Your "do-it-yourself" attitude is commendable, but at some point, you’ll need to hire a home repair contractor and pay someone to fix something in your home. There are going to be situations when you don’t have the time, inclination, or skill to make a particular repair or do the work that has to be done. We all hire someone to fix something in our house at some point.
Read ahead for guidance on when and how to select a home repair or maintenance contractor.
Types of Home Repair Contractors
When you need repair work done on your home, you will usually hire a specialty type of tradesman called a subcontractor, which is different than a general contractor (GC) or builder. Think of the GC as the “generalist” and subcontractors as the “specialists.”
A general contractor or builder is a company or individual that constructs a major renovation project or builds a new home by hiring all the individual specialty subcontractors. The GC is the overall coordinator of a larger project and typically does not provide the labor to build the house. That comes from the subcontractors.
Types of Subcontractors
When you need a specific thing fixed in your home, you need a specialist—that person is the specialty subcontractor. On any given home project, these subs may include but are not limited to the following:
- Excavation: An excavation contractor will provide services related to earth moving and site prep such as grading and digging footings, or prepping areas for landscaping.
- Concrete: A concrete contractor will handle all elements of pouring concrete for driveways and walkways, floors, home foundations, footings, and more.
- Framing: Framing contractors assemble the frame of the project, known as the bones of the home.
- Roofing: Roofing contractors install roofing materials such as shingles, flashing, rubber roofing, and more.
- Plumbing: Plumbers handle the home's water supply and drain lines, and may tackle specialty jobs like in-floor heat installation.
- HVAC: HVAC contractors will cover all heating and cooling needs, including ductwork and HVAC unit installation replacement, and service.
- Electrical: Electricians cover the scope of electrical supply installation for a project.
- Finish Carpentry: Finish carpenters install things like millwork, trim, moldings, doors, and cabinetry.
- Drywall: Drywall hangers will hang drywall, as well as mud the drywall and prep it for paint.
- Painting: Painters can be hired to cover all painting needs, including final drywall prep and caulking before painting.
- Flooring: Floor installers can handle a variety of flooring needs, from installing tiles to hardwood to carpets.
Note: This list is intended as a general reference point and may not directly reflect the capabilities or services offered by the subcontractor you hire. Always discuss the needs of your project before hiring a subcontractor.
Licensed Contractor vs. Handyman
When it comes to hiring someone for maintenance tasks or general "handyman" work, a lot of people who do this work may not be licensed subcontractors at all. They may just be a “guy with a truck,” for example a gutter cleaner, leaf raker, or sometimes a painter. Although using these types of people may work out, you must be careful since workmanship concerns and liability issues still exist but you won’t have the legal protection you have when using a licensed and insured contractor. In short, avoid the temptation altogether and always use a licensed contractor.
General Contractor's Role
If you hire a GC, they will hire these subcontractors directly and "hold" their contracts. That means they work for the GC and are under contract with the GC. You would only have a contract with the GC, not directly with the subs.
The GC makes money by marking up the subcontractors' costs as a percentage of the construction amount (common) or as a lump sum fee (not so common). For this professional fee, he or she provides the management and scheduling of subs, pays the subs, provides supervision of the construction, and provides dumpsters, port-a-johns, insurance, and other miscellaneous things you need to build a house or construct an addition.
Deciding When to Use a Contractor
Now that you know the difference between a general contractor and a subcontractor, you must decide if and when you should use them for your given project. This decision is ultimately personal and will come down to evaluating the following criteria and asking yourself some key questions:
Your Comfort Level With the Task at Hand
- Do I feel confident in making (or at least comfortable trying) this repair?
- How familiar am I with the steps it takes to complete this project?
- What do I know how to do and what will I have to learn?
- Do I have the tools necessary to complete the project?
- Do I currently and, going forward, will I have the time to complete this project?
- What aspects of my routine will I have to sacrifice for the duration of this job?
- Are the consequences acceptable if it takes me longer to do the project than I anticipate?
- Can I afford the added cost of hiring a contractor?
- Alternatively, can I afford the added cost and associated risk of not hiring a contractor (don't forget to budget for tool purchases and rentals as well as materials)?
If you answer “no” to any of the above questions, play it safe and hire a contractor for the repair. If you answered “yes” to them all, you should give it a shot and do the job yourself. That’s the only way to gain experience and confidence.
If you’re venturing beyond a simple home repair project to new technically challenging installations such as adding electrical circuits or bathroom additions, you should first check to see if a permit is required from your local building department. You don’t need a permit for many home repairs but you may need a permit for “new work," especially for electrical, heating, cooling, and plumbing. In some cases, the permit will require that a licensed contractor does the work to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. Additionally, it may be required that the local building inspector review your work during construction and after its completion.
If a licensed contractor is required to perform the work as specified by the permit, then the decision to hire a contractor is simple. If you find that a licensed contractor is not required for the permit or that the work you want to do can be covered under a “Homeowner’s Permit,” then reference the questions above to make your decision.
Tips for Hiring the Right Contractor
Anyone can hire a contractor, but how do you know which is the right one for you? Read ahead to learn how to choose the right contractor for your project.
Check Their Past Work
The first step in hiring the right contractor is to identify a list of potential contractors. When possible, hire local contractors you've already worked with and had good experiences with. For your first hire, look to reliable referrals from friends, family, or a realtor you trust. If none are viable options, the next best thing is to use a free service like HomeAdvisor which lets you read real-time reviews of the contractor's work. These days, it's easy to check a contractor's past work with a quick online search. Read reviews and testimonials to better understand your prospective hire's reputation.
Remember, just because a contractor checks all the boxes and looks good on paper, doesn't mean they're the right one for you. Once you have some names, meet with them, look for “chemistry” or rapport, and observe their level of professionalism. Courtesy, respect, punctuality, and the ability to communicate are some of the most important attributes a contractor can have next to their basic competency. No matter how good someone is, if they don’t click with you on these points, don’t hire them.
Here are a few trustworthy ways to gauge whether or not a contractor is reputable or not:
- Business Longevity: A great way to tell if a business is reputable is to look into its longevity. Have they been in business for more than 10 years with the same name? This is a great sign. However, this doesn't mean that businesses younger than 10 years aren't reputable.
- Stability and Permanence: Does the contractor have a physical business office and address or simply a home office or answering service? While this isn't a telltale sign of reputability, it may help to decide between prospects. If they only have a cellphone contact and no office is listed, move on to another contractor.
- References: Look for positive current references from at least five customers. Less than five isn't preferred but should still be considered. If there are no real references or negative references, move down the list.
- Experience: When possible, hire a contractor that specializes in the work you want to be performed. If necessary, hire someone that can perform the work you want but also does other types of work.
Get Multiple Estimates
Once you've narrowed down a list of potential contractors, it's time to get estimates from each one. While an online search will reveal average rates, you'd be surprised at the differences in one contractor's estimate versus another's. Simply shopping around and getting several estimates can save you thousands of dollars.
However, you shouldn't just blindly choose the lowest bid. Be sure to compare each bid's scope of work when comparing prices. Make sure it covers all the things you want to be completed. It should also spell out any preparation work, protection of surrounding areas, clean up, and more. Reviewing the scope of work between contractors is an essential element of evaluating the true cost and value of their bid estimates.
What Is the Scope of Work?
The scope of work is the full extent of the work the contractor will provide for the client.
Sometimes a contractor must make allowances or assumptions in their bid, such as material quantity, access to your home, etc. Also, they will sometimes specify what they exclude in the bid. Carefully review assumptions and exclusions with the contractor. Politely question them as to the reasonableness of any assumptions and exclusions. If not, these items will likely become a change order later.
When you are evaluating and comparing bids between contractors, assumptions and exclusions will help show the true value of each bid. Your biggest concern here is the contractor’s willingness to put in writing any of the verbal representations he or she has made to you to get the job. If they have made oral commitments but won't put them in writing, that’s cause for rejection.
What Is a Change Order?
A change order is an amendment that changes the contracted scope of work.
After the job begins, the most difficult issue that may arise is the contractor's request for a change order. This results in an added cost to you, which is why you need a clearly defined, detailed scope of work. To avoid issues in settling change orders along the way, discuss how to handle the "extras" before any work begins. A request for a change order is reasonable only if the contractor runs into a situation on the project that was not reasonably anticipated by them, or is a change in scope by you.
To compare bids, follow this process:
- Gather the bids.
- Read and understand each bid's scope of work agreement.
- Take note of each bid's allowances, assumptions, and exclusions, listing them and comparing the bids.
- Evaluate the price of each bid, relative to the value of the scope of work, allowances, assumptions, and exclusions.
- Politely contest any elements of the bids that you would like changed.
- Take note of any changes and compare the bids once more before making a final decision.
Here are some examples of things to watch for in different types of contractors' scope of work agreements:
- How they plan to prepare the exterior or interior paint surface. This step makes or breaks a paint job.
- Whether they are hand scraping all loose paint or power washing the exterior (be careful as this can damage surrounding areas and you must wait for the wall to fully dry before proceeding with work).
- If they are fully priming or only spot priming.
- The number of coats of paint.
- The brand and quality of the paint, etc.
- The extent and frequency of cleanup.
- The care for the surroundings (landscaping, furnishings, etc.)
- Will they be planting shrubs and root balls of your trees below the ground? Do not accept making a shallow hole, then placing the plant in it and surrounding the root ball with a mound of dirt and mulch.
- Are they planning to remove the wire around the root ball or untie the twine and place the root ball fully into the ground until only about 6” extends above ground?
- Do they guarantee the installation and life of the plant for a specified period?
- Do they clearly communicate your responsibilities for watering after installation?
- Where they plan to use flashing.
- How they flash an outside corner of a chimney or wall.
- If you have a brick home, do they plan to cut the brick joints for the flashing, then seal the joint rather than nailing the flashing to the brick wall and relying on caulk?
- If you live in a cold climate, are they installing a rubber ice/water shield along the entire edge of your roof extending from the roof’s edge to at least 24" past the exterior wall?
- The extent and frequency of cleanup.
- The care for plants and landscaping.
- Do they offer a fixed price for their work?
- If cleaning out a clogged drain, do they charge on a “per foot” basis for the “cleanout snake” used?
Check Their License, Insurance, and Bonding
We've already established that hiring a contractor with no licensure is a bad idea. Ideally, look for a licensed contractor with zero filed complaints or disciplinary actions taken. If none are available, at least look for zero complaints filed for at least three years.
Just like licensure, steer clear from contractors with no insurance. Choosing an uninsured contractor can lead to liability falling on you. The best hire is one with a workman's compensation and general liability (bodily injury and property damage), though a contractor holding only general liability can still be considered. Ask your potential contractor for their insurance certificates (COI). If necessary, contact the insurance company directly to review their coverage.
Lastly, check to see if your potential contractor is bonded. This is a good way of establishing trust in your contractor and the agreement. If you've heard horror stories of contractors walking away from jobs before completion, they likely weren't bonded.
What Is Bonding?
Bonds are guarantees that the contracted work will be completed, where the guarantor is a liable third party called a surety.
Discuss Payment Options
Ask to be invoiced by mail after the work is completed, but expect most to want payment right after work is done. If they want cash, that’s not a great sign. If materials are needed before work can start (e.g., roofer or painter), they might want an initial payment for materials. Try to minimize this amount as much as you can, paying no more than 33% upfront and only agreeing to that with a very reputable company.
Don't Rush Into a Decision
The contractor you hire can make or break your project. For this reason, you should never rush into a decision. Look for a contract price that is well broken down, clear, and easily understood. If it's unclear, they likely haven't taken the time to understand your requirements, the scope of work, or the job itself. Don't be tempted by discounts or cash incentives in exchange for immediately signing the contract.
Questions to Ask a Potential Contractor
In summary, here are the questions to ask a potential contractor to help you decide who to hire:
- How much will you charge for the job?
- What will that price include?
- What will that price exclude?
- What assumptions are there?
- How long will the project take and will you guarantee the timeline in writing?
- Will you put every agreement in writing?
- How much of that price will you require upfront and why?
- How will the remainder of the payment be handled?
- Are you licensed? Can you provide your license number?
- Are you insured and bonded? Can you show me your certificates?
Based on the information provided above, assess each contractor's answers and move forward with the one that best fits your preferences.
Tips to Effectively Manage a Contractor
Once you decide to hire a contractor, you should know how to effectively manage them, whether it's a quick home repair project, a large home renovation project, or new construction. Either way, there are some guidelines to follow in managing the work of anyone you hire to work on your home:
Establish the Working Relationship Before the Job Begins
After you formally decide on a contractor but before any work begins, define the expectations of both parties (you and the contractor). Rather than relying on verbal agreements, make sure the written scope of work reflects the expectations of the working relationship. Pay close attention to the following circumstances:
- Define your expectations and requirements for clean up of their work and protection of surrounding areas as part of the signed document (for example, a roofer must protect your landscaping during a roof tear-off and clean up any debris.)
- Discuss the rights of the contractor to access the home when you’re not there if required, and the use of your water and electricity. (Note: Try not to have the contractor in your home when you’re not there; this protects you and them.)
- Before the contractor starts work, clearly communicate what you want them to be careful with if you have any concerns about anything.
- Discuss how you will handle change orders. If you do get a request for a change order, review it with the contractor in fairness. If it's a change in scope or resulted in taking more time due to something you did, you should review and pay for it if you think it’s fair. If it’s something that was always part of the scope, you may need to stand firm based on the terms defined in your signed document.
Be Organized and Observant Once the Job Begins
Once the work begins, generally leave the contractor alone. Be friendly but don’t get in the way. Casually observe what they're doing. If you're concerned about something you see, ask the contractor about it, but try to let them get their work done. Contractors make their living by getting in and out of a job efficiently. Additionally, this is how they meet your agreed-upon timeline.
To keep track of things during construction, maintain a job file holding the contracts, change orders, COIs, bills and invoices, and any other important paperwork.
Review the Work Once the Job Is Complete
When the repair or maintenance work is complete, make sure you review the work, in person, before you make the final payment to the contractor. Make sure the job site is cleaned as expected and the work looks good. Do not be rushed into final payment for any reason. If you’re happy with their work, tell them and leave a review. This helps others hire reputable contractors.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, this overview provided useful information on successfully hiring, managing, and working with contractors. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from one of these pros when needed—that’s their job.
Can you be your own general contractor?
You can act as your own general contractor, so long as your state allows you to pull the proper permits, should your project require them. Check with your state's requirements before moving forward. However, being your own GC requires a lot of work and isn't always worth the money you save by not hiring a GC. Additionally, general contractors are often able to get better subcontractors and materials at better prices, which may save you money.
Do contractors charge for estimates?
Some contractors offer free estimates, but it likely depends on the scope of the project. Larger projects often require an extensive amount of work just to put together an estimate, plus many revisions to reach a final bid. To do this, a contractor may charge a fee for their time.
Why do contractors hire subcontractors?
Contractors hire subcontractors to perform work they don't have time or expertise to do themselves. Most general contractors are hands-off for the majority of a project and act more as a coordinator and manager of the subcontractors.