Asking the right questions can help you find a good contractor

Dear James:

I am going to have a major remodeling job done at my home. This is my first major project, so I need to find a competent remodeling contractor. How do I evaluate various contractors?

— Jean W.

Dear Jean:

Everyone who watches the evening news hears horror stories about how remodeling contractors start a job, collect a large down payment and then take off to the next town. This does happen, but most contractors are reputable. The quality of their work generally varies more than their ethics.

First, do some research on the type of remodeling job you are considering. Builder magazines, such as Fine Homebuilding, Remodeling, Kitchen and Bath Business, Builder and Custom Builder are excellent sources for both design ideas and general background knowledge.

When you begin discussing your project with contractors, this knowledge will be helpful. You not only will know the building terms and understand each other, but the contractor will realize you know something about the project and methods. This often leads to better workmanship.

People often check with the Better Business Bureau, but this does not always provide reliable information. It is difficult to make comparisons among companies from their complaint records data because one company may have many more customers and thus more complaints. Use the BBB as a final resource.

When evaluating a smaller remodeling contractor, asking for many references can be helpful. They may do just a few major projects each year, so these references could represent a good portion of their business. Large contractors have so many customers that, even if they do poor quality work, they can find a few satisfied customers as references.

Visit several local lumberyards and commercial building supply outlets. Ask the store managers which contractors they would consider if they were remodeling their own homes. They often chat with contractors and hear stories no one else does.

Once you have narrowed down the potential contractors to just a few, plan to have a meeting or two with each to discuss details of the project. This will give you an idea of how thorough they are and also a feel for how you will get along. It is important to have a good rapport with your contractor. No matter how well a project is planned, issues and conflicts will arise, and it is helpful to be able to communicate well.

During your meetings, be sure to cover some of the following items: When can they start your project, and what is the estimated time to complete it? A quality contractor should be busy and not have time to start a remodeling job project immediately. If they can start it immediately, ask when they finished their last job.

Have them describe their best and worst experiences they have had on projects similar to yours. This indicates how open and honest they are about previous problems. The best experiences tell you what the contractors feel are most important about a job.

Also ask which staff member will be at your home each day and in charge of the project. You need to be sure someone will be there supervising the workers and subcontractors, and that it is an employee of the company.•

Send your questions to Here’s How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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