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How Do I Select A Home Improvement Contractor?

Wednesday, January 30th, 2019 by Francis Heneghan


HOW DO I CHOOSE A HOME IMPROVEMENT CONTRACTOR?

By Francis J. Heneghan - Connecticut Gutter, LLC 

This is a great question! And one that gets asked again and again.  You often see your friends asking for referrals on social media: "Got a gutter guy??".  And folks are often so quick to offer up suggestions.  Sure, "referrals" are great but should your vetting stop there?  Is there a formula or a series of steps one should take when they are considering who to actually hire?  Is Annmarie (Joey's Mom) from your kid's school's PTA group a viable source and would you act on that information alone to make such a critical decision? Let me give you my perspective...

I have been working in the home improvement field for 27 years, and in all that time I have seen the good, the bad and the very ugly.  I have been the sub-contractor working under the general contractor that was mismanaging the job so much so that the homeowner came crying to me to vent, explaining what a terrible mistake they had made hiring the general contractor.  I have also been the contractor hired to come in and clean up some other sloppy contractors' failed attempt at executing the work.  With that, I on occasion had to endure newfound scrutiny by the client, and even in many cases unfairly been the scapegoat, suffering the client's' anger and frustration in having been "burned" by the contractor before me.   

The good news is there are some simple but powerful steps you can quickly take to vet your contractor's.  I would venture to guess that if you had 3 estimates, and then you followed these simple guidelines strictly, 2 of the 3 contractors would be eliminated.  And we aren't even talking about scrutinizing the quoted price! Scary, right?! I will highlight them here for you now:

1) INSURANCE:

Asking for the contractor's certificate of insurance (COI) sounds basic, doesn't it?  But do you actually do it?  Do you follow up and make it a stipulation in your awarding the job?  And if you do and you get the COI in hand, do you even know what you are looking at?  Knowing how to read the COI is VERY important.  Lets give you a crash course now on what to look for on the form:

  • Make sure the company name listed in the top/left-hand corner of the form in the box titled "Insured" is the exact name of the company who you hired.  It should also match identically to the business name on your contract (how to interpret a contract is the topic of another blog).
  • In the "Coverages" section, you want to see a black "X" checked in 3 areas.  "Commercial General Liability", "Automobile Liability" and "Workers Compensation Liability".  If any of these policies are missing from the COI, ask why.  If the contractor tells you they have coverage, but its listed on a separate COI or with a different insurance agent, then great!  They can provide those COIs for you too and ask them to do so.  You want to make sure that contractor and the work he produces is insured, the vehicle(s) he pulls up in are insured and all laborers on the job are protected in case of accident. 
  • Next, make sure there is a policy number shown in the noted column in that "Coverages" grid.  No policy number should assume there is no policy.  I have seen this time and again where contractors get a hold of an old form or doctor a form, and there is no policy number listed.  If there are any notations in lieu of policy number (an insurance company name, something saying "temporary", etc) question it. When in doubt, call the insurance agent (shown in the "Producer" box at the top/left) and ask if the coverages are indeed intact.
  • Next, closely look at each policy "effective" (start) and "expiration" (end) date.  If the work they will be performing will fall outside of these date ranges, they are NOT insured.  Ask the contractor for clarity here. 
  • Be certain the contractor has a "Workers Compensation" policy. Many contractors will show proof of General Liability but not Worker's Compensation.  This means they are not insuring their staff on the job.  Should someone become injured, YOU and your homeowner's insurance policy will be attacked to cover that injured employee's medical expenses.  You will be sued.
  • For policy "limits" (column in the grid on the far right side), you should look for $1MM for each occurrence and $5K per person on medical expenses, all under the General Liability policy.  Look for $1MM in combined single limit per accident for the Auto policy.  And look for $1MM per accident for the Workers Compensation policy.  It's strange when we see contractors reduce coverages here to save a few dollars.  It makes you wonder what corners they will cut to save a few dollars on your home.    
  • Last, at the very bottom/left-hand of the form, make sure you AND your proper address are listed in that box as "Certificate Holder".  This identifies you as additional insured.  Many contractors will try and pass you a COI with that box left blank.  That is not good enough.  You need to be listed as additional insured.  Make sure your name is spelled correctly and that your address is correct in its entirety.

I want to add one last thing about insurance.  Be mindful of how long it takes the contractor to produce the COI for you.  A successful/busy contractor will be producing COIs every business day for customers.  They will know what you are asking for when you ask for it, and they will have the ability to produce the COI with you listed as additional insured in rapid fashion.  Our insurance agent and his firm are great, and literally will spin up a COI within 10 minutes of a request, and then email a copy to both my staff AND my client on my behalf, if I so desire (I usually prefer it that way).  If the contractor drags his feet, tells you he/she is still waiting on it, says its coming in the mail or seems generally confused, STAY AWAY.  This contractor clearly does not carry enough insurance to know enough about it to properly educate and satisfy his clients' needs for a COI.  

2) UNBIASED REVIEWS:

Do not even bother asking your contractor prospect for references.  They will only connect you with people (plants) who only have good things to say or give you written reviews that of course paint them in a good light.  Instead, you should be sourcing unbiased reviews on your own.  The internet is fantastic for this these days.  See if the client has a "Google My Business" profile, a Facebook page or a HomeAdvisor profile.  Don't bother with "reviews" on their own company website.  You already know they'll all be positive reviews.  Google and Facebook reviews cannot be deleted by the contractor.  They also both have a 5-star rating system that keep a running average of all (1 to 5 star) reviews so that you can see their "score" at a glance. Do not be alarmed by "1-star" ratings for that contractor you like if they have an overall great score (4 stars or better).  There are always the customers that no one can please, that get off on posting 1-star reviews.  They likely have done it for your favorite restaurant too.  (Go Google your favorite, most consistently quality restaurant and read the reviews to see what I mean).  With contractor shopping, be sure to read those low-scoring reviews however, to see what the grievance was about.  For an overall well-scoring contractor, a random 1-star review is usually unwarranted or comes with a highly dramatic explanation by the scorned customer.  Take that with a grain of salt.  Here are a few things to look for with reviews:

STAY AWAY FROM...

  • A low star score.  I recommend staying away from contractors with anything below a 4-star rating.  There are great businesses out there.  Why sell yourself and your family short?
  • Too few reviews.  Is the contractor new to the industry?  Do they have experience?
  • No reviews.  If you cannot find the contractor anywhere on the internet aside from their own website, then there is a problem.  They are untested and I would stay far away.  For that matter, do they even have a website?  Some contractors have zero footprint, and as a consumer that should be extremely alarming.  You want to know who you are doing business with.

GRAVITATE TO....

  • A high star rating ALONG WITH a lot of reviews in relation to other contractors with the same specialty.  That said, a 5-star rating with only one review is relatively inconclusive.  However, a 4-star average with over 100 reviews is excellent!  Services like Google Maps business listings are relatively new so most companies have not yet accumulated many reviews if any at all.  Here is a link to our business, as an example:

If you looked at our Google Business profile, while we have 15 reviews, it's a perfect 5-star average.  On HomeAdvisor however, we have amassed over 120 reviews with an average of 4.6 stars.  A few other competitors boast 2 or 3 Google reviews.

  • Contractors that have a "streak" of great reviews.  You want to make sure the contractor is trending in the right direction.  He should be pleasing everyone lately. 

3) FINDING SOMEONE WHO WORKS LOCAL:

This sounds like an obvious strategy but with the internet, you can easily compile a list of contractors who can do the job, but are they local?  And what is "local"? I would recommend sticking with a firm that need not travel more than 30 miles to get to you, unless you know you live in the woods and you have little to no local options.  The reason for this is CT traffic is brutal and car accidents happen every day that can hinder the contractor in his travels.  If they are close, they are much more inclined to schedule your project sooner, finish faster and spend more time at your house and on the project.  Contractors with long commutes or that have to battle rush hour will cut corners to save time and leave earlier that normal to make it home for dinner.  This doesn't mean you cannot find a golden contractor that may have to drive to you, but it takes a special team to pull it off seamlessly.

4) OBSERVE PHOTOS AND VIDEOS OF THEIR WORK:

Again, this sounds obvious but there are a few reasons you should ask for photos and videos.  The easy reason for this is to see work comparable to what you are shopping for.  Maybe they've installed the same system you want, in the same color. Maybe they have worked on your style of home as well, and by seeing photo evidence of their work, you can visualize how it would look on your home.  There is another reason why I suggest asking for photos and videos.  Contractors should be proud of their work and should be documenting it.  They should be organized and presentable.  This all plays into how they will be when working on your home.  Will they be proud of what they are doing there?  Will they keep their tools, equipment and project materials organized?  If they really have nothing to show you in the way of past work examples and are selling you based on sketches on a bar napkin, you need to take a few steps back.

And that is it on this subject. I am going to leave you with just these 4 tips!  I could pontificate forever, but I think a handful of strong strategies on how to vet your list of prospects will keep the process simple and believe it or not, limit and whittle down that list of prospects quick.  

Feel free to call or email any time for advice!

Francis J. Heneghan

Connecticut Gutter, LLC

[email protected]

1-203-878-2411

 

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