When you're ready to take on a renovation to your home, smart people hire a contractor. People who watch a lot of local news view the very idea of this with great fear and loathing, but it needn't be a nightmare if you use your head. Local news stations love a "bad contractor" story, probably because the people at the station are as petrified by the process as their viewers are. Just relax. As with just about everything else in life, do your homework and ask a lot of questions. Don't pretend to know what you're talking about if you don't. Be honest and straightforward and trust your gut. Get references and follow up with them.
Here are a couple of dos and don'ts. This is by no means a complete list, but it's a good place to start.
1. Do consider your contractor's personality. This person will be in your home each day, so it's vital that you feel comfortable talking to him or her. A contractor who listens to you is the contractor you want. Someone you can't talk to is someone who's not going to be able to provide you with the finished result you want.
2. Don't be an absentee homeowner. Don't expect everything to fall into place automatically. Your approval is the most important part of a job. Stay in communication daily by phone and do a walk through with your contractor regularly.
3. Don't let anyone start working until you have a signed contract. A good contract should cover the following: start and finish dates, total cost (include how changes will be handled), a payment schedule, names of all parties, contractor's license number, proof of insurance, description of project, and provisions for early termination. If necessary, consult a lawyer.
4. Don't micromanage the crew. Instead, schedule regular meetings to discuss and review the progress of your job.
5. Don't pick the lowest bid. If something seems too low, chances are that it is. No one works for free. You don't and neither should your contractor.
6. Do keep a list of who's been in your home. Record in a notebook the contact information for each person who's worked on your job.
7. Don't dance around what you have to spend, especially if money is tight. Everything should be in the contract. It is perfectly OK to say to a contractor, "I have $50,000 (or $30,000, or God help you $10,000) to renovate my kitchen, what will that get me if you do this job?"
8. Do demand proof of insurance and a valid license. Verify the status of both of these on the website of your local builder's association. Anyone working on your home must have liability and worker's comp insurance. Remember that you're liable if you hire an uninsured contractor and one of his crew is injured in your home.
9. Don't rely on your imagination. Demand to see color swatches and paint chips for finishes before you order materials.
10. Do nominate a decision maker. The easiest way to prevent "he said, she said" is to appoint one household member to deal directly with the contractor and to update everyone else.
If you're unsure, don't do anything. It is better to put off a renovation than to rush into a contract if you aren't comfortable and sure.