How to Find the Perfect Contractor

Carrie Rigsby and her husband Chris are renovating their old New England home, and Carrie is tracking their progress on her blogHazardous Design. They tackle all sorts of home renovation projects themselves. But there are times when they seek out the professional expertise of a contractor.

Hiring a contractor, however, shouldn’t be task that’s taken lightly. It’s important to find a seasoned professional who will execute your job on time, on budget and to code. Here, Carrie shares her tips on finding a good contractor.

In Search of the Perfect Contractor
We’re halfway through our second major home renovation, and we’ve worked with our fair share of plumbers, electricians, landscapers and contractors along the way. Some have made the cut, some haven’t. Let’s face it: There is no “perfect” contractor. But here’s what we’ve learned about finding the right person for the task.

1. Referral Sources
Surely, referrals from your friends, family and co-workers are the usual suspects -- but we have found some of our best referrals from our real estate agent. Agents get to know who the local rock stars are in the trades because they deal with them every day.  

2. Referrals from Referrals
Once we establish a good relationship with a contractor, we never hesitate to ask whom he or she might recommend. A good contractor will be able to recognize quality work in other trades. Our punctual and communicative plumber came as a referral from our electrician. Our roofer came to us from the mason who took the time not only to re-point our chimney but also to point out some trouble spots on the roof. When we have our roof replaced this summer, I’m planning to ask our roofer who he’d recommend to paint our house.

In addition to the quality of the referral, we’ve found that when you call a new contractor and indicate that someone who works in the trades has given you their name, you are passing along a very nice complement. Who wouldn’t want to hear that of all of the people in your industry they could recommend, they chose you? It puts you on the right foot from the start.

3. Risky Referrals
So…your coworker’s cousin’s husband does contracting work? “I’ve never actually used him myself,” they tell you, “but you should give him a call…” We’ve been down this road and it never works out. There just isn’t the connection between the referring party and the quality of the contractor (or lack thereof).

4. Play it Safe
Many states have websites documenting contractors. Check them out: You can see if there are any claims or violations and if their insurance is up to date.

5. Paying it Forward
So you hire a great contractor, but should you refer them to your friend? This is a risky one, both for your relationship with your friend and with your contractor. For instance, we work with a contractor who is very inexpensive. He has always done impeccable work on our home. That said, the low cost of his work comes with an expense of its own: punctuality and communication. We don’t know when he is starting until the day before -- and generally don’t know when he’ll finish. We use him on the smaller jobs that aren’t time sensitive. While we are happy with him and understand the way he works, he is probably not a good bet for our neurotic friends who want to be in control of the process. In the end, you can save your friend and your contractor a big headache if you think about the match up front.

6. Start Small
If you can build up your experience with a contractor over some smaller jobs, it will increase your comfort level on the big ones and minimize your risk. Have your electrician do some general wiring before he or she puts in the new supply line and panel. Make sure that you are comfortable with the quality of their work and their treatment of you as a client. If it isn’t working for you, fall back on those other referral sources and start over.

Photo: Corbis Images