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Finding a trusted general contractor who's a good fit for your remodeling project can ensure a job well done, with less stress and fewer expensive surprises along the way.
General contractors are licensed to oversee and coordinate construction jobs with multiple tasks, such as a complete kitchen remodel or a whole-house renovation. While it's possible to coordinate certain projects yourself — for example, having a plumber install a new toilet, or hiring someone to install flooring — general contractors are better equipped to handle more ambitious projects, especially those with several dependencies and moving parts.
Here's how you can find and hire the right general contractor for your job.
Step 1: Identify the project and your timeline
Start by determining what you want to accomplish with this project. Browse magazines, online home improvement sites and showrooms for inspiration, and save images that reflect your vision of the project.
“[The homeowner] should have the list of things that they want to accomplish, and they should list those from the most important — as in, ‘have to haves’ — then get into the ‘like to haves,’” says Doug King, national president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, also known as NARI, and owner of King Contracting, a design-build firm based in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Having a rough sketch of what you envision for the project is also helpful, King notes. Consider the trade-offs you’re willing to make, too. For example, adding a room without increasing square footage would mean reducing space elsewhere. If that’s not workable for you, consider alternatives.
Step 2: Research potential general contractors
Consider the scope of your project and what you're looking for in a contractor. Ideally, you want to work with someone who's done a similar project before.
Referrals and reviews can help you whittle down a list of qualified contractors for your project. Solicit recommendations from friends, family and coworkers who have taken on similar projects. Also check reputable sites such as NARI, HomeAdvisor and Thumbtack for general contractors in your area.
Look up each potential contractor on the Better Business Bureau site and read through ratings, complaints and reviews. If a contractor you're considering has prior complaints on their record, review the details. Look for patterns in the reviews that might indicate performance issues, while keeping in mind that not every complaint is valid. If there are dissatisfied customers, take note of how the contractor responds in the comments.
Before you contact a contractor:
Check licenses. Visit your state licensing agency's website to confirm that they have a current, valid license and that there are no violations or other issues listed.
Verify other designations. If the contractor claims to have association memberships or optional certifications, confirm those designations online or by phone.
Confirm workers' compensation coverage. Workers' compensation, which employers are generally required by law to carry, covers potential expenses such as lost wages and medical bills in the event a worker is injured on the job. If your contractor doesn’t carry it and their employee is hurt while working on your property, you could be liable even if you provided safe working conditions. In some states, you can check a general contractor's workers' compensation coverage online. If that’s not an option, ask contractors to supply their policy information and call to confirm the policy is active.
Step 3: Interview your prospects
Once you have a list of contractors that could potentially be good fits for your project, set up brief phone calls with each one to determine whom you should meet with in person. In addition to any questions you might have about their licenses and insurance coverage, you may also want to ask questions such as:
What work do you specialize in? How much experience do you have?
Have you worked on a project similar to this one before?
What parts of this project might be most challenging?
What does a timeline for a project like this typically look like?
What are the payment terms for a project like this?
Do you have a list of references you can share?
When checking references, it's especially valuable to speak with the contractor's current or former clients. Homeowners who are currently working with the contractor can let you know of any issues in real time. Customers with completed projects can share any potential workmanship concerns now that the project has had time to settle.
Step 4: Get detailed estimates
If both you and the contractor feel like the project could be a good fit, arrange an in-person meeting to discuss specifics. Once the contractor has an understanding of what you want to accomplish in your space and what the project will entail, they'll be able to put together an estimate.
Before committing, make sure you get an estimate that's detailed and thorough. Lack of specificity is a red flag.
“When a homeowner gets a quote from a company for remodeling work and there's no document, there's no drawing, there's no detail — then that's the beginning of a bad experience,” King says.
He notes that it’s important for the document to account for the specific items you’re selecting for the project, such as flooring, faucets, sinks, tubs, showerheads and tile. If these aren’t mentioned, he added, and you sign a contract based on that estimate, the contractor can come back and ask for more money because nothing was specified.
Step 5: Make a decision
After collecting a few estimates, it's time to pick a contractor. While cost might be a major deciding factor, remember to look at the big picture, too. Which contractor is best suited to take on this type of project, and whom do you feel most comfortable working with? Which estimates best reflect what you're trying to accomplish and realistically account for all potential costs and obstacles? If expenses are still too high, keep in mind there might be room for negotiation and price adjustments — say, if you opt for less-expensive materials or limit the scope of your project.
Be wary of estimates that appear too low for the work that's expected. Even bids that differ by only a few hundred dollars can be misleading unless you know exactly what's covered in the proposals. For example, one estimate might include waste removal, and another might not.
Step 6: Finalize contract details and sign
The terms of the contract should clarify project details and contingencies, such as time frames and payment terms. Before work starts, verify once again that contractors are insured and carry workers' compensation for their employees and any subcontractors who will be performing work on your home.
Don't rely on verbal agreements; if changes need to be made to the project, update the contract and make sure both you and the contractor sign on the dotted line. Keep all your records — including the contract, copies of payments, photos, written correspondence and your notes — in a safe place so you can easily reference them.
Claire Tsosie, an assistant assigning editor at NerdWallet, contributed reporting to this article.