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Working with a contractor, in lieu of DIY, can be the difference between a successful home renovation or repair and a botched project. Yet, finding a contractor for your home can be easier said than done. You want to make sure the person you hire has adequate experience, can give you the best value for your buck, and communicates in a clear and transparent way.
How can you ensure you’re making the right choice when hiring your next contractor?
We’ve outlined 10 questions you should ask to make sure you’re finding the best person or company for the job, helping you avoid any unpleasant surprises that may affect your wallet and leave you dissatisfied.
1. Ask yourself: How do I know a repair or renovation is best suited for a contractor instead of attempting to DIY?
DIY projects are a great way to save money on repairs and renovations around your home, but without professional training, you should limit yourself to small-scale jobs. For projects that require special skills and patience, such as kitchen and bathroom renovations, electrical wirings, exterior refinishings, landscaping, and roof repairs, it’s probably best to hire a general contractor. You can save yourself a lot of frustration and time, and you might even stay under budget by not cutting corners or fixing preventable mistakes.
Blaise McDonald, President and CEO of MAC Renovations Ltd. in Victoria, British Columbia, says once you start getting into work that requires permits, it’s time to look for a contractor or you may face some liability risks.
“If you’re doing repairs and you’re single-sourcing specialty contractors, the homeowner can usually manage that,” McDonald explains. “As soon as you get to a point where you’re hiring multiple trades, you become the prime contractor and it puts you at risk—liability risk for the safety and liability of all those companies.”
2. Ask yourself: Where should I look to find a contractor?
Word of mouth is the best form of advertising, so you can look to your family, friends, and colleagues for recommendations. A local REALTOR® is also a great resource when looking to hire a professional, as they likely have a list of trusted and licensed contractors they can refer you to. Alternatively, you can do an online search or use websites like SmartReno and HomeStars, which offer a database of contractors you can request quotes from.
3. Ask your contractor: Are you licensed in the province you’ll be performing the job?
Licensing requirements largely depend on a contractor’s designated trade and the province they’re registered in. For instance, carpenters are only required to have trade certification in Quebec—every other province is voluntary. For electricians, trade certification for domestic and rural electricians is only compulsory in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario, but the requirements for construction electricians are different. Check your province’s requirements to confirm if the contractor you hire, and their subcontractors, are legally compliant. For peace of mind, you may want to opt for a contractor who has a certified trades designation through a post-secondary program or workplace training.
“Certain work—electrical, gas work, plumbing—requires specialty trades,” McDonald says. “If you’re getting into large complex renovations or new home construction, you should find out if that contractor is a registered builder.”
4. Ask your contractor: What type of experience do you have?
One of the most important questions to ask contractors is how long they have been offering their services. You should also inquire about how much experience they have with the type of project you need help with and if they have specific areas of specialization. For example, if you’re looking to have your basement finished, you’ll likely want to hire someone who has completed this project before, not someone who has only ever worked on kitchens and bathrooms.
Keep in mind, just because someone has 10 years’ experience doesn’t mean they’re automatically better for than someone with less. Each scenario will be different, but this type of information is always good to know about to help make a more well-rounded decision.
5. Ask your contractor: Will you use your own crew or recruit subcontractors?
If you’ve decided you want a general contractor, they’ll provide a plan that details what exactly you’ll need to complete your repair or renovation, including information on the team they need for the job. Many general contractors will have their own crew, but they may use subcontractors for tasks their team isn’t qualified to do. According to celebrity contractor Mike Holmes, contractors might bring engineers, architects, and interior designers into the mix. Just make sure you know about the subcontractor’s qualifications and experience levels before agreeing to anything.
6. Ask your contractor: Do you have a website, portfolio, or photos that show your work?
Seeing is believing. Whether you’re relying on word of mouth, or on a web database, you should ask for examples of previous work the contractor completed. This will give you a sense of the workmanship, as well as the types of projects they tend to focus on. Most general contractors will also offer design services, so seeing past examples of their work will let you know if their style aligns with your overall vision.
You can even take it a step further by asking for references. Get in touch with people who have worked with the contractor in the past if you want testimonials for a boost of confidence.
“Just do your due diligence,” McDonald recommends. “Ask to talk to previous clients, check on Google reviews, check business insurance, all that stuff should be available. A low price is not always the best price or real price. You want to make sure the contractor or organization you’re hiring has a proven track record or experience in that vocation. No website, no reviews online? Those are all red flags. If someone says you don’t need permits or not to get a permit, those are also red flags.”
7. Ask your contractor: What do your timelines typically look like?
Time is always a key factor when determining the best contractor for your job. You’ll want to get a full-picture idea of what the timelines will look like—not just how long a project will take, but also when the team typically completes work, what it means if things get held up, etc.
Determine when work will take place so you can plan around the disruptions. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to wake up early, you certainly don’t want construction sounds starting at 6 a.m. If you want to continue being in good standing with your neighbours, giving them a heads up about potential noise would be helpful.
It’s also helpful to know what your contractor and their crew’s workload is before they start working for you. This is crucial because issues with another project, like delays, could end up affecting the progress of yours. Ask how flexible they can be with your needs and how they divvy up their workload.
It’s also a good idea to ask your contractor what their contingency plans are in the event supplies get delayed or something else happens that pushes the timelines back. What does that mean for the completion of your project? How will it get handled? You don’t want to be left with a half-finished project for months on end because the allotted time for your project is up and the contractor can’t fit you into their current schedule.
8. Ask your contractor: Do you have workers’ insurance?
Worker safety should always be top priority. The last things you need on your plate are medical and property damage bills because the contractor you hired isn’t covered by insurance. Confirm the contractor has business liability insurance. You can also ask them about their Workers’ Compensation status. According to the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, request the contractor provide a Letter of Clearance from your province’s Workers’ Compensation program.
“[In British Columbia,] the homeowner can go to WorkSafe BC and see if the contractors have worker’s compensation and if there have been any issues (or claims), that’s public knowledge,” McDonald says. “A general contractor should have all the liability insurance certificates from all the subcontractors working on a specific project. The general contractor will manage those insurance certificates to make sure that everyone is covered. If there is a loss, it comes back to the general contractor, not the homeowner.”
Course of Construction, otherwise known as Builder’s Risk insurance, is also something to consider. This covers the impact of fires, floods, theft, and other unwanted—and unpredictable—accidents.
“Some mortgages require this kind of insurance in the event there’s a loss,” McDonald says.
9. Ask your contractor: Does my project require permits, and if so, will you obtain them?
You may never know which permits you need until your contractor takes a look at the project at hand. In most cases, they’ll handle the process for acquiring the necessary permits from the city. That being said, it’s in your best interest to do your own research and be sure everything is being done properly.
“A contracting firm like ours provides a single source of accountability,” McDonald explains. “We obtain and manage the permits on behalf of the client. Be wary of anyone who tells you not to get permits.”
The obtention of permits should also be factored into your overall timeline. Ask how far in advance these permits need to be obtained before work can start, and how long it usually takes for them to be approved.
10. Ask your contractor: What type of contract do you provide and will it outline all your fees up front?
Before you give them money, clarify what type of agreement the contractor wants you to sign. Read the fine print and make sure it outlines all the terms you’ve both agreed to, including timing, insurance, permits, etc., and make sure you’re on the same page about the payment schedule. Some contractors will require a downpayment at the start of the project, while others only need to be paid at the end of the project.
In addition to asking these questions, you want to make sure you get the best possible estimate for the work you’re hiring for. Don’t be afraid to shop around! The best way to do this is by requesting quotes from multiple contractors not only so you can see who will fit within your budget. But, just because a quote is lower doesn’t mean it’s the best way to go. Carefully compare your quotes to see what each contractor is offering. Make sure their workmanship, details, and timelines are aligned with your own ideas.