If you own your own home, you understand the advantages of do-it-yourself projects. You can do things your way, on your schedule, with the materials you select. You have the sense of pride that comes with completing a project with your own two hands. And of course, you can save some money at the same time.

But doing it yourself isn’t always an option. Some projects are too big, too time-consuming or simply beyond your comfort level. When that happens, it’s time to hire a contractor to get the job done. Which leads to one of the most common questions I get from readers:

"What’s the secret to dealing with a contractor?"

Know what you want before you start
Before you ever start thinking about calling a contractor, you need to know what you want. That sounds pretty obvious, but surprisingly enough, most people simply don’t have a very good grasp of what they want to have done. And if you don’t know what you want, then the contractor certainly won’t. That will lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, and ultimately to disappointment.

Determine as much as you can about your project. Look through magazines, take a home tour, go to the library, and walk through a home center. The more details you have ready for the contractor, from the sizes of rooms and their intended use to the types of windows and appliances and trim you want, the better the contractors will understand your vision. That will greatly improve communication, as well as your chances of getting the finished product you’re hoping for.

Who does that type of work
Different contractors have different specialties. You can save yourself some time and ultimately some money if you understand the type of contractor you’re looking for. If you want a contractor to repair your fire-damaged home, look for someone who specializes in fire damage, not a firm that only builds new houses.

There are also times when you need a general contractor, and times when you need a specialty contractor. A general contractor oversees several trades on a project. For example, if you want to have a room addition built, you would use a general contractor, rather than hiring five or 10 individual specialty contractors and trying to coordinate each one. On the other hand, if you want to have a new heating system installed, you’d typically hire a heating and air conditioning contractor to handle that.

Now that you know what you want to have done and who you need to do it, you need to find the right company. The single best way to do that is through a personal referral from someone you know and trust.

If you know anyone who’s had work done on their home that they were happy with, that’s usually the ideal place to begin. Talk to them, and get some feedback about the contractor’s skills, pricing, on-time performance, crew and subcontractor performance, general cooperation, and anything else you can learn.

There are other sources of referrals as well. Maybe you’ve seen a plumber’s van or an electrician’s truck at your neighbor’s house. Perhaps you drive by a room addition every day on your way to work. Stop and introduce yourself, and talk to the homeowner. As long as you’re not asking a lot of personal questions, especially financial ones, most people are more than willing to share their experiences. You’ll usually get some great first-hand information about the contractor, both good and bad.

Material suppliers are also great sources. Ask the people where you buy your lumber or your plumbing supplies if they know of anyone who’s particularly good at the type of project you have in mind. Like contractors, retailers have a reputation to protect. They want to keep you happy and coming back as a customer, so they’ll typically refer only those contractors they know are honest and will do a good job.

The initial call
Except for small projects, I always encourage people to talk to at least two different contractors. It gives them a comparison of different perspectives, different personalities, and different price structures. When you have your names, call the contractors. But before setting up an appointment for a site visit, ask the following four questions:

1. Do they do the specific type of work you’re looking for? It could be they no longer do kitchens or room additions, or they now do fire damage work and have stopped doing remodeling. Clarify that up front.

2. What’s their schedule like? If you have a project that has to be done within the next month and the contractor can’t even start until then, there’s no point in wasting your time or theirs.

3. Can they provide you with referrals? Most companies are more than willing to provide you with names and phone numbers of past clients. If they can’t or won’t provide you with referrals, don’t hire them! Between the time you call the contractor and the time they come out to your home, be sure to follow up on a couple of the referrals and get some feedback from the homeowners. For larger projects, ask if you can come out and view the contractor’s work.

4. What is their business name and license number? Get the contractor’s full business name, address and business phone number, as well as their contractor’s license number. Immediately call the proper state or local licensing agency to verify the status of the license and that any required bonds and insurance policies are in place. If there are any problems with the contractor’s license, bond, or insurance, do not deal with that contractor!

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