How to Hire a Contractor, Plumber, Painter or Electrician

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When you're hiring a home improvement professional, you're buying that person's ability to bring your concept to life. It's of critical importance to find a trustworthy, licensed professional for any work that includes carpentry, drywall, concrete, insulation, plumbing, painting, flooring and tile.

General Contractor

  • Talk to people you trust who have hired general contractors. Gather leads from lumberyards, architects, home inspectors and real estate agents. Contact online services, such as ImproveNet.com and the National Association of Home Builders' Remodelers Council (nahb.net/remodeler_working), or trade groups like your local Remodelers Council branch.

  • Go online or telephone your state's contractor licensing board to verify credentials and confirm that a contractor's license is up to date. You'll be able to type in their license number and get information directly. Note that there are several sub-categories of licenses for various specialties; requirements vary by state. Also call the local building inspection department and ask what they think of a contractor's work. Contact your local or state consumer protection office or Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) to find out if the contractor has any unresolved complaints on file.

  • Identify several contractors. Confirm that they and their subcontractors are licensed and bonded. Describe your project and ask if they've handled comparable jobs in the past year. Check their availability for your intended time frame. Discuss your budget. Narrow the field to those available contractors who impressed you most.

  • Ask for names and numbers of current and former customers. Interview them about each contractor's strengths and weaknesses, and ask how the job went. Was the quality of the work and materials what you expected? Was the project completed on time and within budget? During work, did the contractor keep you informed? Did the crew and subcontractors treat your property and family respectfully? Would you hire him or her again? Ask a customer from four or five years ago how the job held up.

  • Solicit competitive bids from at least three contractors. Contractors will use the architect's blueprints or construction documents to make an accurate bid. (See How to Hire an Architect.) If there are significant differences between bids, ask why. A lowball bid won't end up costing the least if you soon have to replace poor-quality materials or shoddy workmanship.

  • Hire a licensed contractor for any job over $500 in value (laws vary by state). Contractors know the building codes; only they can give bids and are liable for the work they do. If an unlicensed contractor is hired, you accept responsibility for any damage. Discuss the contractor's guarantee or warranty programs. If something seems amiss, go elsewhere.

  • Ask for the payment schedule. Execute a written contract specifying the work to be done, estimated start and finish dates, total cost and payment schedule. A detailed contract protects both you and the contractor. Accept informal letters of agreement for jobs costing $1,000 or less.

Plumber

  • Follow the steps for contractors.

  • Confirm that the bid includes removal of any fixtures that need replacing, such as an old tub.

  • Ask what their minimum and hourly charge is. Also ask if 24-hour emergency service is available, and about additional costs.

  • Contact the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association (phccweb.org) to find a master plumber, who will have the most expertise and experience.

Painter

  • Follow the steps for contractors.

  • Have the painter inspect the site before submitting a bid. Make sure multiple quotes cover the same specifications--all preparation including lead paint removal, areas to paint, number of coats, and paint brands and colors.

  • Discuss the painter's preferred methods of paint application-- spraying or hand painting--as well as paint removal: torching, sanding, or using chemicals.

  • Make sure your contract holds the painter responsible for cleaning paint spatters from all surfaces and that both your property and adjacent property (such as your neighbor's car) is protected. Unlicensed painters are not liable for damage--you are.

Electrician

  • Follow the steps for contractors.

  • Tell the electrician what you need done. Electrical contractors don't necessarily handle all kinds of jobs.

  • Hire an electrician affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (ibew.org), which has one of the longest apprenticeships of the trade. Licensed electricians must follow all electrical codes and use only materials certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL.com). Only licensed electricians can obtain necessary permits. By law, they are responsible for the work and for fixing any problems the building inspector finds.

Tips & Warnings

  • Review sample bids and contracts and compare them to those you receive to see if the contractor puts schedule details, product selections and change orders in writing.
  • For a sample contract, contact the American Institute of Architects (aia.org) or the Associated General Contractors of America (agc.org). Have a lawyer review your contract before signing.
  • Look for a good fit. Ask if you will be treated as a partner in the project. A strong rapport and close communication with your contractor helps make any job go well.
  • A permit is required for most work costing more than $300 (see How to Pull Building Permits).
  • Call a contractor's suppliers and subcontractors to make sure he or she pays their bills on time.
  • If you need a gas line put in for a new stove or dryer, call a plumber.
  • Comparison shop and buy your own fixtures to save the plumber's markup (see How to Choose a Faucet).
  • If you're hiring a painter to do stenciling or other decorator techniques, confirm that he or she has relevant experience.
  • Find out if your painter belongs to the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America (PDCA).
  • Make sure the contractor provides you with a certificate of insurance before you make any payments or work begins.
  • Be leery of contractors who ask for more than 30 percent up front.

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