Few home improvement projects generate excitement, suspense, and uncertainty quite like remodeling – and for good reason. A beautifully remodeled interior can improve your quality of life and, in some cases, increase the value of your home. On the other hand, a shoddy build could mean years of dissatisfaction, not to mention thousands of wasted dollars. Put simply, hiring the right home remodeler is a big deal. It’s a decision you want to get right. With an eye toward experience, professionalism, and expertise, let’s explore the nuts and bolts of choosing a home remodeling contractor. Finding the right remodelers probably won’t be an easy decision, and that’s okay. You should challenge yourself to identify the best talent with the greatest likelihood of success. By the time you arrive at a hiring decision, you should feel confident that the team you selected will either meet or exceed your expectations.
Determine What Type of Remodeler You Need
The home remodeling market is predicted to generate over $320 billion in 2018, though that’s divided among several different categories.1 From kitchen remodels and bathroom expansions to top-to-bottom interior redesigns, “remodeling” can mean lots of different things, and different types of projects require different types of expertise. An abundance of options obliges you to identify the type of home remodeling contractor you need. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) offers a useful breakdown of different types of home renovation contractors and explains why you might hire one or another for your project:2
Design/build contractors: These firms provide an all-in-one remodeling package. Teams consist of designers and/or architects, consultants, and builders, all of whom you can hire at once. Design/build contractors handle all sorts of projects, large and small, and some may specialize in kitchens, bathrooms, or another type of remodeling.
Architects: Big remodeling projects – as in “reinventing your house” big – require precise construction drawings for contracts and permits. In these cases, it’s often best to hire an architect with remodeling experience. Though trained in design theory, the architect’s primary role is to ensure structural soundness and efficient use of space.
Designers: Whereas an architect is concerned with spatial constraints, structural issues, and building compliance, a designer’s job is to create beautiful, inviting interior conditions. Colors, shapes, styles, lighting… these are the designers’ chief concerns. Designers often specialize (think kitchen, bathroom, or living area designers), so take that into account before beginning your search.
General contractors: While general contractors usually focus on materials and methods (i.e. building), experienced practitioners can often eliminate the need to hire additional help. The more straightforward your requirements, the more likely it is that a contractor can take care of everything – no architect or designer required. General contractors can also join the remodeling effort after you approve a floor plan or design created by someone else.
So, should you go the design/build route or start with an architect or designer? Can a general contractor handle the job alone? It’s hard to say, and it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Generally speaking, you should hire an independent architect when modifying your home’s exterior, restructuring an interior floor plan, or spending more than 5% of your home’s value on a remodel.3 On the other hand, many design/build teams keep accomplished architects on staff and can take you from blueprints to hammers-and-nails construction with fantastic efficiency, no matter how large the scope. In any case, choosing the right team doesn’t always depend on the professional category under which a remodeler falls. A contractor’s reputation matters, too, and often in a very big way. Speaking of reputation...
Read Reviews and Ask for References
Are you so in awe of a remodeler’s work that you get goosebumps? Upon viewing a designer’s portfolio, can you barely contain your desire make your home look exactly like what you see in the promo images? If you do, it’s a great sign you’ve found the right remodeler. But if you never bother to investigate, you’ll never know. A major part of the vetting process is getting a feel for who local contractors are, what they’ve done, and how former clients feel about the remodeling experience (and about the work quality, of course). Doing so will take some effort, so get ready to roll up your sleeves, crack your knuckles, and flex those research muscles! To create a tentative list of reputable remodelers with strong work portfolios, do all of the following:
While evaluating a remodeler’s past work will definitely aid in your hiring decision, it doesn’t always paint a complete picture. There’s another step in the selection process: an objective evaluation of the remodeler’s credentials and preparedness for your project.
Confirm Licenses, Insurance, and Bonding
For most home remodelers, obtaining and maintaining state-issued contractor licenses is mandatory. If required by law, the remodelers you consider for your project should hold any and all necessary business licenses – no exceptions! They should also carry certain types of insurance. Licensing varies by state. Most states require some sort of license for home improvement contractors, but others don’t require one at all. The National Association of Contractors Licensing Agencies (NASCLA) lists member licensing boards for most states,4 but it’s possible that your state isn’t a member. Visit your state’s government website to determine whether local contractors require licenses. Keep in mind that being licensed doesn’t mean a remodeler will deliver great work. In some cases, a license just indicates that a business pays its taxes and carries the minimum required insurance. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll love how your new kitchen looks. Licensed or not, home remodelers should, at a minimum, be able to show proof of the following insurance coverage:
General liability: This coverage protects the remodeler from financial liability resulting from bodily injury or property damage at your home. Accidents happen, and you need to be sure a contractor can weather any ensuing financial fallout.
Worker’s compensation: Remodelers with employees should carry this coverage. If a worker is injured at your home, worker’s compensation insurance shields both the contractor and you from lawsuits related to the injury.
A contractor should also show proof of bonding. Required for licensure in most states, bonding protects you if the remodeler delivers sub-par work, quits before a project is complete, doesn’t compensate employees, or fails to pay supply bills. Are these scenarios likely? Of course not. Should you shield yourself from liability anyway? Definitely. To be sure, licenses, insurance, and bonding are the bare minimum for being able to conduct business. Your remodeler will be responsible for your home’s look and feel, so it’s completely reasonable to ask for credentials beyond what the law mandates. If you’re looking for additional certification, the NARI-certified remodeler listings are a good place to start.5 According to the NARI, all certified professionals have been active for at least two to five years before earning the certification. They also completed a rigorous course of study and are subject to the organization’s annual recertification review. In other words, it’s not just any old remodeler who gets a NARI certification. As a final step in your objective evaluation, check remodelers’ Better Business Bureau (BBB) listings to see if customers have made complaints. If they have, examine each complaint carefully. Do the problems seem valid? Were they amicably resolved? Did the complaints affect the remodeler’s rating? A record of BBB complaints isn’t necessarily a red flag, especially if the complaints themselves seem suspect. However, a long history of similar grievances could be a sign that you should look elsewhere.
Ask About HOA Compliance
If you live in a condominium or house that is subject to homeowners’ association (HOA) standards, confirm that prospective remodelers are able to follow the rules. HOAs typically regulate any remodel that modifies common property (for example, walls that connect townhomes or plumbing systems that serve multiple condos),6 involves noisy construction, or affects anything under the organization’s control. Not only will your remodeling require HOA approval, but contractors will have to accommodate specific HOA stipulations. These might include using noisy equipment only during certain hours of the day, using certain types of tile on the floors, or making changes that affect your home’s exterior – it all depends on your HOA! Look for remodelers who are accustomed to HOA rules. If you can identify a team with experience following your HOA’s guidelines, even better.
Nail Down a Timeline
Like it or not, your home is about to look like this:
It could look this way for weeks – or even months! Are you ready for the mess, the noise, and the waiting? If you’re not ready right now, when will you be ready? And when will your remodelers be available to work? Planning ahead for a remodeling project helps both you and the team you hire for the job. Before asking for estimates, you should have a tentative project timeline in mind. A professional remodeler will tell you whether your timeline is realistic based on his or her past experience. In addition to telling contractors when you’ll be ready for the build phase, be sure to inform them about any vacations or special events that could disrupt or extend the project timeline. Your remodelers have schedules, too, so ask whether any inconveniences on their end could upset your ideal trajectory.
Identify and Mitigate Health and Safety Concerns
Parents and pet owners often worry that remodelers work with hazardous indoor pollutants. These concerns are completely justified. Many remodeling teams do work with toxic building materials. Not only should you be aware of the chemicals contractors are using, but you should ask what steps they will take to protect you and your family from undue exposure. Anyone you hire should be open to the following safety guidelines:
Assuming it’s possible, have contractors agree to carry work materials through one door only. You and your family can use a different door during the remodel.
Safe storage: Contractors should keep all hazardous materials in proper storage containers and out of reach of children.
Plastic sheeting: Hanging plastic sheets or tarps around the work area keeps dust and debris from blowing around your home; any professional contractor should be willing to use them. Also, ask whether workers will apply a fine layer of water to surfaces before sanding to prevent additional air pollution from dust.
Working outside: Painting, staining, finishing… builders can complete many of these activities outside. When possible, insist that they do so.
If you are remodeling a home built before the 1980s, you need to be sure any asbestos has been both encapsulated and removed before remodeling begins. Ask remodelers whether they work with a licensed asbestos abatement company that can visit your home to get rid of the nasty stuff. If they don’t, you will need to locate one yourself and verify its licensing and/or certification before hiring.
Establish Pricing, Payment, and Terms
Before talking prices, payment methods, and project terms, let’s review the steps you’ve already taken prior to asking anyone for an estimate:
You aligned your objectives with remodeler type
You read online reviews and evaluated remodeling portfolios
You verified remodelers’ professional credentials
You discussed HOA compliance
You walked contractors through your tentative timeline
You identified health and safety issues and got the green light from remodelers
At this point, you’re ready to establish what the remodelers will do, how much it will cost, and the conditions under which they will complete the work. Ideally, you will request estimates from at least three different contractors or remodeling teams. Fewer than three gives you little basis for comparison of pricing and imposes unnecessary limitations. And when you’re about to spend several thousand dollars, unnecessary limitations are the last thing you need, right? The easiest way to evaluate a remodeling estimate is to approve whatever the contractor gives you. If they’re going to do what you want and the price seems fair, you reason, why not just sign on the dotted line? While there are definitely “match made in heaven” remodeling scenarios, a better approach is to ask questions, read the fine print, and, if necessary, negotiate. Adhere to the following best practices:
Break down the costs for materials, labor, and profit. According to Tom Silva of This Old House fame,7 materials usually make up 40% of the total cost of a remodeling project. Profit margins fluctuate between 15% and 20% while labor costs account for the rest. Your remodeler might dispute these percentages, and that’s ok. What’s important is that you have a sense of overhead versus profit so you can effectively compare your three estimates.
Space out payments. Another Silva tip is to pay around 10% at contract signing and make three or four additional payments throughout the life of the remodel. That particular payment model isn’t obligatory, but making a series of payments is the most typical (and sensible) arrangement.
Ask about change orders. In the event you need to modify anything in the contract, be sure the remodeler will create a written change order. This is a form both of you will need to sign before any changes to the contract go into effect.8
Add your “homework” to the contract. Proof of insurance, timeline, proper licenses for all contractors and subcontractors… you spent time verifying all of these specs, so make sure they’re substantiated in the contract!
Obligate the contractor to obtain lien releases. Doing so will shield you from liability if the remodeler fails to pay subcontractors and suppliers.9
Don’t necessarily take the lowest price. The lowest bidder might not always deliver the best result. Evaluate estimates based on the value they’re going to provide, not the final dollar amount. A lowball bid could be a sign of a desperate contractor who isn’t cut out for the project.
Negotiate. This is a big-ticket project, so a little haggling is permitted – especially if you can justify a lower price for a specific line item (e.g. "I received another bid that included a lower price for the same materials from a different supplier").
And you’re done! Almost. You still have to sign the contract. Knowing you made an informed hiring decision will give you confidence when the builders show up for work. You did everything in your power to make this project perfect. The only thing left to do is wait for your beautiful new home to unfold before your eyes.
Following the above process is a surefire way to find the best remodelers for your project. That being said, there’s a certain amount of intuition involved in choosing a contractor – a “sense” you get that it’s hard to place within a hiring checklist. For example, two different contractors with similar work portfolios might present equally compelling bids, but only one of them feels like the right person for the job. It’s okay when this happens. You should go with your gut. Remember: aside from things like insurance and BBB ratings, hiring a remodeler is very subjective. You choose somebody because you love the work they do and because they conduct themselves in a professional manner. It’s that second part that can affect your intuition about a service provider. In the end, excitement and suspense should be part of everyone’s remodeling effort. Anticipating each small change and monitoring the builders’ progress is fun! It’s that other part of the remodeling experience – the “uncertainty” part – that everyone wants to avoid. Pursue an informed evaluation process, and you’ll be well in the clear. You’ll love how your home looks, too.
Graham has worked in content marketing and strategy for Fortune 500 companies and niche brands in the Energy and Software industries. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Professional Writing.