Finding the Best Local Contractors

When I was about twelve, my Dad hired a mason to do some concrete work. The guy took our deposit, ripped out some grass areas, laid some wood forms – and then just vanished. We never saw or heard from him again. We lost a lot of money, and we had a big mess on our hands.

This kind of stuff happens, and I’m sure some of you reading this have similar (and probably worse) stories you could share. The only upside was for me: I got to help my Dad do the concrete work. Neither of us knew what we were doing (and our walkway & patio weren’t exactly perfect in the end), but we definitely had some fun getting through it together.

Hiring a contractor or handyman to work at your home can be a tricky and risky endeavor.

It’s tricky because you’re essentially interviewing someone for a job. You have to be able to clearly convey what you want, assure yourself that they can deliver and above-all, come away with a sense of comfort that the person and crew you decide to hire are truly right for you. You need to know you can work with them, and that if things don’t go as expected – you’ll still be able to change course and achieve joint success. And that’s a pretty tall order for what might be a 30-minute interview meeting.

It’s risky because if you make the wrong decision, your life can become very unpleasant.

Inground Swimming Pool Construction

Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty tight strategy for interviewing – and it works quite well. By and large, I’ve had great success in finding terrific people on a broad spectrum of projects. There’s no doubt it’s been a learning process, and while nothing is ever perfect – here’s what I recommend:

Hire Only LOCAL Contractors

This is so imperative that word “local” appears in the title of this article. And even on the page we set up here on this site to provide contractors referrals. And what do I mean by local? I like to deal with people that I might run into at the gas station, while I’m out food shopping or at our school’s parent/teacher conference nights. There are two reasons for this: a) there’s a lot of accountability when dealing with people who are essentially your neighbors – you’re much more likely to watch out for each other, and b) I think it’s nice to keep the work, the money and the pride-of-craftsmanship right in your local community.

Deal only with Construction Company Owners

I never, ever want to deal with a full-time sales person. Their job is to sell stuff, and then they move on to the next sale – leaving the actual construction work to a crew of folks I’ve never met. I want to deal with the person who created or currently owns/runs the home improvement, home repair or property maintenance company – as they have a vested interest in making sure things go well for both of us. I also want their personal assurance that they’ll be significantly on-site throughout the project.

Sidewalk Demolition

Get Personal Referrals

Contractor referrals from friends or family members that you trust are simply invaluable. One of my close friends is a perfectionist, and I know that when he makes a referral – I have to take it very seriously. (His expectations are a lot like mine.) In addition, when you call a contractor to set up a first meeting and you mention, “You were referred to me by Angelo” – it immediately personalizes the relationship. You’re no longer a stranger calling; you’re now linked to a past customer. They’ll very likely assume you’re a similar type of person with similar expectations. Word-of-mouth referrals like this are often the best source of new work for many contractors. And much like we look for contractors who will do right by us, contractors prefer working with customers who are reasonable and appreciative – so this personal connection can be quite good for them too. They have an idea what to expect from you, and a better chance of making you happy – leading to perhaps even more referrals. It’s a two-way street.

Use Professional Contractor Reviews

There are a number of services available on-line that facilitate what I like to think of as “community collaboration.” These allow you to read and write reviews on contractors that live and work right in your neighborhood. Next to personal referrals, these can also provide immediate (and additional) insight on the credibility of local handyman services. There are two that I’ll describe briefly here, simply as I have a bit of experience/insight with each. I’m sure there are others as well…

  • The folks at Angie’s List focus precisely on providing consumer reviews on local contractors, so you can use them to find out what your neighbors think about someone you may be planning to hire. What’s particularly interesting about this service is that consumers pay to access the list and for the privilege of writing these reviews – so it’s inherently credible information. You review the list, and then contact companies that sound good to you. In the end, list-members circle back to provide feedback regarding the experience. You have to pay to join, but they offer a 110% refund option if you cancel, so they strive to make it risk-free.
  • HomeAdvisor has as slightly different business model. Here, consumers join for free. (You still need to create an account, but at no cost.) Once in, you create a job description and will then be provided with a list of local “screened and approved” professionals, each with ratings and past customer reviews. You can then set up a meeting with any of these companies that sound good to you (via the web interface or via a provided 800-number) and you interview each at your home. You hire who you hire, and when your experience is over, you again circle back to the site and provide feedback.

Use services like these to maximum advantage, especially if you don’t have any strong personal referrals or if you’re getting ready to undertake a particularly big and complex project. Try one. Try both. Try others. Compare and contrast recommendations if at all possible. In fact, it would benefit everyone to read about specific experiences any of you have with any of these services  in the comment area of this article below.

Removable Fence Post Installation

Check with the Better Business Bureau

The BBB is always worth contacting, ideally before having someone come to your home. It takes about 5 minutes and you can glean immediate insight that may prove quite relevant. You simply go to the BBB Web Site, identify yourself as a consumer and search for the business you want to research with the tools provided on the site. If a company you’re considering isn’t listed with them – that’s a red flag. If they are listed, you’ll see a score ranging from A+ to F and some basic details about the company such as how long they’ve been in business, the owner’s name and a history of past complaint/resolution details if any have transpired.

Interview Multiple Local Contractor Candidates

You may be tempted to interview only one person you’ve really heard good things about, and maybe that’s fine for a small low-risk job – but if things go badly, you’re going to be very angry with yourself for not having done a full due diligence. (I’m speaking from experience, of course: I’ve surely been there!) Talk with a minimum of two contractors. If it’s a big job – at least three. Be sure to convey that you’re talking to multiple people at each meeting; this will give you credibility and perhaps help you get the best deal financially as well. I try to save the candidate I think I’m most likely to hire for the last interview, as I’ll be most educated by then. Always ask to review a portfolio of past jobs – you can get great insights and ideas from this. And also ask for local references that you can contact after your meeting. In my experience, good contractors will always offer both of these before you even have to ask. There are a number of additional tips regarding interview preparation along with suggestions for best ways to work together during construction in the companion article: 7 Tips for Working with Contractors.

Follow-Up with Contractor References

When you’re closing-in on your final hiring decision, always contact at least 1-2 of the references you received from your contractor at the interview. A phone call to a real person in your town can often give a much better feeling for what you might expect. It’s sometimes immediate from the tone of voice you hear as soon as you describe why you’re calling, and they might even invite you over to have a look at their job first hand!

Provide Follow-On Feedback and Make Referrals

And when all is done, keep in mind that “community collaboration” always goes two ways. If you’re really happy with someone you’ve hired, write a review for them. Make referrals for them. If you had a bad experience, try not to be personal in your commentary, keep it professional – but it’s surely important to share. We all benefit from sharing our experiences.

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