Hiring A Contractor: 5 Crucial Tips for Getting it Right
February 22, 2017
Text by Kaitlin Madden
Are you considering hiring a contractor? Any time a home project requires a contractor, a construction company, or a builder, it’s likely one with a hefty price tag attached. So wouldn’t a five or six-figure investment prompt a thorough investigation of the company hired to do the work?
“People do more research when they’re buying a vacuum cleaner,” says Bob Ernst, president of FBN Construction, a Boston-based building and remodeling firm that has been in business since 1978.
Since then, Ernst’s company has been called in “countless times” to save problem projects, and in most cases, he says, it’s because the work was being done by the wrong people.
So how do you know what questions to ask and what red flags to watch out for? Here, Ernst offers his best advice.
Start Your Research with a Trade Association.
According to Ernst, one of the best ways to assure a company’s qualifications is to make sure it belongs to a trade organization.
“Starting your search with either a builder’s association or trade association could help identify someone who has taken their business seriously in terms of meeting certain criteria,” he says. Locally, he suggests The Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Boston, part of a national organization called the National Association of Home Builders, or EM NARI, which is the Boston chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
“The level of importance of a contractor being part of these associations is greater than people understand,” Ernst says. “If they’re not part of one of these associations they might not be as up to date with their training and industry standards.”
Be Smart Online.
While Ernst agrees that the Internet can offer a wealth of information, he cautions to take review sites with a grain of salt.
“With Angie’s List and contractor review sites, I’ve heard very mixed results at best,” he says. “Over the years I’ve been called in way too often to rectify projects from people who have hired top picks on Angie’s List. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to look at, but it shouldn’t be the end all be all. People rely on them too much.”
So where should you look online? “I think Houzz, Instagram, and Pinterest are good ways to see what kind of work a company does, and what sort of volume they do. If there’s a copious amount of modern-looking work on their Houzz profile, and you’re in a 200-year-old house, you’ll probably keep looking.”
Check Client References.
Ernst calls references one of the most under-utilized vetting tools. For one, he says, many people ask for far too few names. “If they’ve been in business for ten, twenty years, and they can’t give you ten to fifteen names of people to call, there’s something wrong,” he says.
When you do get a reference on the phone, ask the hard questions. Ernst suggests starting with a simple “Would you hire them again?” Then dig deeper into the process. For example, he says, “Ask them to tell you about something that went wrong and how they handled it. Something goes wrong on every job and you’ll learn a lot about the company by how they reacted.”
And Trade References, Too.
Big renovation jobs are a concerted effort, often between dozens of suppliers and service providers. These associates can also offer clues into how a builder operates. “I always ask for trade references,” says Ernst. “Ask if you can talk to their lumberyard and electrician. Do they pay their bills or are they behind? Find out whom they’re doing business with. If you ask and they don’t tell you, or they hesitate, that could be a red flag.”
Check the Company’s Business Acumen.
You’re confident that the builder you’re hiring does beautiful work, but how does that work get done? It’s imperative to find out.
“I think people often overlook the business acumen of a company,” Ernst says. “Over the years I’ve found that most of the time when a job isn’t going well it’s because the contractor might be experienced and skilled, but they aren’t great business people and might have poor cash flow.” For example, he says, companies can get into a bad pattern where they take on new projects to pay for old ones. “Your project might come to a halt when it’s halfway done because the builder has already spent the money you gave them, maybe to finish their last project, so they need to go take on a new project so they can get the money to complete your project.”
The bottom line: “If people are going to spend tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars, they need to know whether or not they’re hiring a good business person,” Ernst says.