The Wild West of Choosing a Contractor


My friend’s son is getting married - and I think it makes everyone in our group feel a little bit older. But it got me to thinking about that first house that we owned, on that dead-end street where we all raised our kids.  Our house needed some work, and I was young and absolutely baffled by how to go about hiring someone.  I turned to an AOL chatroom for guidance (I told you I was young,) and I got the same list there that you would probably get if you googled the topic today.  It would tell you: Ask for referrals from friends (although I was new to the area.)  Call their references (which I did, but the reviews were SO glowing I was suspicious.)  Discuss their billing practices (but I had nothing to compare it to.  Remember?  No experience.)  So yes, I did that due diligence, but I didn’t feel like I was any closer to having a comfort level with how I was going to get the work done.

Today, as a designer, I use contractors all the time and even still it’s nerve-wracking to try out someone new, although my list of questions has improved.  I think my strongest tactic is to just to engage them in conversation.  It’s important to get a sense of how they operate on that basic level.  Are they tired and rushed and terse with their responses?  And if so, does this make them a bad contractor?  No, it doesn’t, but depending how YOU operate, it might make them a bad fit.

Jumping back to my younger years, I finally did choose a builder.  He ended up being the brother of a neighbor, so that made me feel better.  And he did beautiful work, but he was a little bit of what I now call a cowboy.  He rarely returned my calls, I never really knew when he was going to show up or leave, and things would get done with details in place that we had never discussed.  Plus, he would pop sudden questions on me like, “Where are those door handles that I need to install right now?”  I remember I wanted to change directions on my project, which I was nervous about telling him.  I didn’t leave my house all morning in the hopes of catching that cowboy so we could talk.  When he still wasn’t there at pickup time for my kids, I called a neighbor to cover for me and left her with frantic instructions to call me RIGHT AWAY if she saw his truck pull in.  I honestly think I would have left my kids in the middle of the highway in order to catch him.  I was at my wits end.

The project got done, but yeesh, the stress.  What the young me needed was to think more about what MY needs were for that project.  I was inexperienced.  I needed to work with someone who was organized and a good communicator, and I should have been better about utilizing those same qualities myself.  I needed to share that I was new to this.  That I needed some help with managing my expectations.  That I had a gaggle of young kids that made it really difficult to make split second decisions and for me to pick out materials on the spot.  With that kind of a conversation, I probably would have intuited that my cowboy was maybe not be the best fit for me. 

That would have been a good list of criteria for me back then.  My list is different now, and yours will be different too.  That contractor cowboy might be perfect for you if you were, say, doing some maintenance on your second home when you weren’t there.  Or if you were quickly improving an empty rental property.  You wouldn’t care about their daily schedule so much, and you might want someone who could solve some of those details on their own – someone with a high capacity to “make it work.”  You would need to be extra careful that you were comfortable with their aesthetic of course, but sometimes cowboys can be just what you need.  They just need to be in the right corral.

Right now, my contractor criteria doesn’t change too much as I switch from job to job.  I want a skilled professional that will complete the job on time and within the budget, all while offering service with a smile.  (Are you familiar with the joke where you add: “pick any two” to that list of three?)  Because yes, I do want it all.  And I’m willing to pay a premium for it too, within reason.  My contractor can make or break my client relationships, so I choose carefully.

But what are some other tips to help you choose your contractor?  As I said, my biggest goal is just to get them talking—even in a randomly chatty way helps.  I like to use contractors that are from this area, and even better if they have family here.  I like them to be invested in the community because then their reputations usually matter to them.  Plus, they will have a better handle on the local, quality, subcontractors that I’d also like them to use (like plumbers and electricians.)  And they should, of course, be properly licensed and insured.  So go ahead and google them or ask for their credentials.

I usually ask for references from their last job—not a job of their choosing.  And keep in mind, I’d called a number of times as a reference, and I do what I think most people do. I talk about the positives.  I wait to be specifically prompted before I’ll offer up anything negative.  So, if you were calling me?  You’d have to get me talking.

Ask questions about the contractor like: What do you see as their strengths?  And what do you see as their weaknesses?  Were they on schedule?  Under budget?  What was the process like?  Were people arriving and leaving at predictable times?  Did the crew seem to get along, or were tensions high on the job site?  Did they clean up after themselves?  Were there any conflicts? How did those get resolved?  And the very vague but handy: Is there anything else you think I should know?  But do it all in a warm, conversational tone.  No one likes to feel like they’re being grilled, and these days those contractors are interviewing you just as much as you are interviewing them.

And in the end, no matter what you do, it’s still a leap of faith to enter into that contractor relationship.  And it is a relationship like any other.  It takes a certain amount of thoughtfulness and courtesy and clarity to make it work along the way, so it’s worth taking the time to be a good customer.  Even for the cowboys.

Jen Coles is a professional home designer and mother of four who lives in Manchester.

jen coles, contractor, home design, interior design