Question: I’m looking at making some energy efficiency upgrades. Can you give me some guidelines for hiring a contractor?

Answer: Like any relationship, hiring and working with a contractor has the potential to be fulfilling and rewarding—or filled with heartache and unexpected pitfalls.

What’s the secret to making sure your relationship ends “happily ever after”? Doing enough background work before you hire someone.

Know-How Isn’t Enough

Yes, the contractor you hire needs the technical knowledge and tools to do the job, so look for someone who has experience with projects on a similar scale to yours. But that’s not the only thing you should look for. Your contractor needs the interpersonal and business skills to stay on top of your project’s progress, communicate with you if anything goes wrong and answer any questions you have quickly and effectively. Think about it—do you really want to work with someone who answers every query with a grunt?

Ask the Right Questions

Personal recommendations are often the best way to find a contractor. Talk to other business owners in your area to see if anyone has had similar work completed—they’ll be able to give you valuable first-hand information. You may also be able to find lists of contractors through your local building supply store, homebuilder or renovator’s associations, and, in some municipalities, through your local building department.

Have a preliminary discussion about your project with several contractors before deciding to work with one person. At this point, you’re not looking for formal estimates. Instead, you’re getting an idea of the contractor and their work, and starting to determine who you might work best with. Getting the right information now will help you avoid unpleasant surprises down the road, so ask potential contractors the following questions:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • What work are you (or your subcontractors) licensed to do? Electrical? Plumbing?
  • What kind of work do you specialize in?
  • Do you have experience with similar projects?
  • Will you use your own crew, or do you plan to subcontract all or part of the job?
  • How will you handle specific challenges? (Tell potential contractors about possible difficulties, including structural issues like sloping floors.)
  • How will you handle the energy efficiency aspects of this project? Are you experienced with energy efficient products and technology?
  • How and when do you clean up?
  • What kind of warranty do you offer, and what does it cover?
  • What kind of work schedule will you follow?
  • Do you carry workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
  • Will you provide a written contract?
  • Will you acquire all necessary permits?

Word-of-Mouth Is Powerful Stuff

Once you’ve found a contractor you’d like to work with, ask to see references from at least three former clients—and make the extra effort to speak with those clients in person, rather than relying on a testimonial letter.

Ask them the following questions:

  • Were they satisfied with the quality of the work?
  • Did the contractor keep them informed throughout the project?
  • Did the crew keep a clean work area?
  • Did the project stay on schedule?
  • Were there changes to the scope, and, if so, how were they handled?
  • Would they recommend this contractor to friends and family?

Getting Estimates and Proposals

Once you’ve had initial discussions with contractors, you can ask for formal estimates/proposals. As a general rule, three estimates should be enough for you to make a final decision, although you may find you’ve connected with one contractor and simply request a single proposal from them.

For large projects, contractors will need good-quality drawings and specifications. For smaller projects, written specs should be enough.

When you get an estimate, make sure everything you’ve asked for is there—and assume that anything not listed isn’t included. You should also ask for a construction schedule.

Signing the Contract

There are two main types of renovation contracts: fixed price and cost-plus. A fixed-price estimate will include all costs, including materials, labour and fees, as well as overhead and profit. Sometimes an allowance is established for items that need to be purchased, like lighting and flooring.

A cost-plus contract you pay the contractor the actual price of materials, labour and other costs, plus a percentage for profit and overhead. Cost-plus contracts mean your costs aren’t set up front, so it may be best to set a limit to ensure your project doesn’t go over budget.

Always ask for a written contract. Without one, you have no recourse if things go wrong. To see a sample contract, check out the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s sample renovation contract.

Working with your Contractor

Follow these tips to make working with your contractor as smooth and efficient as possible.

  • Check in with your contractor regularly. To make communication efficient, wait for a time you’re both available, and have a list of questions handy.
  • If a dispute arises, find a time to sit down and find a solution that will work for both of you. Try to be reasonable, allow time for your contractor to respond and be aware of circumstances your contractor can’t control, like weather and backordered supplies.
  • You may need to find a mediator to settle a dispute. In this case, architects or a construction arbitrators can be used.

At the End of the Project

Don’t sign a certificate of completion unless you’ve thoroughly inspected the work and have a plan in place if the contractor needs to come back and address any small details. Ideally, your contractor will offer a warranty on their work.

Want More Info?

Check out the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s resources on hiring and working with a contractor. The site includes a checklist for hiring a contractor, as well as downloadable resources to use throughout your renovation project.

Image credit: Sarah Ackerman