Last updated December 2017
For small building projects—built-ins and bookshelves, installing a custom closet system, repairing or installing wood trim and moldings, or replacing rotting exterior wood—consider hiring a carpenter instead of a remodeling outfit. Sure, many general contractors trained as carpenters or employ them, but hiring your own woodworker usually is less expensive than trying to book a busy team that specializes in big jobs, and a one-on-one working relationship should help your job run smoothly.
Before nailing down which carpenter to hire (or whether you need a general contractor instead), ask yourself what you’re seeking. Minor repairs on some rotting wood on your house façade? Framing out and dry-walling a new bedroom in your basement? These jobs are all doable for a carpenter. But when you start getting into bigger stuff—an addition, a complete kitchen rehab—you may want to go with a remodeling firm. If you suspect you’ll need design help, or don’t know how to get started, start with pros who do that type of planning every day.
To find carpenters or other remodeling pros, start by consulting customer reviews here at Checkbook.org. You can also look at our ratings and information on handyman services; many of them are also carpenters and can tackle your job. As you make a list of prospective wood wizards, ask questions of past customers and pros in the field—among them: Does this person do the kind of work you have in mind? Does he or she follow plans, get work finished when promised, and stick to the agreed-upon price tag? Does the person solve problems promptly and communicate effectively?
As in many trades, practice makes perfect in the field of carpentry; the more experience a carpenter has, the better.
Meet with at least three (but preferably four or five) candidates, and go over what you’re after in detail, while asking pointed questions about their experience and credentials as well as potential problems—from your perspective and the carpenter’s. This person is bringing machinery and sharp tools into your house, so you want a skilled and reasonable human, not someone who will create a plywood horror show. Afterward, check out references, licensure (if required in your area), insurance (they should carry general liability and worker’s comp coverage), and complaint history at local consumer agencies.
Like any contracting or household job, you’re likely to find huge price differences from one hammer-wielder to another. Lesson: Get multiple fixed-price bids. Also, don’t assume that there’s any relationship between price and quality. Many carpenters do great work at low prices. Also know that, much like general contractors, you can often get a better deal on interior work in colder months, when bad weather can prevent crews or individuals from doing exterior projects.
Pick your top choice; then get a formal contract. Good contracts cover everything from payment terms and deadlines to who does the work and warranties. Your contract should also specify what species and grade of lumber will be used in your project. For bookcases, cabinets, and other furnishings that will be stained, rather than painted, the carpenters should use “firsts” or “seconds” (longer, wider boards with few or no flaws); for other projects, lower grades might work just as well. And for exterior projects, get it in writing that only pressure-treated wood (which resists rot and insects) will be used.
Arrange to pay as little as possible until the work is finished and you are satisfied with it. Avoid carpenters who require large deposits or payment in advance. If your job requires a lot of materials, it’s reasonable to pay a deposit against these expenses. But paying for everything or almost everything at the end gives you max leverage in making sure the work is done properly.
Deal promptly with problems and, if necessary, ask for amended pricing. Understand that no one can anticipate every possibility. Essential materials may be unavailable; dry rot may be exposed, requiring more work than planned; outside work might be halted because of foul weather. If problems are encountered, work with your contractor to seek middle ground to reach a solution.