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Home Improvement 101 – How to Hire a Contractor for Your Home Project

Home Improvement 101: How to Hire a Contractor for Your Home Project
Table of Contents

Not every home renovation project is ideal for the “do-it-yourself” mentality.  Somewhere along your home improvement journey, you’ll likely find yourself in need of a home contractor.

But how do you go about hiring a contractor? What are the key things to look for, and what kinds of questions should you be asking?

The good news is, finding a contractor doesn’t have to be a difficult process, especially if you know what you’re looking for. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about finding the right person for any home repair job.

Types of Home Repair Contractors

Before you begin your hiring process, you need to know exactly what type of contractor you’re looking for. There are two different “types” of home contractors you may encounter: the general contractor (GC) and the subcontractor.

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General Contractors (GC)

General contractors, also known as builders, are usually companies. They oversee the construction of major renovations or entirely new homes. General contractors are responsible for hiring their own individual specialty subcontractors.

It’s best to hire a general contractor if you need someone to coordinate a larger project. They find individual subcontractors to perform the construction and renovation of each individual project within a larger build.

When you work with a GC, you will not have contracts with any individual subcontractor. All contracts will go through the GC. So, this means the only contract you’ll have will be with the GC.

If you are completely rebuilding a home or hoping to build an entirely new home, you may benefit from hiring a GC instead of finding individual subcontractors for each issue. They will provide management of subcontractors, supervision of construction, port-a-johns, insurance, and other necessary items for completing construction.

Hiring a GC can save you a lot of trouble when there’s a big project to tackle.


Not every home renovation will require a GC, however. In some cases, you may only need small or very specific repairs. For example, individual bathroom renovations, HVAC repair, flooring updates, etc., are best handled by an individual subcontractor.

Subcontractors are specialists who generally focus on one particular area of home repair. You may come across certain unlicensed subcontractors, such as gutter cleaners, painters, and the like. It is best to avoid these unlicensed contractors as they can present certain liability issues.

When you’re not doing a total home renovation, it may be best to find your own individual licensed subcontractor(s) in order to save you time and money.

When to Hire a Contractor

You may want to make home repairs on your own. While the DIY mentality is certainly admirable, it is not recommended for every home renovation.

Every person is different. So, deciding when to hire a contractor is a very personal decision. You can help make this decision by evaluating:

  • Your budget for the project
  • How much time you can devote to the project
  • Your comfort level with the task
  • Any required licensing

In some cases, home renovations require special licensing or permits. Usually, simple repairs won’t need special permissions, but add-ons and certain electrical or plumbing work might.

For these special cases, you might have to hire a contractor in order to obtain the proper permits. You might also need any construction work reviewed by a home safety inspector.

Why Not DIY?

If a permit is not required, you might want to do the work yourself. However, it’s best not to undertake any complicated repairs, especially if you don’t feel confident in your ability to complete the task. Particularly dangerous repairs are also sometimes best left to the professionals.

When deciding whether to hire a contractor or do-it-yourself, ask yourself these important questions:

  • Do I feel confident with my ability to complete this repair?
  • If not, am I comfortable trying the repair anyway?
  • Am I prepared to take longer than anticipated to complete the repair?
  • Do I really want to devote the time and energy to this repair?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, it might be time to seek out a contractor. But, if you’ve confidently answered yes, go ahead and give it a try yourself!

Be aware, however, that in some cases, DIY projects can end up making a larger dent in your budget than home contractor costs. This is especially true if you’re unfamiliar with the repair.

How to Find a Good Contractor

For most homeowners, actually finding a good contractor is the most daunting part of any home repair. However, it doesn’t have to be difficult.

A great tip for hiring a contractor is to keep a roster of trusted contractors handy. This way, if urgent repairs arise, you already have a few great contractors you can call. Being prepared is the best way to ensure your home is well taken care of.

But how do you find people to include on your roster?

Get First-Hand Reviews

First, know what kind of contractor your looking for. What is the scope of your project? What do you need to be fixed? What is your time frame?

Once you’ve figured that out, reach out to trusted friends, family, and neighbors for recommendations. This way, you can get first-hand accounts of their past contractor work, as well as prices and personal style.

You can also use free online resources, such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) or HomeAdvisor. These sites let you browse real reviews of contractor’s past work and ensure they’ve secured the proper licensing and insurance.

Schedule a Phone Call

Once you’ve found a hearty list of contractors, it’s time to start making some phone calls. A call can help you get a sense of a contractor’s professionalism and answer some key questions you may have.

The initial phone call will be an important part of deciding whether a contractor is right for you.

Meet Face-to-Face

After the phone call, it’s best to meet face-to-face before hiring. This helps you make sure there’s proper “chemistry” or rapport. Remember, this person will be in your house, so you want to be sure you can trust them.

When you meet in person, you also get a chance to review a contractor’s professionalism. A good contractor should be courteous, punctual, and good at communicating. If you meet a contractor and they don’t tick these boxes, don’t hire them.

You may also want to look for signs of substance abuse. Alcohol or marijuana use can affect a contractor’s work and create liability issues. If you notice signs that this may be an issue, it’s probably best to seek a different contractor.

The Contractor Hiring Checklist

There are a few ways to evaluate how good a contractor is. You should run through a checklist of important criteria before signing any contracts.

Focus on these key areas when evaluating the legitimacy of a home contractor.

1. List of References

Any good contractor should have a reliable list of references. Obviously, a contractor you have had a good experience with personally is the best option. However, neighbors or friends who have had good experiences with a contractor is also a good sign.

If your only source is good reviews, that’s okay too. Just try to be sure they have a good reputation before going into further evaluations.

Bad reviews or no reviews at all are usually a sign that it’s time to move on to someone else.

2. Licensing and Insurance

Before doing business with any contractor, it’s important to make sure they’re licensed. If so, they should have a licensing number and should be able to provide it to any potential clients readily.

The best contractors will have zero complaints or disciplinary action filed against them by the Better Business Bureau. If they don’t have any complaints for the last three years, that may also be acceptable.

You should also ask to see any insurance certificates a contractor has. Liability insurance, Workman’s Compensation, and Surety Bond insurance are the best. But, at the bare minimum, they should have general liability insurance on file.

Another type of insurance that may be relevant to look for when hiring a contractor is Business Auto Insurance. This way, if any accidents occur with your contractor’s vehicle, you’re guaranteed coverage.

If a contractor has had complaints filed within the last three years, you may want to look elsewhere. Additionally, if they don’t have licensing or insurance at all, it’s best not to hire them.

3. Legitimacy of the Business

In some cases, the longevity of a business is a good indicator of quality. The best contractors have been in business for 10 or more years with the same name. Businesses that are anywhere from one to ten years old are also okay, but take notice of other factors.

If a business is less than a year old, it’s not an instant disqualifier. However, check the other criteria before making any decisions.

Additionally, having a brick and mortar business office and physical address is a good sign of legitimacy. Home offices are also acceptable. But, if a contactor only has a cell phone contact, that could leave you vulnerable to scams.

4. Relevant Experience

Before beginning any contracting search, make sure you understand the scope of your home renovation project.

In some cases, a good contractor may still be the wrong contractor for you. You want to be sure your contractor can properly handle the task at hand.

Some contractors may perform multiple kinds of work. That’s okay, but be sure they are capable and experienced in whatever tasks need performing.

5. Price and Scope

Good contractors should be able to provide a detailed description of the scope of the work they’re able to do. Be sure that whoever you hire is able to guarantee completion of the repair before they begin.

Additionally, good contractors shouldn’t ask for more than 25-33% of the total cost up-front. They also shouldn’t require final payment until the work is complete.

And remember, any contracts or agreements you make with a contractor, subcontractor, or supplier are in writing. A verbal agreement can’t protect you if anything goes awry.

Evaluating Estimates and Negotiating Payments

After you’ve found a great contractor who fits all your criteria, it’s time to talk payments. Generally, you won’t have much room to negotiate the price. But, you can still make sure you find a payment schedule that fits your budget.

When it comes to constructing payment plans, every contractor is different. However, there are two payment options you’ll likely come across. These are:

1. Cost, Plus Flat Fee

This type of payment will include the actual cost of the project, plus an agreed-upon management and coordination fee. This fee is usually 13-20% of the project cost.

Usually, the contractor will estimate the project cost at each stage of the repair. This cost will generally cover the materials and labor required for the renovation.

In most cases, the estimated cost should be pretty close to the project’s actual cost unless unforeseen circumstances arise. Your contractor should provide you with receipts and accounting paperwork at regular intervals throughout the repair. This can help you make sure the costs are adding up appropriately.

This option provides homeowners with a lot of flexibility. However, it can be difficult to estimate what the final cost will actually be. If you’re working within a budget, this option may present difficulties.

2. Bid Basis

In this type of payment, you and your contractor will create a set budget for the project. Then, together, you can agree upon the payment schedule. You should outline the terms of your budget and payment plan in your contract.

This option creates some restrictions when it comes to the actual repair. But, if you’re working within a budget, this will likely be the better choice for you. Unless unforeseen circumstances arise, you’ll know what the final cost is upfront.

How Much Will a Home Improvement Project Cost?

While shopping for a contractor, make sure to get pricing estimates from each business. This way, you can compare prices to estimate what the cost should be.

For example, if you receive a quote of $15,000 for a kitchen remodel from four of the five contractors you speak to, then that’s what the remodel will cost.

Professional contractors want to complete quality work in reasonable periods of time. The estimated cost should be able to cover the quality materials and labor required to do so. If an estimate seems too high or too low, you might be looking at a scam.

Proper Payment Methods

To protect yourself from scams, there are a few key things you should keep in mind when it comes to payment methods.

1. NEVER Pay in Cash

If a contractor requests cash payment, you’re probably looking at a scam. This is especially true if they request a down payment in cash or ask you to pay in full before the job is complete.

You should always be able to agree upon down payments upfront. You also shouldn’t have to make a final payment before job completion. And again, never make these payments in cash.

2. Use a Check or Credit Card for Smaller Projects

A credit card is the recommended payment method for any renovation work. This way, you have a bit more legal protections should something go awry. Your credit card company is better equipped to protect you than your bank legally.

3. Finance Larger Projects

If you choose to finance a home repair, be sure the terms are clearly laid out in your contract. You should include a clause stating that the contract is void until financing is obtained and approved.

Frequently Asked Questions

Now that you know how to find a contractor and negotiate payments, you may still have a few remaining questions. Here are the top 10 questions homeowners have when it comes time to hiring a contractor:

1. How Do I Know if a Contractor Is Legit?

Legitimate contractors are always licensed, insured, and well-reviewed. They also will not demand cash payments or upfront total payment. It also helps to look for a physical office or legitimate contact information.

2. How Many Contractors Should I Review?

It’s best to start with a list of 10-12 contractors to screen by phone call. Of these, narrow it down to 4-6 to meet with in person. This gives you a wide list so you can find the perfect contractor for your project and budget.

3. Why Is It Important For Contractors to Have Insurance?

It can be dangerous to work with an uninsured contractor. This can leave you vulnerable to certain liability issues. Additionally, if an uninsured accident or injury occurs during your renovation, you could end up absorbing the costs.

4. What Should You Ask in the Initial Phone Call?

The initial phone call with a contractor should give you a good sense of their capabilities, payment schedules, and legitimacy. Some questions to ask include

  • Are you certified?
  • Are you insured?
  • Will you handle the necessary permits?
  • What’s your past experience like?
  • How do you handle payment plans?
  • How long should the job take?
  • What is your cost estimate for the described job?

5. Is a Face-to-Face Meeting Necessary?

Yes. It is always necessary to have an initial in-person meeting with a contractor before you decide to hire them. This can help you get a feel for the person, your rapport with them, and give you a sense of their professionalism.

If a contractor does not agree to an in-person meeting with you, you shouldn’t hire them. Additionally, if you spot any red flags, such as substance abuse, disrespect, or lack of punctuality, it’s best to look elsewhere for a contractor.

A face-to-face meeting is a great way to get an initial “gut-check” for the person you’ll be working with. Remember, this person will be in your home, so you need to find someone you can trust.

6. I’ve Found a Contractor I Like. Now What?

Once you’ve found the right contractor for your job, it’s time to sit down with them for an honest conversation. You should lay out the scope of the project, your expectations, and your budget.

This is a great time to clear up a few “sensitive” topics. For example, make clear any expectations regarding the protection or safety of the rest of the home. Also, make sure you cover the contractor’s rights to your home while you’re not there.

7. How Do We Work Out a Contract?

You’ll want to be sure any work agreements or contracts are in writing. There should be documentation of every agreement you make with your contractor.

Important things to outline in the contract include:

  • Contact information
  • Project time frame
  • Payment plan and financing details
  • List of materials
  • Permit guarantees
  • Change order provisions
  • Names of suppliers and subcontractors
  • A “broom clause” for clean-up
  • A termination clause

8. Should I Be Around While My Contractor Works?

While it’s best to be at home while your contractor is working, you shouldn’t be in their face. You hired your contractor because you trust them. It’s most respectful to leave them to their work instead of looking over their shoulder.

9. How Do I Know a Project Is Complete?

Once a project nears its end, there are some key things you should make sure are on file and squared away. These include:

  • Physical copies of all warranties
  • Completed work according to contract standards
  • Proof of payments
  • A cleaned job site
  • The work has been inspected and approved

10. How Do I Resolve Issues With My Contractor?

Sometimes, issues will arise. In most cases, it’s best to communicate directly with your contractor. Usually, an honest conversation will do the trick.

If that doesn’t resolve the issue, however, there are a few sources you can turn to. These include:

  • State attorney or consumer protection office
  • Local home builder’s association
  • The Better Business Bureau
  • Local media, as a last resort

A Good Contractor Means Better Home Improvement

Now that you know how to find the perfect contractor for any job, you’ll be better prepared when it comes time for serious home improvement. Repairs and renovations can be daunting, but you can keep your home safe by taking the proper steps.

Contact LoPriore Insurance today to learn how you can keep your home or business protected throughout the home renovation process.

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