a license. You can check the Web ( for your state's rules. If he does have a license, take down the number and call your state or local licensing board to verify it.
  • Liability insurance. This protects your house and property in case the contractor or his employees cause damage.
  • Workers' compensation insurance. Without it you can be held responsible if someone is injured while doing work on your property.
  • Insured subcontractors. The same liability and workers' compensation insurance that your contractor has should be carried by all the specialists (plumbers, electricians and others) he hires.
  • A clean bill of health from the Better Business Bureau and MN Dept. of Commerce. How many complaints have been filed, if any? Remember that misunderstandings do and will occur, so if there was a complaint, see if it was resolved satisfactorily.

You have to adhere to some standards too. It's important to be thorough about your wants and needs, but you also have to get along with your crew.

"You've got to deal with these people; they're going to be in your house," says Tom MacGregor, a Brooklyn contractor.

You can't change your mind 14 times and not expect people to get a little frustrated. If your contractor is a reputable one, your goals will be the same: a fast and smooth job that everyone walks away from satisfied.