Why and How To Choose A Contractor

Considering a major home project? Wondering if you need a contractor? This step-by-step guide on how to choose a contractor will get you started.

We all know that adulting is hard. And parenting is hard, too. But you reach a new level of grownup-dom the first time you find yourself wondering if you need to hire a contractor. Not to mention wondering how to choose a contractor.

If you’re a homeowner and also a parent of young children, you probably won’t be hiring a contractor until and unless something goes very wrong:

  • Your home springs a leak, as happened to us last May.
  • Or even worse, you experience a fire.
  • Or worst of all, you’re trying to clean up from the aftermath of a flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster.

Dear Husband and I have been down this path several times in the past year-plus, on the home we closed on a decade ago. And because of this, I thought it might be useful to share some of the things we’ve learned along the way. That way, when you hit this #adulting milestone, you’ll get to benefit from what we’ve figured out so far.

Ready to know the why and how? Read on!



This is a collaboration post. However, please know I stand behind everything written here, and only include links to products/services/resources I’m willing to recommend personally.
Already KNOW you need to hire a contractor? Then skip ahead to the second half of this post.

1. Do you NEED a contractor?

If you’re not sure whether you need a contractor, let me share a quick story:

A few years ago, a couple to whom I’m related decided to redo their kitchen.

If I recall correctly, the scope of the project was some new paint, new flooring, new countertops, and maybe a new appliance or two.

The project literally took MONTHS. Like, half a year.

Why? Because they didn’t hire a contractor.

In the long run, you’ll do better to hire a contractor IF

  • You want the job done in weeks, not months;
  • The job involves more than one type of work (paint PLUS electrician, carpentry work PLUS new flooring, etc.); and
  • You don’t personally have the contacts, expertise, and/or time to coordinate the different pieces yourself.

Example A:

You just need a room painted. That’s it. And, thanks to my handy guide on DIY painting tips to achieve pro-level results, you are confident in getting the job done yourself.

In this case, go ahead and DIY. Or if you’re not confident in your painting abilities – or lacking in the necessary time – then by all means, hire a local painting company directly.

And when you decide to DIY, deal with a local business as much as possible. Rather than trying to order what you need online, just go to your local hardware or home-improvement store. Developing a relationship with your local hardware store (if you’re lucky to still have such a thing!). home-improvement store, or lumberyard, is worth its weight in gold:

  • They can track your purchases, provide easy returns/exchanges/resupplying, and often will answer any questions you have about the work you’re planning.
  • The advice pros in the field can offer to DIYers will often save you time, money, and errors.

Example B:

You just need several electrical projects done, and they’re beyond the scope of your DIY-ing.

My husband has actually installed light/ceiling fans in all the bedrooms of our home, even though he’s not trained as an electrician.

But when we recently wanted to replace the old light/fan units in our upstairs bathrooms, I called the husband of a dear friend from church. (Friend’s Husband is an electrician who owns his own business.)

FH evaluated the situation, pointed out that our current bathroom fans were not properly vented to begin with, and made several other helpful suggestions related to other work we were considering getting done. In the end, we hired FH’s company to replace (and properly vent) our bathroom fans, as well as do the other work FH suggested.

Example C:

For various reasons, we’ve decided this fall is the time to get several long-deferred home projects dealt with. Including new paint and carpet in our living room, as well as additional attic insulation.

Yes, I could have painted the living room walls and ceiling myself while the girls were both away at sleepaway camp. (Repainting our kitchen is how I spent their week at sleepaway camp last year.)

But honestly, I had too much else on my plate to get the painting job done. (Not to mention the fact that our vaulted ceiling means hauling out the big ladders, which is a pain.)

And we also wanted to get our living room’s built-in baby gate to the kitchen repaired.

Too many moving pieces!

  • You can always coordinate the different pieces (carpenter, painter, carpet installer, and attic-insulation-blower-in) separately. If you have absolutely nothing better to do.
  • OR, you can just hire a contractor to coordinate all those moving pieces for you! Meaning your work gets done in a matter of WEEKS, versus MONTHS (see reference to extended-family-members above)

Example D:

You’re dealing with an insurance claim:

  • You’ve had a little leak somewhere in your home;
  • Or even worse, you’ve experienced a fire;
  • Or worse still, your home has suffered the aftereffects of a hurricane or other natural disaster.

Trust me, just have a contractor deal with this one. After you get the initial aftermath dealt with.

When our basement flooded in the spring of last year, thanks to a leaky water line in our kitchen, we had to act fast to minimize the long-term damage (think mold!) to our home. And related negative side effects for Essie and me, thanks to our allergies and asthma.

If you find yourself trying to recover after some accident or disaster that’s covered under your homeowner’s policy:

  • Think about which neighbors/local friends have had similar experiences. Our across-the-street neighbors have unfortunately needed to fix their basement from freak flooding incidents something like 4 times in as many years. When our basement flooded last spring, one of the first things we did is ask them which emergency-response company they had used to dry out the mess before mold set in.
  • Also call your insurance company ASAP. Not only can you clarify what your coverage is, but your insurance company may even have companies to recommend for post-emergency cleanup.

Assuming your insurance covers restoring your home to pre-disaster status, you really need to have the pros handle it for you. Not only will they fight for you in getting the maximum reimbursement from your insurance company, but they’ll also take care of the time-consuming paperwork for you. (Plus, your insurance may not pay if the work’s not done right by professionals.)

2. How to choose a contractor

Do your homework

And be a savvy researcher, while you’re at it.

  • Start with any neighbors, friends, or coworkers who’ve had renovations or other major home projects done lately. Whom did they use? How happy were they with the work? Was the company easy to work with? Why or why not? (Pay particular attention to any names that come up over and over.)
  • Then take those names and plug them into your search engine. For one of the recommendations we received from a neighbor, we couldn’t even set up a meeting, because we couldn’t find a webpage or phone number or anything that was current!
  • While it’s worth reading any reviews, news stories, etc. you come across, be wary of reviews on websites like Yelp. Overly positive reviews may not be real, and overly negative reviews are most likely a disgruntled customer who’s not representative of all customers. A better place to solicit information is within closed/private online social communities, like your neighborhood or community listserv. (If you have such a thing. Ours is through Nextdoor.)
  • Finally, go ahead and call the contractors/complete their online form to set up an initial appointment to discuss your project. See how quickly they get back to you; their responsiveness is one way to gauge how on top of things they will be if you hire them. Waiting a week to hear back suggests they may not be on top of their incoming messages.
  • And of course, you should only consider contractors who are properly licensed/bonded/insured or whatever is required in your area. An up-to-date, modern-looking company website clearly listing this information is often a good sign.

Get your ducks in a row

Unless your name is the only one on the mortgage or deed, it’s critical that you AND your spouse/other co-owner be on the same page with what you want:

  • If one of you is thinking just some new carpet, and the other is ready to knock down interior walls, you’re not enough on the same page to call a contractor. Talk through the “musts” and the “wishlists” until you can come to an agreement. You don’t want to be hashing this out in front of potential contractors, as you’re interviewing them.
  • It’s also helpful to have a sense of how much you can realistically afford to spend on any potential work. Or if there’s work you know you’ll need done eventually but are not able to afford now, be clear with the contractors when you interview them. Tell them you’re trying to get a sense of how much the project might cost, so that you can start planning accordingly. This will save them from putting a lot of work into chasing a contract that is still in the “dreaming” stages.
  • If the scope of work will depend in part on what you can afford, be clear to the contractors about what the different parts are, and which components are essential versus “if budget allows.” This way, they can break down their estimates accordingly.
  • But at the same time, try to limit the number of possible options you throw in. This will, again, make things easier for whoever comes and prepares your ballpark estimate.

Take (and compare) notes

You should plan around an hour for each initial interview, and expect the person to come to your home, take measurements, and ask questions.

  • Some of their questions may bring up ideas, complications, or potential directions you had not considered. Take notes on these things. Especially if they involve technical details or words that aren’t in your regular vocabulary. This way, you won’t forget them – and when you interview the next contractor, you can ask intelligent questions about these things.
  • Among the questions you should ask any contractor you’re interviewing:
    • Is this project within the scope of something you can handle and your company would consider? If not, do you have other businesses you can recommend that might be more appropriate?
    • How far out are you booked right now?
    • How long do you envision a project like this taking, from start to finish?
    • How much of a deposit do you require before you begin work?
    • What happens next? (In other words, when should you expect a written estimate to consider and review? And once you’ve made your decision, what is required to formally enter into a contract with this company, and how long is their estimate good for?)
  • If you have any limiting factors affecting your timing, this initial meeting is a good time to be upfront about them. When we had the floors refinished in our current home right after closing/before moving in, we ultimately had to hire our second-choice company. Because our first-choice company could not guarantee that the work would be done by the time we needed to move in.

Pay attention to the details, and trust your gut

As you’re interviewing companies, you’ll get a sense of who seems most likely to make your dream a reality:

  • Is the scope of your project something they will consider – neither too big nor too small?
  • Are you on the same page? If you’re dreaming of a sleek and modern white kitchen, and they want to steer you toward the trends from a decade ago, this is a big red warning flag.
  • Do they want to do things that you don’t like or find unnecessary? Are they hearing what you really want?

It’s crucial that the company you ultimately hire have a clear sense of what you want, and work hard to make your dream a reality. (Hence why it’s critical that you and your co-owner agree about what you want.)

As you’re interacting with each company throughout this research phase, pay attention to how they interact with you. Are they professional and courteous? Do they seem to know what they’re talking about? Is it clear that they understand what exactly you want?

While you don’t want to think of their proposal as completely fixed in stone (after all, it’s just an estimate!), it will give you a good ballpark of what achieving your dreams may cost you. Don’t just go based on numbers alone, though. The cheapest option may not always be the best; there is something to that old adage, “you get what you pay for.” If someone comes in way under everyone else, they’re cutting corners somewhere.

Stay in touch, and be reachable

Once you’ve made a decision to move forward with your project, and to hire one company in particular, let all parties know in a timely manner. It’s common courtesy to let whomever you didn’t choose know, rather than leave them hanging. They may want to know why you didn’t choose them, so be prepared to tell them, without burning your bridges. (You may want to consider them for a different project in the future.)

Make sure you follow through on your part of whatever the initial arrangements are – signing a contract or work proposal, providing a valid check representing your down payment/deposit, etc.

Be sure you know when and how your contractor may contact you, and let them know your preferences. Also plug all their info into your contacts ASAP, so you can reach out to them on short notice as questions arise.

Check your email/phone messages/whatever regularly. If an issue comes up that stalls progress on your project, the company you hire won’t want to be left hanging for days, waiting to hear back from you on how to handle the latest wrinkle. (And there WILL be wrinkles; there always are.)

That’s what we’ve learned! What advice do YOU have for anyone wondering how to choose a contractor, or whether they need one? Let us know in the comments!

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Considering a major home project? Wondering if you need a contractor? This step-by-step guide on how to choose a contractor will get you started.


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Why and How To Choose A Contractor