How to Hire a Contractor for a Home Improvement Project

Avoid common mistakes to improve your chances for a successful project and empower yourself in the process.

Home improvement projects are sometimes a daunting task. For many men the thought of bringing in a professional is equal to a loss of masculinity. For many women there is the fear that the contractor will treat her like, well, like a woman on a construction site. Both of these fears are possibly true and most definitely imaginary: You can’t do everything and contractors are, for the most part, respectful. To avoid these feelings you can educate yourself by finding the middle ground. Mostly you have fear because you don’t know what needs to be done and what to expect. Let’s change that conversation around.

Knowledge is King

First off, know what needs to be done. I worked with a woman once who didn’t understand why she was having drain issues when the contractor had just installed new copper tubing in her house. I explained that there are two elements to a plumbing system: the lines that bring the water into the house and the lines that take the waste out. She said that was too technical for her. If I wasn’t there as an intermediary from the start the contractor could have had his way with her. Fortunately I was there and I was being paid by the hour so I didn’t mind spending another 30 minutes explaining the concepts of plumbing.

By doing some simple online research or asking some friends you can find out the basics of your systems, why your systems aren’t working properly, and be better prepared to ask for what you need. You may not be ready to take on the project yourself, and you shouldn’t try to take everything on yourself, but you should be prepared to ask for quotes for the things you need and reject suggestions for things that you may not.

Define Your Project

If you don’t tell your contractor what you need or want your contractor will define your project and the end result may not be something that makes you happy. Part of being a contractor is being a good salesman. They have employees to do the work and their job is to get you to hire him for the biggest project you can afford. This isn’t true of all contractors but it is true for an ample percentage of them.

Without a defined scope each contractor will tell you what they can do and will shower you with suggestions. When you are trying to decide who to work with your head will be swimming with all the different suggestions and you will likely end up saying to your chosen contractor “but I thought it would be granite” when really he said “it’ll be cheaper with cultured marble. You will never remember that it was candidate #4 who said he would do it in granite. You might end up blaming your chosen contractor for being dishonest and pulling a fast one and distrust him through the rest of the project when actually he did exactly what he said he would.

Spend a few days researching your project. Identify your finishes and write them down before you start to call contractors. Make your scope as comprehensive as possible and hand a copy to each contractor that comes to the door. It is ok to use the contractor’s standard contract but make sure he references your list of work to be done and finishes in his contract and that this list is attached to his contract and to your copy.

Don’t Choose the First One

Just don’t. The fact that his truck is clean, he smells nice, and he cat named Fluffy just like you do is not a reason to enter into a contract with the first Joe that comes along. Call 3, 4, 5, or more and give them each your work description. Tell them you want them to give you their estimate on your sheet. If they have concerns about the way you have written your scope listen to what they have to say and write down their comments. Ask each one if they see anything that you missed in your scope and if there are any hidden items that could emerge once the project is under way. Listen to their answers. If all but one sees the same potential issues, be cautious of the one that doesn’t but try to find out why he doesn’t share that concern.

Try to verify the contractor’s comments online or with friends. You might even want to re-write your scope to include these suggestions and email it back to each of the contractors (skip the contractors you already don’t like or that you think are questionable). Insist that they fill out their estimate on your work description and make lines where they will put their pricing. Ask them to include pricing for any items they feel are not represented, or that might be unforeseen on a separate sheet. If a contractor is adamant that he does not want to work with your scope just forget him as a candidate. This is your project, you’re hiring him, you’re the boss and you do not want to start off your project with someone who does not mind the boss.

By following these steps, when the estimates come back you will have a solid comparison. You want to be able to look at each estimate and know each is based on the same work which should result in a fairly tight race. This should help you make an informed decision on which candidate is the best.


Don’t get hung up on the individual line item prices. If you are going to move forward with the entire project pay closer attention to the bottom line price for the entire project. Contractors have different specialties and can do some items cheaper than others. If your scope is pretty tight some will come into a middle range. Throw the others out; it’s the middle range you want to focus on. Don’t necessarily select the lowest bidder; he may not be the best. Don’t the select the highest thinking he will be the best and won’t give you any trouble. Stick within the middle range and within that range select the one you actually liked the best. He will be in your home for a few days, weeks, or months depending on the size of the project.

Don’t be afraid to conduct a little interview with those in the middle range. Call their references and ask the past clients if you can see the work. Ask each contractor how long they will need to finish the project and ask if they are willing to put that time frame in the contract. Ask if they are willing to include a per day penalty if the job is not finished by that date.

Don’t Skip Any of the Above Steps

Chances are you will have little annoyances through your project maybe even some disappointments even with a well-defined scope. This is actually a normal occurrence. You can avoid big disappointments, arguments, lawsuits, etc. and if you follow the steps above you will greatly minimize the pain and increase your satisfaction. You may even increase your confidence.

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