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 some of the work you need to be done. We all hire someone to fix something in our house at some point. What you'll find here is some 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. A general contractor or builder is a company that will construct a major renovation project or build a new home and hires 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 or the "trades" (construction trades). On a new home or large home repair or renovation project, these subs may include the excavator, concrete sub, rough framing carpentry crew, roofer, plumber, mechanical (HVAC) electrician, finish carpenter, painter, flooring, etc. The GC hires these subcontractors directly and directly "holds" their contracts. That means they work for him and they are under contract to him. You would have a contract with only the GC, not the GC's 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, paying the subs, provides supervision of the construction, provides dumpsters, port-a-john, insurance and other miscellaneous things you need to build a house or construct an addition.
The subcontractors make their money by charging for labor and by marking up material.
The GC is the “generalist” and subcontractors are the “specialists.” When you need a specific thing fixed in your home, you need a specialist, and that person is the specialty subcontractor, for example, a plumber.
When it comes to hiring someone for maintenance tasks a lot of people who do this work may not be a licensed subcontractor at all. They may just be a “guy with a truck,” for example a gutter cleaner, or 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 contractor. In short, avoid the temptation altogether and always use a licensed contractor.
Deciding When to Use a Contractor
Making the decision to use a contractor is one that is often personal. It will come down to evaluating:
- Your comfort level with the task at hand
- Your time
- Your budget
If you’re venturing beyond a simple home repair project to new technically challenging installations such as adding electrical circuits or adding a sink, 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. In some cases, it may be required that the local building inspector review your work during construction and after its completion.
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 “Home Owner’s Permit” then you should ask yourself three questions:
- Do I feel confident in making (or at least comfortable trying) this repair?
- Are the consequences acceptable if it takes me longer to do the project than I anticipate?
- Do I really want to try this project?
If you answer “no” to any of the above questions, you should probably hire a contractor for the repair. If you answered “yes” to them all, you should give it a shot and do the repair yourself. That’s the only way to gain experience and confidence.
How to Manage the Project
Once you decide to hire a contractor you should know how to effectively manage him, whether it's a quick home repair project or 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:
- Hire a licensed, insured contractor.
- Define the expectations of both parties (you and them) and manage to those expectations.
- At a minimum, have a signed document (a contract, or signed and accepted proposal) that outlines what they will do for you (called the Scope of Work), define how much it will cost and where time is an issue define how long it will take and when they will start and finish.
- Define the payment terms before work is started and make the terms part of your signed document.
- 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, 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, have a friendly conversation about what you want them to be careful with if you have any concerns about things.
- When the work is going on, generally leave the contractor alone. Be friendly but don’t get in the way. Casually observe what they are doing. If you are 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.
- Discuss the "extra:" The most difficult issue you may experience is the possible request by the contractor for a “Change Order” or “Extra.” This results in an added cost to you, which is why you need a clearly defined scope of work. 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 him, or is a change in scope by you. If you do get a request for a Change Order, review it with the contractor in fairness. If it is a change in scope or resulted in taking more time due to something you did, you should review and pay it if you think it’s fair. If it’s something that was always part of the scope, you have a more delicate situation and may need to stand firm based on the terms defined in your signed document. Bottom line? If you need to negotiate a price on a Change Order you both did not anticipate, try splitting the difference with him. Rapport and fairness go a long way toward resolving these issues.
- When the repair or maintenance work is complete, make sure you review the work, in person, before you make 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.
How to Select a Good Contractor
This may seem daunting but it’s really pretty straightforward. Try to select contractors you may need on an urgent basis before you need them. Why? Because if you have an emergency repair and need to find someone quickly (who is also good and fair), you don’t have time to go through a lengthy selection and screening process. The worst thing you can do is pick someone from the Yellow Pages without interviewing them first.
The easiest and one of the best ways to select a possible contractor is to get references from friends, family or a realtor you trust. Another good method is to use a free service like HomeAdvisor which lets you read real-time reviews of the contractor's work.
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.
You should also be observant for signs of substance abuse such as alcohol or marijuana. If you suspect anything here, do not hire the contractor.
Here’s a checklist of things to consider when selecting your contractor.
Use ratings of “Best,” “Good,” “OK,” “Fair” and “Reject” to classify some of these items.
Getting Names of Possible Contractors:
- You have had good personal prior experience working with contractor [BEST]
- Reliable referral from direct experience of family or friends [GOOD]
- You know of the contractor's reputation but have no direct experience [OK]
- You found them from a trade association or general advertising [FAIR]
State Contractor Licensing (they must provide the number if licensed):
- Licensed; has never had a complaint filed or had disciplinary action taken [BEST]
- Licensed; has no prior complaints filed for at least 3 or more years [FAIR]
- Licensed; current complaints or actions against them within the past 3 years [REJECT]
- The contractor has no license [REJECT]
Contractor Insurance (ask to see their certificates):
- Workman's Compensation and General Liability [BEST]
- General Liability only (bodily injury and property damage) [GOOD]
- The contractor has no insurance [REJECT]
- In business more than 10 years with the same name [BEST]
- In business 5 or more years with the same name [GOOD]
- In business 1 to 5 years with the same name [OK]
- New business under 1 year [FAIR]
Stability and Permanence:
- Has a physical business office and address [BEST]
- Has only a Home office or answering service [FAIR]
- Cell phone contact only, no office [REJECT]
- Positive prior current references from at least 5 customers [BEST]
- 1 to 4 positive references from past customers [FAIR]
- No real references or negative references provided [REJECT]
- Specializes in the work you want to be performed [BEST]
- Can perform the work you want but also does other types of work [OK]
- Little to no experience in the work you want to be performed [REJECT]
Scope and Price:
- A detailed description of the scope of work
- Assumptions (if any) are clear and accurate
- Contractor DID NOT offer a discount to “sign up now”
- A contractor will guarantee the work
- All verbal contractor representations are in writing
- No more than 25% to 33% asked for up front
- Final payment not required until work is complete
Getting Bids and Evaluating an Estimate
This is an extremely important aspect of successfully hiring a contractor. Let’s break it down:
The Scope of Work:
This defines what the contractor is doing for you. 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, etc.
Reviewing the scope of work between contractors is an essential element of evaluating their bid estimate. Here are some things to watch for in the scope of different contractors:
- Painter: Describe how they plan to prepare the exterior or interior paint surface. This step makes or breaks a paint job. Define if they are hand scraping all loose paint (best), 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), priming (best), spot priming (OK). Define the number of coats of paint proposed and the brand and quality of the paint, etc. Make sure they protect surrounding areas and clean up any debris.
- Landscaper: No matter what they say or how much they dismiss this issue, make sure they understand you want your shrubs and root balls of your trees planted 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. Make sure they 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. Make sure they also guarantee the installation and life of the plant for a specified period of time. Understand your responsibilities for watering.
- Roofer: Roofs rarely leak from shingle failure, they leak from flashing failure. What you typically can’t see is where water gets in. Make sure they specify where flashing is used. Be concerned and review how they flash an outside corner of a chimney or wall. On a brick home, it's best to cut the brick joints for the flashing and then seal the joint. This is much better than nailing the flashing to the brick wall and relying on caulk. If you live in a cold climate, make sure they install 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. Make sure they protect your plants and shrubs and clean up any debris daily.
- Plumber: If possible, try to negotiate a fixed price for their work. Cleaning out a clogged drain is often priced on a “per foot” basis of the “cleanout snake” used, but some plumbers give a fixed price for this work. Ideally, you should preselect a drain cleaner for emergency drain clean-outs. Bottom line, expect to pay a premium price for emergency calls.
What “Is” and “Is Not” Included in the Bid:
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 highlight where you have an apple and an orange.
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.
Look for a contract price that is well broken down, clear and easily understood. If it is unclear then they have not taken the time to understand your requirements, the scope of work, or the job. Do not necessarily make your selection only on price.
It is extremely important that the contractor doesn't offer you a discount or cash incentives for immediately signing the contract.
Contract Payment Terms:
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 were needed before work can start (e.g., roofer or painter), they want an initial payment for materials. Try to minimize this amount as much as you can. Try not to pay more than 33% up front and only agree to that with a very reputable company.
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 seven days a week.