One of the most sought-after, yet least used, commodities available to home improvement customers is the reference. Contractors love to collect them and customers love to ask for them. But for some reason, no one ever actually calls them. As a customer, you must call them. You have to drop everything you're doing, cancel your doctor's appointment, skip your son's soccer game and call the references provided by your contractor. At minimum, you hold a list of the happiest people he has worked with, so he probably won’t treat you better than anyone on this list. You owe it to yourself to get a best case scenario baseline.
And of course the answer is yes, contractors will cherry-pick the references they give you, that's just common sense. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get an honest critique of the experience. The key is to ask the right questions. Naturally you want to ask what the project was, were they happy with the end result and so on. But here are a few less obvious questions you should ask:
- Did you ever have trouble reaching him via phone?
- Did they work exclusively on your project or did they pull off for a few days? If so why?
- How did they leave the site at the end of the day?
- What time did they start and finish each day?
- Have they done work for any of your family or friends as well?
The last one is big. If you find a contractor who gets work within someone’s close friends and family network you may have a winner; however, keep in mind that a “no” isn’t necessarily a negative. Perhaps their parents live in a condo and they have no friends.
And for those of you using a contractor matching service such as ServiceMagic.com or ReliableRemodeler.com, you still need to check references. "Our contractors are prescreened" has nothing to do with quality of work; it means at the time the contractor signed up with the service they were licensed, insured, had a working phone, et cetera: all important factors which should not be overlooked, but not relevant to performance.
With that in mind, you should also perform your own basic background check. The big four include the Better Business Bureau for filed complaints, the MHIC to verify licensing, the Maryland Judiciary for judgments and liens; and the National Sex Offender Registry. It should take five to ten minutes to check all four, and if you add ten minutes for each of the three references (typically), your total time investment is 40 minutes. You undoubtedly spent more time than that selecting the carpet color, so don’t get lazy down the stretch. There are plenty of reputable contractors out there, and if you take the right steps now, you might just ensure that you hire one.