Fix-It Friday: The Search For Mr. or Ms. Right… How To Find A Good Contractor

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Several years ago, my family home in Brooklyn needed some extensive Spanish tile work done to the roof. This type of repair goes beyond my wheelhouse, so I contacted various roof contractors for estimates. Well, this roofer search turned into a regular comedy routine.

Bad ContractorHere’s how it would go down: The roofer shows up with his big truck, out comes the 40 foot ladder, up the ladder he goes, down he comes, walks over to my aunt and I, all serious faced, we can’t wait to hear what he has to say… we get ready for it… “Well ladies, bullsh**, bullsh**, shpeel, shpeel, mild sexist innuendo, shpeel, and bullsh**.”

We got more cock-n-bull stories about what was wrong and how to fix it than Britannica has outdated encyclopedias. And the price estimates? HA! They ranged from $1,500 to $7,500. So what’s a girl supposed to do? I’m gonna tell ya.

First, let me point out that I’m going to use the term “contractor” for any general contractor, subcontractor, independent contractor, tradesman (i.e. plumber, electrician), handyman, etc. For the sake of linguistic efficiency, I’m also going to use male pronouns… while there are certainly highly skilled female contractors and handywomen out there (yours truly), even I can tell you that you are much more likely to encounter a man.

How To Find A Good Contractor

Contractor Icons 1Word of Mouth

Stunning referrals for similar work that you want done are the strongest criteria to use when choosing a contractor. Ask around – friends, family and neighbors.

Ask for References

A contractor should be ready and willing to provide you with several references – ones that you can personally contact (that aren’t his buddies). He should also have photos of similar past work for you to see.

Licensed, Bonded, and Insured

Whomever you choose should not hesitate to provide you with poof of his licensing, bonding, and insurance. In fact, you can contact his insurance company and get a Certificate of Insurance verifying General Liability Insurance and Workers’ Compensation.

Better Business Bureau

Check to see if the contractor has an ugly record with the BBB, if so, he’s definitely crossed out. A minor complaint, however, should not be a deal breaker if all other criteria are positive. You can also verify through the BBB how many years he’s been in business.


If the contractor talks to you like you’re a moron, rolls his eyes, or gives any signs of impatience as you’re speaking to him, try not to lose your shoe as you kick his sorry a** out the door. Also, if he brings a subcontractor or partner, see if they’re respectful and communicate well with not only you, but one another.

From Courting To Commitment

After narrowing down contenders, follow these tips as you move forward to get estimates. FYI: formally speaking, an estimate is just that – a good faith prediction. A bid is a formal commitment to a price. Once a bid is signed by both parties, you have a legally binding contract.

Contractor Icons 2Trust Your Instincts

A legit contractor will not pressure you or offer up anything that seems too good to be true, like a huge discount, or payment financing through a lender he knows. Remember the lowest estimate may not be the best one, but rather a ploy to suck you in and go in for the kill later on, or just take the money and run.

Get 3 Detailed Estimates in Writing

  • Make sure the estimate is on company stationery with all pertinent info (full name, address, license number, etc.)
  • Start and finish time frame is indicated
  • Any permits that need to be pulled and their expenses are notated
  • Demolition, clean up and haul away responsibilities are laid out
  • Material* details are specified
  • Payment schedule is structured and fair
  • All costs should be broken down so you can compare line items from other contractors
  • Any warranties and guarantees of workmanship stated

*Be advised that you may be able to save money if you purchase materials on your own, however you do so at your own risk. So let’s say you order windows and they’re the wrong size, it’s your problem.

Diligence on Payment

  • Never pay everything up front. Never.
  • Deposits have no hard and fast rule – it largely depends on the job and materials. 10% to 20% is common, however, 1/3 installments is also customary. Sometimes, if materials are very costly, you’ll be asked to pay 50% upfront, which will cover materials, but you really have to trust the guy to do that. Request to pay for materials directly yourself.
  • Don’t let payments get ahead of the work.
  • Cash payments aren’t advisable because there’s no paper trail. If you want to pay cash, negotiate a discount on a cash payment after the amount is established. If you do pay cash you must get a proper receipt that’s dated and signed by both parties.
  • Hold back at least 15% until work is totally completed and when applicable, passes inspection.
  • In a nutshell, pay as little as you can, as late in the game as possible.

Bonus Tips For Contracting Bliss

All of this said… if you have a golden handyman with decades of experience and oodles of positive referrals, who’s always in demand – for a smaller job (under 5K), I’d have no problem hiring him without verifying his creds. These guys are rare, and if you find one, count yourself lucky and show your gratitude with some coffee and donuts.

Regarding larger contracting jobs, drastic times call for drastic measures. The bigger the job, the more homework and weight I’d put on hiring a well established large company that has access to many legit subcontractors and knows all the ins and outs of the biz, especially local permitting and inspectors.

On a final note, while there are many unscrupulous contractors out there, there are also many that are honest hard working guys that bust their butts to make your home a better place. Keep in mind, however good a contractor may be, you have to be prepared for the following factors that my experience has shown aren’t exceptions, but rather, the rule: contractors are not going to always show up when they say they will; the project will take longer than planned; unforeseen obstacles and inevitable upgrades will increase your original budget. I’m just sayin’…

645715_HiResHave faith that although you’ll probably want to pull his and your hair out during the process, in the end, you’re gonna want to kiss him smack on the lips for giving you your dream kitchen, or in my case, a leak free roof.

P.S. – Back to my roofer hunt. I chose the roofer who came down the ladder with actual Polaroid photos of what needed fixing up there, gave a competitive estimate, and whose company specialized specifically in the kind of repair we needed. Oh… and didn’t make any sexist innuendos.

Norma sig

Got A DIY Question? Ask-The-Expert!

If you have a DIY home repair, maintenance or improvement question for Norma, now is your chance to ask-the-expert and have her answer. Your burning question may just be the “star” of an upcoming Fix-It Friday column.

Add your question to the comments section below or email it to Women You Should Know.

Fix-It Friday is an exclusive Women You Should Know® editorial series authored by seasoned veteran of home improvement, Norma Vally, the former host of Discovery Home Channel’s series “Toolbelt Diva” and a show on Sirius Satellite Radio by the same name. The weekly column is designed to inspire women – weekend warriors, aspiring handywomen, and even seasoned DIYers – to take on home repairs and maintenance projects with confidence and gusto.