Syllabus / Professionals 101
How to find a great contractor in NYC
Whether you’re looking to do a straightforward kitchen remodel or a baseboard-to-ceiling renovation of your NYC home, your satisfaction and sanity will be directly correlated to your ability to hire a skilled, reliable and honest contractor.
It’s a common mistake to assume that ‘licensed and insured’ means something important, but actually it’s nothing more than a minimum entry-level requirement, much like an athlete needs lungs. And while reference checks can provide a sense of a contractor’s skill and their history of delivering a project on time and on budget, it’s extremely difficult to assess the actual health of a contractor’s business. If one client doesn’t pay on time or the business they anticipated doesn’t materialize, they go under—bringing projects to a complete halt and taking your deposit with them.
Below are some tips for finding a contractor whose business is healthy and whose work is high quality:
Word of mouth
Ask for references from friends, family, and co-workers who’ve had similar work done. Learn about the successes, pain points and failures of their own projects. But keep in mind that even if your contractor is endorsed by a friend whose own project was a success, that doesn’t guarantee the same will be the case for you, even if your project sounds similar.
Maybe your apartment is on the 10th floor of a high-end building with restrictive renovation rules and a $10 million insurance requirement, while your friend’s was on the ground floor of a so-so building where access is easier and the insurance requirement is only $2 million. Your job will almost certainly be more difficult to deliver and cost more.
Or, perhaps, at the time of your friend’s project, the contractor was doing great and the business was going well, but they have recently gotten a divorce, been forced to pay a huge fine, or lost a key subcontractor. Before you know it, halfway through a project you have a bankruptcy. (Read about how this happened to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist—who lost $140,000 as a result.)
Do some online sleuthing
Reviews on sites like Angie’s List, and in the discussion forums of local real estate sites such as Brownstoner and StreetEasy, can give you a window onto other people’s experiences with specific contractors.
When you read reviews, look for contractors that are familiar with homes like yours: if you live in a historic brownstone, but the professionals you’re considering seem to primarily work in modern condos, they’re probably not the best match for your needs.
Take reviews with a grain of salt: even with extensive online research, it’s hard to tell if a contractor is good quality, legit, and properly vetted, and reviews tend to be limited in what they reveal about the underlying value of an individual’s work.
If you do encounter criticism of a contractor, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write them off. If the contractor otherwise seems like a great match, ask them about what happened on the previous job.
Start by checking references of past clients—but don’t stop there
Begin by reaching out to at least two references who are past clients—including, if possible, someone the contractor didn’t tell you about to get a balanced picture. It’s not an easy task, but if you’re spending significant sums of money, it’s worth it.
Ask general questions about their level of satisfaction with the renovation and whether they’d hire the contractor again, but get more specific, too: Was the project finished on time? Were there any mix-ups, miscommunications, or unexpected charges? Did the clients visit the construction site, and were they happy with how it was being managed?
Next, speak to the architects and sub-contractors with whom the contractor collaborated to find out if they were easy to work with, and if they paid on time. This step—almost always overlooked by renovators--will give you a good sense of a contractor’s temperament, character and dependability. It’s also a good idea to ask a material supplier if the contractor’s credit is good.
The reason you are checking on their payment history is to determine the likelihood of financial issues- most notably liens being placed on your home – during or after your project.
Look beyond the bottom line of the bid—and don’t forget about insurance
Inadequate accounting, management, and estimation practices often lead to contractor failure—so if you don’t receive a clear, detailed bid in a timely manner, you should question whether the contractor is maintaining a healthy business.
Also check that a contractor has the right insurance coverage for the kind of work they’ll be doing on your project. While anyone can claim to have general liability insurance, that doesn’t guarantee it is valid, up-to-date, and sufficient.
It’s quite common for contractors to be covered as carpenters, but if they go on site as a general contractor and there’s damage to the home, the insurer won’t cover it and the owner foots the bill.