12 Steps to Hiring a Contractor for Less

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This is the time of year when you look at your home afresh and think about all the improvements you'd like to make. The prospect of some tax refund cash might be just the spur you need to get started. However, unless the projects are small or you know a lot about home remodeling, hiring a contractor may be necessary. Here are some tips on how to hire a contractor for less.

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If you are considering a small project, you need a contractor who specializes in the kind of work you need done, such as tiling, electrical, carpentry, or roofing. If you are planning a major overhaul, like redoing your kitchen or building an addition, you need a general contractor who will oversee the project and assign work to specialty subcontractors.

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The first place to start looking for a contractor is with family and friends. Chances are someone in your network has hired a contractor in the past and can make a recommendation. Kitchen and bath designers, architects, and home improvement stores can often make suggestions based on contractors they or their clients have used.

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According to Consumer Reports, a good rule of thumb is to get a minimum of three comparison quotes. This means having three separate contractors come to your home to see the work that's on the agenda, talk to you about your requirements, and write up a quote that includes a timeline, the cost of labor and materials, and any subcontractors that may be needed. Carefully compare each portion of the three quotes and be sure the items listed are the same; if not, ask for another quote to reflect your requirements. Also ask for a list of references, preferably with homeowners who have done a job similar to the one you are planning. Be sure to call them and ask detailed questions. Building Advisor.com offers a comprehensive list of questions to ask contractors and references.

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According to contractor John Kelly of JKelly Construction in Hudson, N.Y., clients need to do their homework and research their options. That way, the contractor isn't starting from zero when the consultation begins. Kelly says that it's important for consumers to be clear about what they want to accomplish, taking the time to read construction design documents and proposals so that they can understand exactly what products and services are specified in the contract.

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Contracting work almost never comes in on budget. The reasons for this include changes in design after the job starts and misunderstandings about the scope of work. Kelly says that underestimating labor time is one of the biggest reasons for cost overruns. The best way to protect yourself is to have a fixed price contract which limits your costs to those agreed upon in the contract. Even so, changes will almost always come up in the course of construction that add to the bill. The contract overview at Angie's List suggests that you plan for overruns of about 20 percent.

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An itemized quote will help you identify what costs the most. By looking carefully at the itemized quote, you may find areas where you can cut costs. For example, if you're doing a kitchen remodel and have specified a granite countertop, the high cost for fabrication and installation of the stone may lead you to go with a cheaper laminate countertop.

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Scrutinizing the itemized contractor quote and picking out specific components that you can complete on your own is another way to cut contractor costs. Back to the kitchen example: If your remodeling contractor puts a backsplash in the quote, consider doing it yourself to save labor costs, assuming you‘re up to the relatively simple job.

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This is a no brainer. Always check for proper insurance, licenses, certifications, and even permits that are necessary for the project. To check certifications and licensing, consult with your state's department of consumer affairs, which should have a licensing division. This will save you a lot of money and hassle in the long run. Imagine the expense you'll incur if you hire a roofing contractor without insurance and he falls off the roof.

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A quote isn't set in stone. Don't be afraid to negotiate contractor costs. If the contractor really wants your business, chances are there's some wiggle room in the quote. The time of year can make a difference. Contractors are more likely to negotiate deals in January when most people are strapped for cash after the holidays and demand for home improvement contractor work is low.

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Do not pay in full upfront. If you do, there's no guarantee the job will be completed. A payment schedule specified in the contract is your best option. Make payments as you go. According to the home repair site This Old House, the first payment on a large project might be 10 percent, with three payments of 25 percent spaced evenly throughout the job. The final 15 percent is paid only when every item on the punch list has been completed.

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Your contractor will be in your home and around your family for weeks or months. There will be changes and decisions made that impact the way you live for years to come. If for any reason you don't feel that there is good communication or you don't feel a high level of trust, you shouldn't hire a contractor, no matter how good the quote.

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A quote forms the basis of a contract that includes even more details. The contract should include the payment schedule, the start date and anticipated completion date, a list of materials and products used in the project, and, if you're using a general contractor, a requirement that the contractor obtain lien releases from all subcontractors so that you're not liable if the contractor doesn't pay them. Once you negotiate all the terms and accept and sign the bid, your project can begin.