I am a great believer in “do it yourself” approaches to fixing up properties, but I also feel it is important to hire out what you can’t or don’t want to do. If you find yourself having to hire a contractor, keep in mind the following guidelines as you make your choice.

You should always get at least three estimates on your project. Statistics show that if you get three estimates, on average there is about a 20% difference between the highest and lowest bid. It also allows you to talk with contractors so you can get a feel for how well you got along with them. When I have met with the contractors, I usually feel better about one of the candidates than the other two, and then I will take the lowest estimate of the three to the contractor I felt best about working with and ask them if they will meet or beat the estimate. Most contractors advertise that they will meet any professional estimate. This is how I manage to get discounts on hiring out work.

Keep in mind that getting free estimates takes up a contractor’s time, so if you are not ready to start a project yet, wait until you are serious about the job before asking them to show up. If you just want to get an idea of how much something would cost for future reference, call the material suppliers for what you want done and ask what the average going rates are. Example: If you are thinking of getting some siding replaced, look in the yellow pages for companies that sell siding and ask them what the average going rate per linear foot is for siding replacement. This will give you a ballpark price.

I always ask for five references from each of the contractors that are giving me a price. Obviously, three are from people that they have done work for, but number four should be from their material supplier. I want to ask them about the contractor. I ask them how long the contractor has been a customer. Also, if they would recommend the contractor, and has anyone ever complained to them about the contractor. The fifth reference is a customer that needed them to come back to the job to fix something. If they say “we have never had to go back for a problem”, that’s probably untrue. There are many reasons to have to return to a job, and admitting that they did is a good thing. We want to know from the customer that the contractor stood by his work and came back in a reasonable amount of time and with no attitude about making the job right.

It is important to make sure that you give the same information to each bidder as to what you want to be done. In the business, this is called a “scope of work”. This defines exactly what you want to be done, such as “paint all exterior surfaces with two coats of Sherwin Williams Super Paint”. All shrubs and hardware to be covered. All glass to be masked from overspray. Shingles to be covered from paint mist. All windows and doors to be painted with two coats semi-gloss latex, etc. This insures that your estimates are “comparing apples to apples”. Everyone bids on the exact same set of details, instead of what each individual contractor wants to do. Always obtain written estimates from each and every bidder. You never want to enter into a verbal contract. It is always best to have agreements in writing and every time you add something to be done, use a form called a “change order”. This is agreeing to pay additional money for additional work.

Some areas of the country require that contractors be licensed or registered. You should check what the industry standard is for your area. If your area requires a license, contracts signed by unlicensed or unregistered contractors are unenforceable. Also in these areas, they may require contractors to carry general liability and/or workers compensation insurance. You can call you local insurance agency and ask them what the state requirements are. When you ask for a copy of the insurance letter, don’t accept one from the contractor, call the agency that the contractor says insures them and have them send you a letter of insurance. This way you can be assured that the insurance is current and paid up.

Following the format of this article will help you when you need to hire a contractor. Keep in mind the most important things are making sure you have a written contract that spells out the work to be done, Specify the quality of materials to be used, agree upon the price of the contract as well as how the contract is to be paid and in what kind of money installments, and that if you are requiring license and insurance, all paperwork is in order.