Who To Call When It's Time To Cry "Uncle"…
and Uncle Harry Is Out Of Town (Or Out To Lunch)

There is a time in everyone's life when they need help. Home repair help, that is!  I pride myself on being self-reliant (to a fault  I have often heard), but even I, the noble handyman,  have had to enlist help from other professionals to bail me out of sticky situations. Over my years as a professional handyman… a.k.a. small contractor, Mr. Fix-it, "honey-do" man, Jack-of -all-trades, factotum, "anything for a buck" traveling tool shop… I have come to realize that working with a contractor can be an agonizing experience for a homeowner... second only to natural disaster!

There are contractors... and then there are handymen...

This article is divided into two parts.  First, we will discuss the basics of dealing with a contractor... what you should expect of him, and what you should expect of yourself.  For our purposes, a contractor is a person hired to do a renovation, restoration, or major changes to your home's systems... plumbing , electrical, etc. These jobs often require the use of many different tradesmen, cost thousands of dollars and can take days, weeks or months to complete.

The second part is a specific discussion of hiring a handyman... an animal of a different color.  The handyman often limits his work to hourly or daily jobs and lives by a whole different set of rules than the home improvement contractor.  Read on about hiring contractors.  If you are interested in hiring a small job pro, click HERE to go to our article,  "Hiring a handyman and never having to say you're sorry..."

How To Successfully Hire A Contractor

Hiring a contractor is quite simple in a logical sense and to that end many articles have been written on the subject.  So with all the resources available, why is this still a hair-puller and why do so many people get into contractor-trouble every year?  One reason is that many folks ignore the warnings, thinking that they don't apply to their situation. A classic… "No, I don't need to ask him to write that into the contract… he's my brother-in-law! Of course he'll clean up the yard!" Famous last words.  Some homeowners receive a referral from a friend or neighbor and don't do their own homework.  They find out too late that the contractor really doesn't have a clue how to manage their job.  Trust can be a dangerous thing in home repair while knowledge is strength.

Don't get me wrong... I am not prejudiced against contractors, though my tone may be somewhat harsh at times.  In fact, some of my best friends are contractors!  But even they would admit that the world would be a better place if more homeowners followed these simple steps to make it harder for the crooks to survive!  So I will first construct (couldn't resist) my list of important rules to follow when hiring a contractor and beyond…

Make some decisions before meeting with your contractor...

Well?  Do you really know?  You shouldn't even talk to a contractor before you have a fairly clear idea of the scope of the job and the desired end result.  Ceramic tile or fiberglass enclosure?  Multilevel deck or large platform?  Vaulted or cathedral ceilings?  Skylights or sun tunnels?  No... you don't have to know all the minute details of laying a foundation or putting up drywall... just a clear vision of the finished job and the major components.

You should never rush into any renovation or remodeling job.  By doing so you are relinquishing control to the contractor.  With an honest contractor, you may not have problems, as he should help you work within your budget.  However, even an honest contractor can only spend so much time consulting on the minutia of your job and cannot possibly present you with samples of every product that may be available.  It is patently unfair to expect him to do this, especially on smaller jobs.  This is more the purview of an architect or home designer, who can be hired separately (by you or through the contractor) to do this design "legwork" for you.

Rushing also benefits the unscrupulous contractor who may try to sell you the job with products that make him the most money... not necessarily in your best interests.  By being detached from the decision making process through ignorance, you can't possibly make a good decision on anything.

One great place to start educating yourself is in the many home-related publications.  Visit any of the larger bookstores and you will find walls of magazines on home decor, remodeling and renovation.  There are also many magazines that specialize in certain types of jobs, such as kitchens and bathrooms.  Though these publications tend to showcase top-end products and intricate designs, the fact is you can learn much about your own likes and dislikes while educating yourself about the variety of available products... all from your living room sofa.

The next logical step is window shopping... visit your local home store or lumberyard!  They feature a wide selection of sidings, roofing materials, windows, doors, skylights, etc. plus extensive catalogues of products they can order for you.  You can not only learn about the available styles, but also get a sense of the cost.  You might be surprised to find that a certain style of roofing is not as expensive as you thought... or learn about the different types of skylights and why some are more leak-resistant than others.  Or why windows can have special coatings to protect your furniture and carpets from the sun.  Just find a knowledgeable salesperson and question him silly!!

Once you have a basic idea of the types of products you want installed and the costs involved, you are in a better position to discuss these with your contractor.  He may even have opinions on the products you have chosen, and you can weigh his opinions against what you have learned on your own.  Then, you can work with the contractor to fill in the details of your job.

This demonstrates to the contractor that you are involved in the job, not just a source of money.  This mutual respect is important so that you will not have problems communicating later should a problem arise or a "change of course" in the job become necessary... a not infrequent occurrence in home projects!

How to find the best contractors...

Though they may list hundreds of contractors, the Yellow Pages, local "Pennysaver" and newspapers are advertising media with no credible way, desire or need to judge the contractors on their pages. Hence, they are of little value except to help you to develop a list.  Space and cost considerations in these media limit the amount of information contractors can give about themselves, limiting the usefulness of the ads to the consumer.  To pour salt on the wound, some of the finest contractors don't advertise frequently, if at all, making them difficult to locate.

By far the best way to find a good contractor is through a direct referral from someone you trust who has successfully completed a similar project.  The next best source of referrals is your local hardware store, home store or lumberyard.  Established businesses are loathe to give a referral to a contractor who will hurt their reputations.  A business that receives valid  negative feedback about a contractor will stop referring him.

There are some online resources available to help you get the names of contractors but they can no more guarantee your satisfaction than the newspapers.   Some gather information on licensing and insurance, which might save you some work.  In the end, your adherence to the commonsense rules below will help protect you and your money.

Even with a good referral, you should still be cautious and  proceed from strength, not weakness.   Read on to find out how to place yourself in the best position to control your job and keep the power in your hands.


STOP! These next six items are required of any contractor before you can consider hiring him.  The only remotely possible exceptions would be if the contractor is a trusted friend,  trusted friend of a trusted friend,  trusted neighbor,  trusted relative or trusted psychotherapist… in no particular order.

  1. He should come and look at the job...

    Stop laughing!  I know it sounds silly, but believe me… some guys will actually give a job quote over the telephone sight unseen, especially for work they have frequently done. This is most common with tradesmen... electricians and plumbers... especially when they are very busy.  No problem for little hourly-type jobs (and "handy-work"...to be discussed later)...  after all, it is a tribute to their experience and not a bad thing. But for the large jobs, you still want him to come to your home. Why? Well, you can tell a lot about a person by talking to him face-to-face that you just can't get over the phone. Look at his truck, his physical appearance, those eyes... direct or shifty. Is he a worker or a snake oil salesman?  Political correctness be damned, there is something to be said for first impressions, even if they can sometimes be wrong.

    Ask him about his business, where he lives, about his family and, of course, how busy he is.  Let him know you are interested in him and let him know that you only want a conscientious, quality contractor for your home.  Let there be no misunderstanding that you will not accept anything but the best from him and, if applicable, his employees.

  2. Licensing and/or registration...

    Every state has different rules and contractors are expected to follow them. Some states require licensing for all contractors, some are based on the average size of the job, others require licensing fees per job, and some require nothing at all! In some large metropolitan areas, the rules can vary literally from block to block! Some states defer to local governments. I'm getting dizzy!

    To determine the licensing requirements for your area, call your local building inspector or town hall.

  3. Insurance is not optional...

    Liability and medical insurance for contractors may or may not be required in your state, but it must be for anyone working in your home!   Hiring an uninsured contractor is hiring an irresponsible contractor. Require that they present a certificate of insurance prior to signing any contracts, and call the agent to verify that the policy actually exists and what it covers.  At a minimum, the contractor's general liability policy should be 100% of the value of your home.

  4. References from past clients...

    I will be the first to admit that references can be faked. I knew one contractor who had his entire family trained to answer the phone and pretend to be other people. "Harry… oh yes, he is a marvelous worker, and he did so many little extras for free. Snatch him up while you can, honey!!"  Right.  Wonder what those extras were... bail, perhaps?

    A good referral can prove to you that the contractor actually knows how to do the work you are hiring him for.  The sad fact is that many contractors will take on jobs beyond their skill or ability, especially if they are desperate for work.  Referrals can also give you insight into the quality and business practices of the contractor that you can obtain nowhere else.  AND BY ALL MEANS CONTACT THEM!! Don't get soft, accept his list with a doe-like grin and shove it into the circular file. Ask if the references wouldn't mind if you stopped by and looked at the work. Have some coffee, chat, spend the holidays together… anything you need to do to prove to yourself that this contractor is REAL, REPUTABLE, and RELIABLE.  A few questions to ask are...

    Did the job start on schedule?  If not, why not? 
    Did the job finish on schedule?  If not, why? 
    Was the contractor present on the job, or did he have a crew do the work, and were they supervised?
    Did they clean up after themselves? 
    Was the quality of the work acceptable? 
    Overall, was working with this contractor a good experience, and would you hire him again?

  5. Insist on both credit references and bank references...

    Most contractors maintain accounts with local suppliers making it unnecessary for you to make large, upfront payments.  A contractor with no credit is to be avoided.  Many consumer complaints arise from "fly-by-night" contractors, promising to do work but just taking your money and disappearing.  To keep these scams going, these seedy characters constantly move their base of operations.  Insisting on bank and credit references and checking them helps you to eliminate these most shady people.  Trying to hire locally-based contractors with a local reputation to uphold can also be helpful.

  6. Check for consumer complaints...

    Of these four preliminary qualifications, this is the only one that may backfire on you. OK, call the local Better Business Bureau, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the state licensing agency.  Do it!  But if you don't find any complaints, don't feel too cock-sure that you have found Mr. Perfect. Like many crimes that embarrass and shame people, making a poor choice in contractors is an oft silent crime. I have worked for hundreds of homeowners repairing the mistakes or the omissions of other contractors, yet when I ask if they filed a complaint, most of them have not. Some thought that talking to an attorney was filing a complaint. No, Virginia, it isn't. In some cases, they are just weary after months of contractor promises and disappointments. In the end, most just accept their dismal fate, hire other people to correct the mistakes, and silently let the errant contractor move onto the next sucker.

    To be fair to the contractors, many complaints filed by consumers are not really serious but instead either misunderstandings or "power plays".  A customer may complain because the cost of a job increased after the customer himself made a midstream change in the plans.  Another customer may decide to change the location of a window after it was already installed, expecting the contractor to absorb the additional labor costs.  Some consumer complaints are out and out frauds... attempts to delay payment or get cost concessions from the contractor.  So you must view the complaints in a complete light... they do not necessarily indicate an unreliable contractor.

  7. Is he a member of any local or state trade organizations, unions or business groups?

    Request the names of any business organizations, associations or unions the contractor may be affiliated with.  This is one more piece of evidence that the contractor is stable and "here to stay"!  Fly-by-night contractors rarely stay in one place long enough to develop a history.  Just realize that all contractors do not join these groups, so lack of membership is not a red flag... just another piece of information for you to use.

    Membership in benevolent groups and civic organizations is also a good indicator of responsibility and rootedness... both important considerations in your screening process.

  8. Get at least three clearly written, understandable bids on any project...

    The written quote will give you first real sense of what you project will entail and how much it will cost.  The quality, clarity and style of the quote will tell you a lot about the contractor and his penchant for detail.  A vague or unreadable quote is useless to you, and should send up the good ol' red flag!  Clarity and detail is important.  Without the details of the project on paper in an understandable fashion, it is impossible for you to compare the bids from the different contractors, making your choice of contractor all the more difficult. 

    If the dollar amounts of your bids vary wildly, don't throw up your hands in disbelief but instead try to understand why.  Perhaps one contractor is using more expensive materials, a stronger "beyond code" construction technique or there was simply a miscommunication.  If one bid is extraordinarily low, but the details seem to be in order, question the contractor to find out why.  Be upfront... you can even tell him that you think his bid is low!  Believe me... that will get his attention.  If he has a sense of humor, he will probably apologize and immediately give you a higher price! (Oh yeah!)

    Seriously, taking a very low bid may be looking for trouble.  It could leave the contractor cash-strapped and begging for more money later.  One of the main causes of an honest contractor pulling a Houdini is that he needs money to live on, so he moves on to another job temporarily to feed the family.  This is a particular problem with smaller contractors who do not have adequate credit and must "pay-as-they-go".  Mounting materials costs and poor financial planning can drive them from your job and into the arms of another!

    Then again, you might find that the low bidder is the only one not overpricing the job.  Only by having quality quotes will you be able to make an intelligent choice.


A complete, clearly written contract is absolutely essential for both trust and peace of mind!

Remember the old word-play joke about making assumptions without facts... "When you assume something, it makes an ass out of u and me!" Well, I give you a dispensation to ass-u-me when it comes to contractors… assume that something not in the contract will not be done. For example, if it does not say in the contract that he will clean your yard after tearing off the three layers of shingles on your roof… better get it written in.

Now contractors; don't hate me for this!  I admit that it may inconvenience the conscientious contractor who was going to do the cleanup anyway. But he just has to "take it like a man" and get his erasable pen back out. With today's general atmosphere of distrust, skyrocketing homeowner dissatisfaction with contractors in general, and homeowner rip-offs being the crooked contractor's Holy Grail, all honest contractors must act with compassion towards the beleaguered, scared and possibly scarred-for-life homeowner.

Everything You And The Contractor Agree To Should Be In The Contract!

Considering how often contractors don't do what's in the contract (personal experience), having a thorough contract is vital.

Here are some items that should be in all home repair contracts.  You may find that your state requires the contract to meet certain requirements even beyond these suggestions.  It behooves you to know them!  It also behooves the contractor... the agreement may be legally unenforceable otherwise.

*  Complete contractor information... be sure you have a physical address for the business, not a PO Box.  Do not sign an agreement with a contractor without a verifiable address.

*  Work timetable... a schedule that includes at the least the starting date and ending date of the project. Without this, you only have trust to keep the contractor working on your job.

*  Payment schedule, including the up-front payment  See below for more information on the up-front payment... also known as a deposit.

*  Exact material specifications... the only way to be sure you are getting what you paid for.

*  Contractor must agree to pay all subcontractors prior to receiving his last payment. 

*  Subcontractor names should be in the contract or at least given to you in a timely manner during construction.  By knowing who they are you can verify that they are paid before you issue that final check to the general contractor.  Many states have "lien laws" that allow a subcontractor to attach your home if the general contractor neglects to pay them! Should I repeat that??

*  Building permits... who gets them?  Remember that you are ultimately responsible to see that the zoning and building laws in your area are adhered to.   Get this into the contract so there are no misunderstandings later.

*  "Notice of Cancellation"...  Many states require a "cooling off" period of a fixed number of days for any contract signed in your home.  These so-called "Home Solicitation" laws were designed to protect consumers from high pressure sales tactics.  Vacuum cleaner and encyclopedia salesmen were two of the enablers of this type of legislation, which allows the consumer to cancel any contract within a certain number of days without any penalty.  These laws generally apply to home repair contracts also, allowing you to cancel should you decide in a day or two that the contract is unacceptable.  If this applies in your state, it should be included in the contract or as a separate form that is signed by you and the contractor.

A complete listing, by manufacturer, of materials used, plus samples or extra pieces purchased...

Note:  Probably the worst revelation years after a project is done is that you need to replace something and don't have the manufacturer's name. By requiring the contractor to supply you with some basic information, you can protect yourself from this big surprise!

Get the idea? Everything looks great now but "someday" you will need to do some repairs and this information and these materials will save you time and money.  I wish just half of my clients had this information available!


If you feel the contract has language you do not understand, or if you are unsure of your responsibilities under it, by all means have your attorney read it.  It shouldn't cost too much and will undoubtedly be a very small percentage of the total cost of the job.  Remember that the attorney will not be as interested in the particulars of the work outlined in the contracts, but rather the  responsibilities and liabilities YOU will accept when you sign it.  At the least, having your lawyer look the contract over will give you some peace of mind.

Continue to part 2...