How to Hire a Contractor Without Breaking the Bank


  1. Take care of your home. Routine maintenance is a great way to extend the life of your house and appliances, reducing the amount you'll need to pay a contractor for repair or replacement. Keep track of warranty periods so that you don't miss out on free fixes.

  2. Do your homework when you're considering having home improvement or remodeling done. Get a good idea of processes and approximate prices in your area. (However, stay open to input from an experienced contractor as well.) Find out whether permits and inspections will be necessary for the project you have in mind.

  3. Check in with your insurance provider before hiring a contractor, for two reasons. First, if you're having repair work done which will be paid for under your homeowners policy, your insurer may require you to use one of their approved contractors. Second, even though your contractor should have construction insurance and workers' compensation, you yourself may need extra coverage while the construction work is going on.

  4. Be specific about what you want when you call for an estimate -- not just "some house painting" but "walls and ceilings of a 2000 square foot home, using no-VOC paint," for example. Don't expect to get an accurate figure on the spot -- a good contractor will put thought and effort into preparing a bid.

  5. Get quotes from 3 or 4 different contractors for comparison purposes. Don't jump at the lowest price -- or the highest one, for that matter. Instead, look for signs of a trustworthy contractor, like up-to-date licensing and insurance, good references from satisfied customers, a clean record with the Better Business Bureau and your local Chamber of Commerce, and a willingness to discuss how he or she will tackle your project.

  6. Don't accept a lump sum bid for a medium- to large-size job. Look beyond the bottom line on a quote, reading through all the details so you know exactly what's included. Don't rely on what you and the contractor agreed on verbally. Remember, if it's not written down, it's not part of the services you're contracting for.

  7. See if there's any room to negotiate the price. You may be able to cut the expense by doing some of the work yourself (such as removing your old flooring and hauling it away for recycling), leaving the expert jobs to the contractor. Don't expect to cut a deal on the cost after all the supplies have been ordered and the work is done.

  8. Be clear about how you are going to pay for the work ... and we're not just talking credit card versus personal check. Make sure you have the funds lined up and readily available.

  9. Prepare yourself for the occasional cost overrun. The usual recommendation is to allow an extra 10-20 percent above the project's estimated cost, in case of unexpected expenses. (For example, you might have a crew in to retile your bathroom and find that the wall underneath is rotten, requiring major repair.)

  10. Read through all the details of the contract you sign for the work to make sure that no important information is missed (like the exact color of the paint you want, for instance). And a point worth repeating: if it's not written down, it's not part of the services you're contracting for.

  11. Get ready. Move large pieces of furniture out of the way (unless that is the contractor's job according to your written agreement), stash breakables, and put away valuables.

  12. Pay on time. Stick to the payment schedule written out in your contract to avoid potential legal hassles and fines. 

  13. Appoint one household member as the go-to guy, readily available in person or by phone to authorize -- or veto -- unexpected extra expenses. Life happens and sometimes part of your plan has to be rethought quickly. Get the amount in writing, though.

Laura Firszt writes for

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