Remodeling Contractors

Dear James: I am planning a major room addition to my home. I am new to the area, so I do not know which are the best remodeling contractors. How can I find out which ones are reputable? — Joe R.

Dear Joe: Although there are some bad apples in every profession, most contractors are honest, hardworking people. Just like used-car salespersons though, some contractors often think that women know little about house construction, and they will tell you anything to get the contract signed.

The first step to protect yourself against unscrupulous remodelers is to educate yourself a little about house construction or at least learn enough of the jargon to fake it. Take a few hours at your library to read through several builder magazines. You may also get some good design and material ideas at the same time.

Here are several good magazines to start with — “Remodeling,” “Qualified Remodeler,” “Builder,” “Fine Homebuilding,” “Journal of Light Construction,” “Custom Builder” (particularly good for design ideas), “Kitchen and Bath Business” and “Old House Journal.”

You can try checking with the Better Business Bureau, but be careful about evaluating its information. Often a company may appear to be worse than another because it has had twice as many complaints, for example. Upon further research, this company may actually do 10 times more business than another, so it is actually a better company.

Asking for references can be helpful too, but keep in mind that you will only get the names of the contractor’s satisfied customers. Go to several local lumberyards and commercial building supply outlets. Ask the store managers which contractors they would consider if they were having a remodeling job done on their own homes.

Having done the above research, you should be able to narrow the field down to several potential remodeling contractors. At this point, and with your newly acquired building knowledge, it is time to sit down with the contractors and ask them questions face to face. Not only will you find ones that you are comfortable with, but by impressing them with your knowledge and thoroughness, they will be extra careful to do a good job.

The following is a list of helpful questions to ask the prospective contractors when you meet with them:

How many employees, not subcontractors, are on their regular company payroll? This will indicate the relative size of the contractors. Although bigger is not always better, a larger and growing company must be doing fairly decent work.

How soon can they start on your job, and how long do they estimate that it will take? A good contractor, especially in today’s economy, should be busy and not able to start a substantial remodeling job immediately. If they can start it immediately, ask when they finished their last job.

What are their best and worst experiences that they have had on remodeling jobs like yours? This will help you to determine how open and honest the contractors are about previous problems. The best experience will give you an idea of what the contractors feel are most important about a job.

Who on their staff will be at your job site each day and in charge of the project? You want to make sure that someone will be there directing their workers and subcontractors and that it is an actual employee of the contractors’ companies.

 Do their company and all their subcontractors have workers’ compensation and general liability insurance? For your own protection, it is critical that all the workers at your site are covered by workers’ comp. Don’t be afraid to ask to see current certificates and insurance policies. This also indicates the thoroughness and professionalism of the contractors.