4 key questions to ask before hiring a contractor

Inman News

Q: I have a number of small projects that need doing around the house. What is a good way to find a qualified handyman? I have looked in the Yellow Pages of the phone book and made a couple of calls, but they have not responded to come to my home and give me an estimate. I know I should ask them if they are insured and bonded. Are there other questions I should ask before hiring a handyman for a project? --Gretchen S.

A: There are actually a couple of steps that I recommend to anyone looking to hire a contractor of any type, including a handyman:

1. Know specifically what you want to have done. The more information you have available for the contractor, the better.

2. Try to get personal referrals, rather than relying on the phone book. If you have a friend or a relative who had some work done on their home that they were pleased with, that's a great starting point. You can get some honest feedback about the contractor's skill level, price, scheduling, level of cooperation, and much more. There are a lot of contractors out there to choose from, and, like most businesses, they succeed or fail mostly by their reputation, so a good referral is very helpful.

There are other sources of referrals as well. If you see some work going on down the street, stop and talk to the homeowner. Most people are more than willing to share their experiences -- both good and bad -- about the contractor they've hired, and here again you can get some great firsthand information.

Material suppliers are also great sources. Ask the people where you buy your lumber or your plumbing supplies if they know of anyone who's particularly good at the type of project you have in mind. Retailers have a reputation to protect as well -- they want to keep you happy and coming back as a customer -- so they will typically refer only those contractors who they know are honest and will do a quality job.

Other good sources of referrals include real estate agents, insurance agents, property managers, your utility company, and your local building department.

3. When you have a referral or two, call the contractors to set up an appointment. Ask the following four questions:

  • Do they do the specific type of work you're looking for? It could be they no longer do kitchens or room additions, or they now do remodeling and have stopped building new homes. Clarify that upfront.
  • What is their schedule like? If you have a project that has to be done within the next month and the contractor can't even start until then, there's no point in wasting your time or theirs.
  • Can they provide you with referrals? Most companies are more than willing to provide you with names and phone numbers of past clients. If they can't or won't provide you with referrals, don't hire them. Between the time you call the contractor and the time the contractor comes out, be sure to follow up on a couple of the referrals and get some feedback from the homeowners. If possible, see if the referral would mind if you came out to their home to view the contractor's work in person.
  • What is the contractor's name and license number? Get the contractor's full legal business name, address and business phone number, as well as their contractor's license number. Immediately follow up on this information, and call the contractor's board to verify the status of the license and that all of the proper bonds and insurance policies are in place.

For much more about hiring and working with contractors, you might also want to download my book, "Hire the Right Contractor for your Home," for $2.99 at amazon.com.

Q: We are remodeling our 27-year-old house. Is it common practice for the electrician and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors to "line up" the vents and any lighting fixtures on the ceiling in each room?

Also, when wrapping the ductwork of the HVAC system in the attic, how important is it for the wrap to be tightly secured around the ductwork relative to the money saved in monthly bills? When I look up in the attic, I can see the yellow insulation (underside of the wrap) and there are gaps in the insulation where the duct meets the main air handler. I am concerned this is going to make my energy bills higher because air might escape. Are my concerns justified? --Eugenia H.

A: There's no common practice for lining up vents and light fixtures. Ceiling vents are typically installed at the outer perimeter of the room, and most commonly over windows. That's done so that the heat or air conditioning coming in from the vents will help offset the cold or hot air coming in from the windows and the exterior walls. Light fixtures, on the other hand, are typically centered to the room, or spaced to give the best quantity and quality of light for the layout of a given room space and usage.

All insulation around ductwork should be well secured, with a minimum of gaps. Every gap in the insulation will allow heated or cooled air to escape from the ductwork into the unconditioned air of the attic. That will definitely affect the efficiency of the heating/cooling system, and in turn that will have an impact on your utility bills, as well as your comfort levels.

Remodeling and repair questions? Email Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com. All product reviews are based on the author's actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

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