Seven ways to find a better contractor

eddie at work, originally uploaded by espeedy123.

This is a photo of Eddie, our do-it-all contractor we’ve hired to work our B. street flip project. He’s quite handy, and his regular daytime gig is working on a crew that renovates high-end Dallas homes. He’s a family contact, and we were lucky to find him with capacity to do this job on his off hours. Another bonus — he pretty much started the very moment we took ownership of the house. In this photo, he’s rebuilding a shower valve, which I’ve come to find out is “extra” work not included in his initial bid, but that’s another post altogether…

Despite my growing sense of unease about these ill-defined “extras,” I’m not sure what we would have done without him. I tried calling other contractors to find out what they’d do the same job for, but I learned quickly how difficult they are to find for small scale, quick turnaround jobs like this one. I find it personally frustrating because there’s work I’d like done on my own house, and I’m not really sure who to go to, given that Eddie doesn’t travel to where I live near downtown.

Apart from Eddie, I’ve not hired any other general contractors, but based off of hiring professionals for smaller jobs like plumbing, and asking people who are in the know, here is my advice…

Seven Ways to Find a Better Contractor

  1. Join Angieslist. This user-supported site facilitates finding contractors based on real ratings and feedback from customers. Homeowners enter info about their experiences with contractors. Theoretically it should help you make a better decision. And, if a contractor totally rips you off you can give them Fs and hopefully save someone else from your misfortune. It costs about $50 a year.
  2. Troll for contractors. Within a two block radius of my house there are 3 major renovations going on. I’ve walked through all three in the evening when they’re vacant, and I’ve approached the workers at two of those during the day to get their business cards. Think of it as an on-the-job interview. When you poke your head in during the day you can pretty accurately asess the vibe. If there’s three guys sitting around drinking Budweisers, steer clear. If you can’t believe how much better the place is looking than your own outdated digs, it’s worth asking them if they’ll help you out too.
  3. Check out Craigslist. Another “list” worth perusing. This free online classified site has an area devoted to skilled labor, and while it doesn’t offer the same feedback as Angieslist does, you’re more likely to find people who can do stuff on the cheap.
  4. Get 3 bids, 5 if you have the time. No matter how much you like the first guy, make sure you get quotes on the work from at least three different guys. More if you have time. On the flip house I talked to four different tree trimmers, and I got bids ranging from $400 to over $1000. Surprisingly, I liked the $400 guy best, and he also helped me identify some exotic trees I should consider for my own front yard. Perhaps a topic for a future post. Cost isn’t the only benefit to this discipline either. Every time you meet someone at your home, take advantage of the opportunity to pick their brain on whatever topic they know more about than you do. It’s amazing what you’ll learn.
  5. Ask for the names of a couple satisfied clients. If they can’t produce that, next!
  6. Start small. Before you commit a guy knocking out a wall or redoing your entire kitchen, maybe there’s a smaller gig you could hire for to assess quality. This isn’t always practical, and I realize no one wants to hire the wrong guy even for a small job, but building a small shelf or fixing an interior door or repairing the rotten parts of an outdoor trellis … those are the sorts of jobs that maybe would reveal more about a contractor and offer some sort of confidence for a bigger job.
  7. Hang out in the construction aisle at Home Depot, looking puzzled. I’m not sure of the quality factor here, but I’ve collected a few cards already in this fashion. I’m not quite sure why this is the case, but Home Depot is the supplier of choice for real contractors. I feel like there should be a secret builder source, and yes, for some products there is, but for the most part, the guys doing the work shop the same place you do. Why not meet them there?

I’m sure there are other points I’ve overlooked, but this is a start. I’m curious to hear your contractor advice and stories, please comment!

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3 responses to “Seven ways to find a better contractor

  1. My advice is: Never use someone you know socially (i.e. friend, relative or even acquaintance). You have alot less room when something isn’t done right to speak up about it. If you know you’re likely to see the person at say, dinner or church next week, it makes those “Hey fix this” conversations pretty awkward!

  2. I have found http://www.servicemagic.com is better than Angie’s List, and it’s free.

    It has an Ebay-like feedback system, so you can a provider’s ratings from other people who have used them through Service Magic.

  3. I just came across your blog about digital scales and wanted to drop you a note telling you how impressed I was with the information you have posted. I also have a web site & blog about digital scales so I know what I’m talking about when I say your site is top-notch! Keep up the great work, you are providing a great resource on the Internet here!

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