Embarking on any home improvement project can be intimidating — and even nerve-wracking. Many projects require a significant investment of time and money, and they can also impact your personal space.
Finding a contractor you trust is essential, but with so much information available to us today, where and how should you start?
Experts agree: Word-of-mouth recommendations and personal referrals are often a great option.
“The first thing I always tell people is to ask friends, family members, neighbors and people who might have had work done — people they trust and have personal relationships with,” says Gabriel Kienzle, president of Reimagine LLC, a general contractor based in Lancaster. “I usually tell people to start there. On the residential side of our business, we get 90% of our work from word-of-mouth.”
Stephen Zywko, project manager and co-owner of Compleat Restorations, with locations in Ephrata and York, agrees.
“Somebody who’s had a personal experience with a contractor is generally the way to go,” Zywko says.
“Usually (people will) find that they have at least one friend or somebody that’s recently had (home improvement work) done,” Kienzle says. “If they completely come up short there, obviously you can do online searches for your local contractors, but that’s a little bit more of a daunting task. So we really suggest going the word-of-mouth route first.”
And while an internet search can offer a plethora of helpful information, Zywko cautions against trusting reviews or Google results without some due diligence on the customer’s part.
“You can spend an arm and a leg for (search engine optimization) and to get yourself boosted to get to the first page,” Zywko says, referring to the methods a business can use to make their website more prominent in search engine results.
However, he says he finds some of those methods to be disingenuous.
“Oftentimes, the people who don’t have an online presence are some of the best contractors,” Zywko says.
How can you know that you found the right contractor for your project? Here are a few things to look for:
Transparency and open communication are key, Kienzle and Zywko say. Budgets and timelines should be laid out early on, and any changes along the road should be communicated in a timely and honest manner.
A lack of transparency in your project’s timeline and costs, as well as a general lack of responsiveness, can be a red flag.
“It’s a green flag to be communicative and responsive, even if it’s not with the best of news,” Zywko says. “Nobody likes to make a bad news phone call, but it goes a long way just to tell somebody, ‘Hey, we’re experiencing some extended lead times with this product, and unfortunately, there might not be anything we can do about it , but here’s the updated schedule.’
“As long as you can upfront and establish those expectations on the front end, it really allows for a much smoother process all the way through,” he says.
Kienzle suggests asking for photos of a contractor’s work — and not just the final project, but throughout the renovation process.
“For every project, we try to take a lot of photos along the way just to document it, but also because once it’s done, you kind of forget how much went into it,” Kienzle says. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, so I always like to be able to show that to potential customers.
“As long as the contractor’s very open about everything that’s going to go into it, it helps eliminate any surprises,” he says.
Along with photos from previous projects, Kienzle also suggests asking for references and speaking with former clients to assuage any anxieties when hiring a contractor.
It’s also important to confirm that the contractor you’re hiring is properly insured and holds any required licenses.
At the state-level, the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, which took effect in 2009, requires most home improvement contractors to register with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s official website.
The law requires that contractors maintain minimum insurance coverage and use contracts that “comply with a number of consumer protection requirements.”
“You want to make sure that your contractor is reputable, has some time established in the business,” Zywko says. “Oftentimes, insurance kind of goes along with that. This is somebody who’s looking to do this for the long haul. They’re protecting themselves, they’re protecting their clients, they’re holding both general liability and workers’ comp insurance, if they have any employees
“You can request a certificate of insurance to verify that your contractor is not just a fly-by-night person,” Zywko says. “That they’re somebody that’s established in a community, that’s worried about their reputation and stands behind their work.”
Know your rights
The Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act outlines additional requirements, including the need for a signed contract for projects over $500 that includes start and completion dates, details of the work, costs and the consumer’s right to cancel the contract. There are also limits to down payments and deposits for projects over $5,000. For more details, visit the “resources” tab at attorneygeneral.gov.
Know your options
And if you run into significant issues during your project that simply cannot be handled directly with your contractor?
“At that point, you can involve your local municipality, wherever the permits are pulled,” Kienzle says. “If it’s work that’s permitted, and you go to the city or your township, and say, ‘Hey, this contractor pulled this permit, but they’re not performing,’ the city or the municipality wants to be sure that the work is going to be done to code and inspected and everything. So they’ll have your back.”