6 Steps to Hassle-free Home Improvements

Planning a big home project? Make sure you’re in good hands. Use these smart tips to find and manage the right home contractor for you.

Woman Looking at Custom Cabinetry Options

by NEA Member Benefits

Key takeaways

  • Avoid damaged property, delayed completion, unexpected charges and other problems by finding a few candidates, verifying credentials and more.

A well-planned, well-executed upgrade can add comfort, convenience, beauty and value to your home. Unfortunately, not all improvement projects turn out well. We’ve all heard horror stories of contractors who damage property, delay completion, add unexpected charges and cause other problems that can leave homeowners loaded with regrets—and big bills.

Take these six simple precautions before and during the project to ensure that everything will go smoothly:

Do your homework

Before you start looking for contractors, research the project you’re considering, suggests home improvement expert Philip Schmidt, author of Don’t Sweat It ... Hire It! An A to Z Guide to Finding, Hiring & Managing Home Improvement Pros. You can find information in home-improvement magazines and books and via Internet resources such as YouTube and other layman-friendly sites.

The goal here is not to become an expert, he says. Rather, you need to gather information about best practices, products and materials that are being used for this type of job. Then, you can ask informed questions of your potential contractors and ensure that all necessary details are covered in the contract.

Find a few good candidates

The key to a successful job is finding a good contractor. Ask friends, family members, coworkers and neighbors whom they’ve hired to do their home improvement projects. Also, ask trusted real estate professionals about who they’ve worked with and can recommend.

Check referral resources such as the subscription-based Angie’s List, which Schmidt says has a “pretty comprehensive” review panel as well as helpful consumer reviews.

Search Better Business Bureau websites by category or business name to check out company ratings and track records. BBB sites also provide tips on scam prevention, how to choose a contractor and more, says Katherine Hutt, spokesperson for the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The BBB website shows whether companies are BBB-accredited and are given an A-to-F grade based on how they rate on 16 key criteria, such as how long they’ve been in business and whether they’ve had any complaints—and whether those complaints were resolved.

Local building inspectors are another good source because they deal with contractors and may be able to recommend good choices. Or try organizations such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (nari.org).

Verify credentials

Next, check contractors’ websites and backgrounds. Make sure they’re licensed and insured.

Call your city’s building department and ask whether the contractor is licensed in your city to do the type of work you plan.

Also, ask the building department whether permits will be required for your project. If they are, find out who’s responsible for pulling the permit and arranging for inspection after the job is completed. During the interview phase, ask your candidates about permits. If the city says a permit is needed for your job but the contractor says it isn’t, you should cross that contractor off your list.

Interview at least three contractors

After you’ve done your research and narrowed your choices, phone the most promising contractors on your list and ask for references. You want to find clients who had an improvement project similar to yours. Ask those references how the job went, what surprises came up, how problems were resolved, what worked and what didn’t.

Interview at least three contractors from your final list. Schmidt says talking to three candidates is “really key,” especially on jobs that involve large sums or potential liability, to help you make your decision.

Review the basics first, then cover the details and expectations of your project. Will he or his crew be on your site every day? How many hours each day? How disruptive will the work be to your lifestyle? How long will the job take? What happens if there’s a change in the plans or a problem with the work?

When Schmidt planned to have a sprinkler system installed, he says he interviewed the three most promising contractors. After doing those interviews, he realized that one contractor was a much better fit for Schmidt than the other two. If he hadn’t interviewed all three candidates, he says, he probably would have overlooked that “clear winner.”

Put it in writing

The best way to avoid problems—cost overruns, damages, delays, disputes, etc.—is to make sure all the details are clearly covered in the contract. Communicate clearly: Both sides need to understand what work needs to be done and how it should be done.

Work plans, if any, should be part of the contract, Schmidt says. The contract should specify the start and completion dates. To protect both sides, the contract should include a clause stating how changes will be handled and how conflicts will be resolved. And, of course, get the contractor’s quoted price for the job in writing in the contract.

Don’t sign until you’re sure all the details you’ve discussed about this project are clearly stated in the agreement, whether that be the size of tile for the new shower or the specific appliances to be installed in a remodeled kitchen.

Be a squeaky wheel

When the contractor starts work on your job, “operate on the squeaky-wheel principle,” Schmidt says. Be assertive, and speak up when things aren’t going as you expected. You’ll get better results when your contractor knows you’re actively involved in monitoring the job’s progress, Schmidt says.

Start your project today with these NEA member resources

Whether you need to call in contractors for a big job or you’re just refreshing your home décor or appliances, your member benefits can help make your next home improvement project a reality.

  • Fund home improvements and big appliances with an NEA Personal Loan, with one affordable monthly payment and loan amounts up to $25,000. No application fee, no annual fee and no collateral is required.
  • Earn cash back on appliances and other home staples through the NEA Discount Marketplace.

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