How to Choose a Contractor for Your Renovation Project

how to choose a contractor for your renovation project

For most homeowners, the hardest part of any home renovation project isn’t the work itself, it’s finding a competent and reliable contractor to do the job. Installing kitchen cabinets, knocking down a wall or retiling the bathroom is simple compared with the struggle of hiring a quality contractor who will perform at a high level from start to finish.

Everyone has heard stories about horrendous contractors who tore apart the kitchen and never returned or projects that cost three times the contractor’s original estimate.

Even with a good contractor, renovation can be stressful, expensive and involve unpleasant surprises, such as rotted subfloors that are revealed when tile is removed or dangerous electrical wiring or leaking pipes behind walls.

Choosing the right contractor can make the difference between a successful home renovation project and a disaster. But even for experienced renovators, finding the right contractor can be a challenge.

“It can be difficult to hire contractors and know what you’re getting,” Hicks says. “You’re spending a lot of money, and you’re dealing with your home. If they do it wrong, there can be a whole lot of heartache.”

If you’re doing a big project, you’ll need a general contractor, who may hire subcontractors for specialty work such as plumbing and electrical. Homeowners with renovation experience sometimes work as their own general contractors, hiring specific tradespeople for each job. While this may save you money, it can be time-consuming and will mean multiple contractor searches instead of just one, since you’ll have to find a specialist for each smaller job.

Whichever way you go, there are steps you can take to find the right contractor while still keeping your budget – and your sanity – under control. Here are 18 tips to help you find a contractor who will get the job done right.

Check that the contractor is licensed. That is, they have an actual license in their trade, like a licensed carpenter, plumber or electrician.

Check that they are insured. And I don’t just mean for E&O insurance (errors and omissions), I mean for liability for accidental property damage (they damage a plumbing pipe, and flood your basement), as well as for personal injury (you go into your newly renovated basement, and a loose board causes you to trip and get injured) tractors. What is shocking is that less than 30% of contractors in business have any kind of insurance at all. If the contractor tells you something like “Oh, we have WSIB”, walk away, quickly. WSIB is ONLY for the workers and crew, and does absolutely NOTHING to protect you, your property, or any injury you might sustain. You might even request to see a copy or even get a copy of their insurance policy.

Make sure they have WSIB coverage. As mentioned above WSIB is the new version of Workman’s Compensation Board. This is mandatory coverage contractors pay for that covers their crew against in juries. What’s a little messed up about this, is that if they do NOT have WSIB coverage in place, YOU can actually be held liable in part for some very expensive damages to a worker working on your home under employ by the contractor.

Know what you want before you get estimates. Don’t start by talking to contractors, have some ideas of your own. You’ll get a more accurate estimate if you can be very specific in what you want done and the materials you would like to use to make it happen.

Ask friends, relatives and co-workers for references. People in your neighbourhood who have done similar projects are your best sources. If you know people in the building trades, ask them, too. Employees of local hardware stores may also be able to provide referrals.

Interview at least three contractors. Ask a lot of questions and get a written bid from each one. When you compare bids, make sure each one includes the same materials and the same tasks, so you’re comparing apples and apples. Get three bids even if you have a contractor you like because you’ll learn something from each interview. “Don’t be afraid to negotiate,” Hicks says. While you might do some haggling at the interview, be prepared to do most of the negotiation after you get the bid and before you sign the contract.

Expect a contractor to be too busy to start right away. “The best folks are the busy ones”. Typically, this is true. They are busy for a reason. They also tend to be better organized.

Ask what work will be done by the contractor’s employees and what work will be done by subcontractors. Ask for an employee list to make sure the contractor really has the employees he says he does and won’t be using casual labor hired off the street.

Choose the right contractor for the right project. Someone who did a good job tiling your neighbour’s bathroom isn’t necessarily the right person to build an addition to your home. You want to find a company that routinely does the kind of project you want done. You don’t want them to use you as a guinea pig.

Check references. Talk to both clients and subcontractors, who can tell you if the contractor pays them on time. “See if you can talk to current customers,” Christian says, because those clients have the most recent experience working with the contractor.

Read online reviews, but don’t consider that enough information. Angie’s List does not allow anonymous reviews, and the site checks to see whether reviewers actually used the contractor. Yelp and Google also have some reviews. You want to read the reviews carefully to make sure the contractor is the right person for your job and will work well with you. Keep in mind that reading reviews is not a substitute for checking references.

Get the proper permits. Most home renovation projects require permits. Many fly-by-night companies, as well as some licensed contractors, will suggest the job be done without permits to save money. Not only does that violate local ordinances and subject you to fines if you’re caught, it means the work will not be inspected by the city or county to make sure it’s up to code. Be wary of contractors who ask you to get the permits – that’s the contractor’s job. Un-permitted work can also cause problems when it’s time to sell.

Don’t pay more than 50 percent of the job total before the job starts. You don’t want a contractor to use your money to finish someone else’s job. Builders generally will occasionally ask for up to 50 percent if costly materials are needed immediately. The contract should include a payment schedule and triggers for progress payments.

Don’t sign a contract for your entire renovation budget. No matter how careful you and the contractor are in preparing for the job, there will be surprises that will add to the cost. “They can’t see through walls,” Hicks says of contractors. Expect to spend at least 10 percent to 15 percent more than your contract.

Negotiate ground rules. Discuss what hours the contractor can work at your home, what kind of notice you’ll get, what bathroom the workers will use and what will be cleaned up at the end of every workday.

Talk to the contractor frequently. For a big job, you may need to talk every day. If you see a potential issue, speak up immediately. Something that is done wrong will be harder to fix later after your contractor has packed up and moved on to his next job.

Don’t make the final payment until the job is 100 percent complete. Contractors are notorious for finishing most of the job and then moving on before they get to the final details. Don’t make the final payment until you are completely satisfied with the work and have all the lien releases and receipts.


Pierwater Custom Construction Ltd. is a licensed, insured, highly experienced, and heavily recommended contractor, located in Quinte West, Ontario.

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