Some homeowners leave contractor vetting and selection to their architects or house designers, but most make the call themselves, and rightly so: It’s the most important step.

Collect recommendations

Here at Checkbook.org you’ll find customer reviews from local consumers. Some companies earned recommendations from all or almost all of their surveyed customers, but many elicit red flags. Frequent complaints include poor communication, inferior workmanship, inattentive project management, and an aversion to cleaning up. The two most common beefs: They didn’t follow the plan; and they didn’t keep the job on schedule.

Also seek recommendations from architects, home designers, and real estate agents. Ask friends who have completed similar projects for feedback on their contractors.

Check references

In addition to reviewing ratings and asking friends for recommendations, ask prospective contractors for contact info for clients whose projects were similar to yours or who live in your neighborhood. Get info for past customers and for those with projects currently underway. Recent or current customers will have fresh memories and be able to provide details on the day-to-day process; past customers will be able to tell you, and show you, how the work has held up.

Go beyond simple questions like, “How did things go?” Instead, ask specific questions about each company’s performance, including:

  • If they provided planning help, did the company’s designers listen, were they thoughtful, and did they problem-solve?
  • Did the company help find low-cost solutions?
  • Did the company follow the plan? Did they deliver what they agreed to build at the quoted price?
  • How well did the contractor respond when problems arose?
  • Was the company flexible, and did it charge reasonable fees if you changed your mind about something?
  • Was work completed promptly? Was work continuous?
  • What on-the-job problems routinely arose?
  • Were workers personable and communicative? Were they adequately supervised?
  • Did workers clean up after each day on the job? Did they minimize disruption to daily life?
  • Did the company work smoothly with subcontractors and suppliers?
  • Are the results as professional and attractive as you would expect?
  • Has the work held up, or did it fall apart too soon? If items failed prematurely, did the company fix them without hassle?

Hold get-to-know-you meetings

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a handful of possibilities, schedule an in-home consultation with each. Try to meet the person who will actually manage the project day-to-day. Get a sense of what it would be like to work closely with this person. Are his or her answers to questions easy to understand? Does he or she listen to you? Do you sense an interest in solving your problems and delivering what you want?

Walk around your home and share your goals. If you have a finished design drawing, review it. If not, explain what you want—for example, that you want to completely redo the kitchen, rather than only replace cabinets and countertops.

Ask for first impressions of your project and, if you’re still unsure of some decisions, what the contractor thinks will work best. Do you get thoughtful ideas and answers? Does the contractor care about costs consequences?

Discuss potential complications. Share what you know (i.e., the plumbing backs up from time to time; floors are uneven; a fire or flood caused previous damage), and ask the contractor to identify possible problem areas. Good contractors can spot trouble early on—for example, which walls can and can’t easily come down or that local rules might hinder your grand plan for an addition.

Ask about scheduling. How soon can the contractor start and finish? If you’re redoing a kitchen, how long will you have to live without it? If water will be cut off completely, for how long?

Discuss the remodeler’s credentials and experience. How long has the company done this kind of work, and how long have key employees, like lead carpenters, been on the job? Some contractors insist on buying all or most of the finish products. If you live in a house with defined architectural or structural features, has the contractor worked in similar environments with similar building materials? If you want to add a second story, has the company done pop-ups before? Can the company cite examples in which it has solved problems creatively?

Ask who will do the work. Some remodelers use subcontractors for nearly every aspect of the job; others do most of the work themselves. Make sure that topnotch tradespeople will handle each part of the project. You can look up ratings of subcontractors here at Checkbook.org, but keep in mind that some subs work only for contractors and not consumers; if so, they probably won’t be reviewed.

Check for complaints

Companies obviously won’t supply a list of references of folks who had lousy experiences. By checking for formal complaints with a consumer agency you might spot a history of poor service.

Search the website of the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB) for complaints against companies you're considering. Also search for complaints with the Better Business Bureau at BBB.org.

Check licensure

Companies operating in California that charge $500 or more for home improvement work are required to have licenses.

By choosing a licensed contractor, the threat of reporting problems to licensing authorities represents one form of leverage for resolving disputes. And because you have taken care to choose a licensed contractor, authorities might feel you deserve their help. Perhaps most important, if you use unlicensed contractors, you become your own de facto general contractor and are responsible for correcting defective work uncovered by inspections—and possibly responsible for injuries suffered on the jobsite.

Ask any contractor you are seriously considering for proof of a valid license; then verify by checking the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) website.

Check insurance

Any company performing work in your home should carry two types of insurance: liability and workers’ compensation. The former compensates you if equipment crashes through your roof; the latter covers workers injured in the crash.

Check for lawsuits

A simple internet search likely will turn up any lawsuits filed against a company.

Check credit references

Ask for contact info for two or three companies that supply building materials, and then check with each. Deal only with contractors that have solid credit and pay their bills promptly.

Check subcontractors

Tell general contractors that, if required by law for their trade, all subcontractors need to be licensed; once you’ve selected a company, ask it to supply insurance certificates for all subcontractors.

Our ratings of various home improvement outfits might help you evaluate subcontractors—our reports include reviews of roofers, plumbers, electricians, cabinet and countertop suppliers, flooring contractors, carpet installers, carpenters, masons, siding installers, and many more. But note that many subcontractors hired by remodeling outfits don’t work directly for homeowners, which means we likely won’t have ratings for them. Ask remodeling outfits that rely on subcontractors if you can make your own suggestions; some are okay with these types of arrangements, while others will strongly prefer maintaining their usual arrangements.

Get detailed proposals and prices

Once you've narrowed down your pool of contractor candidates to three or four outfits it's time to ask each to submit proposals and prices. Click here for our advice on how to do that.