Research A Remodeling Contractor Carefully or You Could get Burned

Contact: Erik Martin or Lynn Walsh
Walsh Communications, LLC

Research a remodeling contractor carefully or you could get burned

Life, they say, is full of hard lessons to be learned by those who get burned, as echoed in the axioms drilled into us by our elders. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" comes to mind. "You get what you pay for" is another. And let's not forget the oft-used "leave no stone unturned." While they may sound cliché, they're all words worth remembering when it's time to make one of the most important hiring decisions of your life: the contractor you pick to remodel your home.

Indeed, if you're considering a major investment like a kitchen re-do, room addition or bathroom renovation, it's crucial to research candidates scrupulously. The goal is to enlist an experienced, qualified and reputable professional who will not only complete the contract as specified--on time and on budget--but who makes you feel comfortable and reassured. After all, this person and his crew will be spending a significant amount of time in your home.

"This is an important decision that shouldn't be based solely or primarily on price," said Mimi Altman, executive director of the Des Plaines-based Greater Chicagoland Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). "There are many important criterion you should consider and questions to ask before signing a contract."

Before you can perform the necessary due diligence and narrow down the ideal choice, however, you need to round up a few prospects. It's often best to ask friends, neighbors and building trade professionals you trust for recommended referrals. While you can try searching from scratch on the Internet or in business directories or newspaper ads, be careful: Don't be swayed solely by a fancy Web page, newspaper coupon or Yellow Pages listing. You can also try contacting your local Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau or a trade organization for a recommendation (you can access a list of NARI members located throughout Chicagoland by visiting 

After you've gathered the names of a few candidates, phone each for an initial screening and ask: how long have they been in business, what is their current backlog of work, is there a fee for the initial consultation, are they fully insured, and do they provide design work (if needed)? If you're satisfied with their answers, make an appointment for an initial consultation--to take place in your home.

Before meeting, determine the rough budget you can afford for the project. Make note of any requirements and preferences you have, gather any design ideas you're pondering and check with your local building department to learn what permits or approvals are required and if they have worked with the firm(s) you plan to interview.

"At that first visit, you want to gauge your comfort level with this person and aim for establishing a rapport built on good two-way communication," said Mike Dew, certified remodeler (CR), certified kitchen and bath remodeler (CKBR) and vice president, Oak Tree Construction Services, Inc. (, based in Schaumburg. "You should be able to tell within the first few minutes what it would be like to work with this person. Are they a good listener? Did they answer your questions satisfactorily and also ask you plenty of questions about the project so they can get a better feel? Did they suggest good ideas and helpful options or alternatives? Trust your instincts here."

Before agreeing to work together, Altman said the contractor should provide you with: 

  • Proof of adequate worker's compensation and general liability insurance coverage for himself and any workers he hires.
  • The names and phone numbers of at least three recent remodeling customers you can contact--preferably customers whose jobs were similar to your project.
  • Proper identification which indicates a permanent place of business and business phone number.
  • Reassurance of financial stability--ask the remodeler for bank, trade and supplier references, and contact these parties to inquire about the contractor's financial solvency.
  • A written contract proposal, given to you within a few weeks of your initial meeting, that spells out the scope of the project, the expected start/stop dates, exactly what labor and materials are included and not included, the names of subcontractors who will be used, any special permits required, payment arrangements, and notice of a three-day right to cancel the contract (required, per Illinois law).
  • A warranty, expressed in the written contract, of the contractor's workmanship and the materials used for at least one year from the job completion date. 
  • A realistic price--be suspicious of any figure that appears too low or too high; also, avoid paying a large deposit (a 10% to 20% deposit up front is typical, but may be more if a significant amount of custom-made materials are involved) or paying in cash only.

"If the contractor made a favorable impression, take the time to phone the client references and ask plenty of questions," Dew said. 

For example, find out: what was the scope of the project, was the job completed on time, on budget and according to the terms of the contract, did the contractor and crew treat your property with respect and leave the job site neat and tidy by the end of each day, were you comfortable having the crew in your home, were you satisfied with the completed project, and would you hire this remodeler again?

"This is one of the biggest investments you'll probably ever make, and you want to be able to sleep at night knowing that you chose wisely. So it's worth the time and effort to research the remodeler carefully and scrutinize the contract fully," said Altman. "Above all, expect professionalism--don't settle for anything less." 

Based in Des Plaines, The Greater Chicagoland Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) is a not-for-profit trade association founded in 1987 and currently consisting of approximately 280 member companies. NARI Chicago is committed exclusively to the service of the local professional remodeling industry, representing professional remodeling contractors, product manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, trade and consumer publications, utilities and lending institutions.