Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Find the Right Contractor

Do you plan to sell a home in a torrid real estate market -- a place where prospects line up with offers? Are buyers there so eager they’re willing to waive the right to a home inspection?

If so, you might assume you could take a passive approach to the selling process and do just as well as neighbors who invest time, energy and money to present their place for sale in the best possible condition.

But Dylan Chalk, a home inspector who’s done 5,500 inspections since entering the field in 2003, says homeowners who take a proactive approach to selling fare far better than those who are passive, even in very hot markets.

“Just because your buyers don’t hire an inspector doesn’t mean they won’t be disappointed later when they discover problems with your property. ... If buyers run into problems later, that could ruin an otherwise smooth sale,” says Chalk, who’s affiliated with the American Society of Home Inspectors (

“You want to take control of your sale, not have it take control of you,” says Chalk, author of “The Confident House Hunter,” a book for buyers.

It’s true that an experienced listing agent can quite easily identify minor repairs that need to be done before your place is shown for sale. But it often takes the expertise of a home inspector to detect larger issues.

Chalk is a strong advocate for what’s known as a “pre-listing home inspection.”

“Often, simple things can come up on a home inspection that can become much more complicated when the clock is ticking under a pending offer. You want to attack tricky repair items on your own time frame,” he says.

R. Dodge Woodson, author of multiple books on home repairs and remodeling, says many sellers -- especially those in inventory-tight markets -- are reluctant to go forward with pre-sale repairs because of the cost and inconvenience involved.

“Most people are extremely busy and finding the right contractors can be very time-consuming,” he says.

Still, he says it’s important to spend the time it takes to search for the right contractors for your repair work.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Make a wide search for the best available contractors.

Woodson advises against using online advertising to hunt for contractors. A more reliable approach, he says, is to seek recommendations from friends, neighbors or work associates.

“Ask everyone you know for names. Consider this a treasure hunt,” Woodson says.

Besides those in your immediate circle, Eric Tyson, co-author of “House Selling for Dummies,” says you may wish to garner contractors’ names through the real estate agent with whom you are working to list your home.

“Realtors can be really good sources because they have lots of interactions with contractors. They’ll hear complaints if a contractor does a lousy job,” Tyson says.

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

Yet another way that Tyson suggests you search for referrals is through an online consumer rating service, such as Angie’s List. This company provides reviews on service providers in more than 200 metropolitan areas.

-- Get an ample number of estimates for large jobs.

Woodson, who has worked much of his career as a licensed plumber and has also run his own home improvement company, strongly recommends that homeowners obtain five estimates for any job expected to cost more than $1,000.

Why five estimates? Because experience has taught Woodson that consumers need a range of bids to gain perspective on pricing.

“What you usually want is a contractor in the middle of the pack on price. You can throw away an estimate from anyone who comes in 25 percent or more above or below the others in the pack. The guy at the top is charging too much, and the one at the bottom is probably cutting corners,” he says.

-- Learn more about a contractor by visiting other clients’ homes.

After you’ve narrowed the contractors’ field with a comparison of price estimates, you may think your next step is to ask any company you’re considering for references. But Woodson says this is usually a “pointless exercise.”

“You don’t know if that reference is really someone’s brother-in-law or maybe someone else the company hired to say good things about them,” he says.

Also, Woodson says it’s a mistake to rely on photos the contractor has sent to you via email.

“How do you know that these pictures show the contractor’s real work? Even if they do, the photos could have been doctored,” Woodson says.

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

“Sure, someone from the company has to call clients to get their permission for you to come over. But even so, the company shouldn’t balk at letting you see their work. If they do, you’ve got to wonder what they’re hiding. This is a big red flag,” Woodson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at