Can you hire a Contractor using the Internet?

Unfortunately, too many people use the Internet to find contractors and hire them after a sales pitch. You need to take the time to check out the contractors yourself and talk to their clients to make a reasonably good decision. You'll avoid costly mistakes by contractors who simply are not well qualified. Here's how to use the Internet to your best advantage and to spot red flags when you talk to contractors.

The Internet is a wonderful creation that has bypassed the traditional telephone yellow pages as a means of finding a home improvement or remodeling contractor. Websites like Angies List, Service Magic and make it very easy to find a contractor, but they are not a substitute for your own judgement. We even refer people to them on this website. However, if you rely on them alone you are more likely to choose a contractor who may not be right for you.  

Client interviewing Contractor

The above websites simply bring contractors and potential homeowners together just like eBay brings Sellers and Buyers together. There is a difference though. On eBay you can view a seller's rating based on hundreds and in some cases thouands of buyers. That may not be the case on Angie's List or when you interview a contractor's current or former clients. So just remember that Angie's List or even your Architect are not going to be liable if your contractor can't deliver. The words "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) should be flashing in your mind.

Other good leads for Contractors
Architects are usually pretty good leads for finding a contractor. So are friends and neighbors. However, it is still up to you to screen them out and to make sure they are right for your job and meet your requirements for workmanship, etc. Also look for contractors' signs in your neighborhood and jot down numbers and street addresses of the job sites. You'll want to vist these home owners if these contractors are on your short list.

Conractors on the Web
Today, a spiffy website is within the reach of most contractors and home improvement firms. A website is a big "so what" when it comes to choosing a contractor. What you really want are the following:

  • A firm that has qualified personnel that and will not wreak havoc with your home.
  • A firm that has a good track record and has been in business for awhile.
  • A firm that delivers what they promise with in a reasonable time frame.
  • A firm that is honest and does not take short cuts or cheat you with respect to time and materials
  • A firm with many satisfied former clients.
  • A firm that is insured and bonded.
  • A firm that is licensed by the State where the work will be done.

You can not, I repeat, can not rely on anything you read on a contractor's website, unless is it verifed by a State licensing agency. Further more you really need to meet with the contractors to size them up and even more important, talk to and visit the jobsites of their clients. Failure to do this adequately and to educate yourself will help mitigate some of the following adverse effects which include, but are not limited to:

  1. Cost overruns.
  2. Shoddy workmanship that endangers your family.
  3. Not being able to live in your home.
  4. High levels of stress and marital problems.

How to Check out a Contractor
Team work is the key to checking out contractors. Don't let your spouse do all the work. Listen carefully to what a potential contractor says and definitely have them come to you home. Now is not the time to be bashful, ask questons. Here are a few of the usual questions:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • What jobs have you done that are similar to mine?
  • Can you provide me with a list of recent clients (anything with a year)?
  • How many jobs do you have right now?

Is the contractor competent?

Red Flags from Contractor and Client Interviews
Architects are generally match makers between their clients and contractors. In fact, savvy contractors are working with an Architect to line up jobs. Since we are remodeling a house in the Washington DC area, we naturally relied on our Architect to provide us a list of contractors and allowed them to bid on our job. By the way, this job is a total remodel.

We reviewed the estimates of seven contractors and interviewed most of them at the job site. We found that looks can be deceiving. In fact the most important insights were gained by visiting former or current clients of the contractor. It was the best way to compare what a contractor says and what they actually do on the job. The differences can be striking. 

1) Contractor No. 1's bid was relatively high. They were a member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and were extremely well organized. We really liked the owner of the firm and really wanted them. Their bid was very high though.

We never really got to interview their clients because two weeks after they talked to us, they declared bankruptcy. The contractor had not paid their sub contractors, according to our Architect. Thank God we did not go with them or give them a deposit.

2) Contractor No. 2 was sort of sloppy and disorganized. We did not mind this. After all, they're building a house so we are not expecting someone from GQ Magazine. This guy just told us to buy materials and he would do the construction and installation. We asked for a client list and visited two clients.

The first client's house was completed. The couple explained that they did a lot of work and actually signed up for Buyers Direct to make their large appliance purchases. The finishes in their house was ok but nothing to write home about.

The second client we visited had a house actually under construction so we could really get an idea of how things were going. In this case, we realized that the rough plumbing was a mess. Waste pipes were going all over the place and were actually wrong. The couple explained to us that the "plumber" usually came in the late afternon and worked on the weekend. This sounded familiar. The "plumber" was probably a plumber's helper and just moon lighting.

The couple also explained that they had just returned from vacation. They learned that the Contractor had installed different air conditioning units then those specified in the construction plans without getting prior approval from them. We also noted shoddy workmanship, especially with the newly installed replacement windows.

These issues and others were enough to eliminate this contractor from consideration. Why? Because if you can't even trust them to order and install what is specified in the construction plans, then how can you trust them on the more important things like structural elements, etc. Besides we can't afford to monoitor them every minute nor can an architect.

3) Contractor No. 3 was very difficult to get a hold of. It took us several days and numerous telephone calls to arrange to see homes they constructed. This did not bode well, since communication is very important when doing remodeling. When we did finally see some homes they did, we found the flooring and finishes wanting.  So we dropped them from consideration.

4) Contractor No. 4 was the firm we eventually signed with. They were very knowledgeable about construction and had referred us to two clients.

The first client's house was actually under construction and comparable to the size of our renovation. This client was very picky (much more than we are) and had selected Contractor No. 4 because as he put it "they were a good value" and wanted to please their clients. 

The second client we visited had finished the first phase of their project. The workmanship was fine and the client was preparing to contract with Contractor No. 4 again to complete the second phase of the project. This spoke volumes about the contractor.

Use the Internet and your Architect to find prospective contractors. But just don't stop there or be influenced by a slick sales presentation or just by your Architect's recommendation. Take the time to check out their current and previous jobs and go visit and talk to their clients, preferrably without them around. 

Also keep in mind that despite all of your hard work, there will still be issues with your contractor to be resolved. In fact despite your efforts you may end of with a bad contractor. Unfortunately, that's just the nature of the Remodeling Industry and something you have to contend with.

Please feel free to share your stories and suggestions on how to select a contractor.