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Dear Harried Homeowner,
All isn't lost! Resist the urge to pick up the phone book and start leafing through it, looking for nearby handymen or general contractors. There are better ways to find good, reputable contractors who do good work and are willing to stand behind what they do. The key however is that you have to do your research and your homework before you hire and stay engaged while they work. You can't cut corners here—there are plenty of bad handymen out there willing to do shoddy work and charge you a ton of money, and they give the good ones who are eager for your business a bad name. Here's how to find—and support—those good guys.
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Start Your Search in the Right Places
The first step to finding a great contractor or handyman is to start by searching in the right places. Even if you do own a phone book, resist the urge to start flipping through it. This isn't the kind of decision you want to leave to chance, or to the person with the biggest ad. Here are a couple of places to start your search:
Once you have a few good options or people to get in touch with, the first thing you want to do (if you're in the United States or Canada) is to check and see if there are any outstanding or open complaints with the handyman or the company they work for with the Better Business Bureau. Regardless of what you may think about the BBB, people do lodge their complaints there more often than anywhere else, and if there's an open complaint about work they've done, you'll know to think twice about hiring them.
Also, check with your local housing authority or city government office that handles building, construction, and permits to make sure they're a familiar face down there (if you're getting work done that requires permits) or that there aren't any outstanding complaints or pending legal issues with the handyman from City Hall's perspective. Plus, your local building or code inspector will have a good idea of who they enjoy working with, who does good work, and who can barely pass inspection (or doesn't bother to get inspections done).
Interview First, Before Anything Else
By now you should have a short list of contractors you want to interview to see if they can handle the work you need done. Whether it's hanging drapes or building an addition, you want to interview them first before agreeing to let them do any work in your home. Don't let them just give you a raw estimate for the work you're asking for—especially if they've never seen your home, or have no idea of the scope of the work involved.
Call them up or meet with them and ask them about the kinds of work they've done in the past. Ask what their expertise is, and whether they've done this kind of work before. If you're in a state or region where a contractor has to be licensed, ask for their license number so you can verify it. If they want to give you an estimate on the spot, let them, but make it clear that this isn't binding and you're not hiring them for any work.
Most importantly, get some references. Every decent handyman or contractor will be happy to give you a list of people they've worked for in the past, what they've done (and if they're good, they'll give you references for similar work to what you're asking), and even show you pictures of the before and after job, tell you how much it cost, and show you the kinds of plans they'll draw up for the job, how long it'll take, and walk you through the details of those previous gigs.
References are of the utmost importance when you're hiring someone to work on your home—don't just take the handyman's references for granted either, go see the work they've done, and call up the people they worked for. That's the point of references, after all—you should be comfortable calling the person they're using as a reference, asking to see the work yourself (so you can make sure it hasn't deteriorated or the photos hid a larger issue), or that the handyman isn't just using the person's name because they were happy a week after the work was complete, but had to get it torn out and redone a month later. Call their references. Go see their work. Talk to their prior customers. We can't stress it enough.
Get Your Estimates—and a Plan
Once you have your candidates and you're pleased with their referrals, it's time to get your estimates (if you don't have them already) and get a firm plan for the work you'd like done. Most contractors won't put too much into a plan before you've actually hired them, but the good ones will at least rough out what they expect the job will take. They should even help you understand what the cost will be in time and materials, even before you hire them for the job.
We have some great tips to help find good contractors and weed them out from the bad ones. Some of the tips are ones we've mentioned—like checking with your city inspector or building office, and checking with the BBB. However, here are some other good things to remember when getting your estimates and reviewing project plans:
Ideally before you even really hire someone, you'll have written estimates, and written plan for the work you'll want done (to be fleshed out and detailed upon hiring), and more than a few contractors willing to take your job, all of whom you've interviewed and you feel comfortable with (remember, this person will be in your home—you should feel comfortable with them too). Now you can go about picking the right one for you and your home with confidence.
Hire Wisely and Stay Involved in the Project
Once you've selected a contractor and delivered the good news (PS - when you give your second and third choices the bad news, treat them kindly and respectfully. You never know when your first choice will screw up and you'll need to call your second choice and ask them to come and finish up—or fix what the first guy broke), hire them on the contingency that they stick to their plan, timeline, and estimate and don't make any changes without your authorization. For example, if they open up a wall only to discover a major problem, their first instinct should be to call you—not just go forward and work around it. Any budget overruns or new materials required should be cleared by you first. You should have a written agreement, and that agreement should include all those details and contingencies in case you and the contractor disagree (contingencies that should give you a favorable out if the work isn't done to your satisfaction).
Never, ever, pay anything up front. If your contractor starts moaning that they need the money to go get the materials for the job, call up your second choice (unless you're getting custom supplies that need to be ordered). Your contractor should be able to pay their own way so you can pay for special materials and upon completion of the work—or at least after you've seen some results. It's not strange to pay a portion after some of the work has been done, or to pay for special equipment, and then pay the rest when everything's finished. It is uncommon however to do a "half now, half when I'm finished" arrangement unless you're hiring someone's brother or best friend. If that's the direction you want to go, be very careful—paying half of the overall budget before they lift a finger (essentially, for nothing), is a great way to lose half of the money you budgeted for your new addition or garage makeover.
Finally, make sure you stick to your contractor like glue. Make sure you're actively engaged in the work—don't just give your contractor the keys and walk away. This isn't a reality TV show: Pay attention to what they're doing, ask questions, and while you don't want to slow down the process, you do want it clear that you're involved, interested, and want to make sure the work is done right.
Hopefully these tips will help you find a good contractor, Harried Homeowner! It can be a tricky process, but whether your job is large or small, with some research and the right questions, you can be sure you'll find one of the good guys eager to work with you to improve your home. Good luck!
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