Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips For Hiring Contractors

In the aftermath of the recession, the home improvement industry has roared back. That's decreased the availability of skilled contractors, including plumbers, electricians and carpenters, among others.

"Right now, it's hard to find good contractors that aren't slammed with work. We're experiencing a big deficit of skilled tradesman," says H. Dale Contant, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "Home Makeovers That Sell," recommends that sellers in need of pre-sale remodeling take a strategic approach to finding and vetting contractors to help prep their property for sale.

"It's probably a mistake to hire your brother-in-law, even if he offers you a cut-rate price. Likewise, you probably won't do well with that random guy who hangs a flier on your front door," Davis says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Don't necessarily take the lowest available bid.

Marty Schirber, who led his family-owned remodeling company for 45 years, says the cheapest bid for a home improvement job doesn't guarantee the best deal for the homeowner.

"An unusually low bid may be cause for alarm," he says, noting that it could indicate that the contractor doesn't fully grasp the project's scope. It could also reflect inexperience or an underestimation of the cost of labor and materials.

In the worst-case scenario, Schirber says, the low bid could mean the contractor is "planning to cut corners by using inferior materials, low-paid, inexperienced workers, or not following local building codes."

On the other hand, he occasionally encounters people who've had horrific experiences working with high-priced contractors.

He says the key is to present all the bidders with specifications for your jobs and then to ask each to break out the charges on a line-by-line basis.

Those seeking online pointers on contractor selection may wish to visit the website of a company called Ask the Builder, at

-- Nail your contractor down on all the details.

Once you've chosen your contractor, it's time to get all aspects of your project down in writing.

"The contract should convey to everyone involved what the finished product will look like," Schirber says.

Among other elements, this document should spell out a summary of the work, as well as provisions for permits, estimated starting and completion dates and a schedule of payments. It should also include procedures for handling change orders.

-- Generate a list of possible contractors for pre-sale repairs.

Many people dislike arduous legwork involved in trying to locate contractors. But R. Dodge Woodson, author of "Tips & Traps for Hiring a Contractor," advises against using the Yellow Pages or online advertising for this purpose.

A more reliable approach, he says, is to seek out recommendations from acquaintances who've had work done on their own homes.

"Ask everyone you know. Treat this like a treasure hunt," Woodson says.

Eric Tyson, co-author of "House Selling for Dummies," recommends you request contractors' names through local real estate agents.

"Realtors have lots of dealings with contractors and should be able to distinguish the good from the bad," he says.

Also, contractors may be more attentive to your project if they know you could complain about their work to the agent, which could limit their chances for repeat business.

-- Solicit names from neighbors you know and respect.

As Davis says, a ready source of contractors' names can be found right in your own neighborhood.

"Through the grapevine ... you can pick up the names of people who do excellent work. You can also rule out those who do lousy work," he says.

One novel way of getting referrals from nearby residents is to throw a neighborhood party and ask all who attend to bring along the name of at least one contractor they like.

-- Look beyond a single bid.

Woodson, who's worked much of his career as a licensed plumber and also ran a home improvement business, strongly recommends that homeowners obtain five estimates for any major work, particularly for any job worth over $5,000.

"It's ideal to get more than three bids. That way you'll have a larger pool with which to do comparisons," he says.

Once you have all your estimates lined up, Woodson suggests you eliminate anyone charging more than 20 percent above the median. Also, toss out anyone charging 20 percent less.

-- Survey a contractor's work by visiting other clients' homes.

After you've narrowed the contractors' field with a comparison of price estimates, you might think your next step is to ask any company you're considering for photos of completed work that could be sent to you by email. But Woodson says this is usually a "pointless exercise."

"Anyone can just take pictures off the internet. That doesn't prove anything," he says.

To get a better sense of a contractor's work, ask to visit homes where that firm is now working or where it has recently completed jobs.

"If a contractor won't give you references you can go visit, you've got to wonder what they're hiding," Woodson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at