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How to Find a Good Contractor

After you check a contractor's recommendations and insurance, find out how much they know and what they really plan on doing with the help of these detailed technical questions.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Before you sign the contract...

Even if you’re an avid DIYer, you’ll eventually need a job done that’s just too big or complex to tackle by yourself. That’s when you hire a contractor. But how do you know you’re getting the best deal? Well, first, make sure you follow all the time-honored advice like asking friends and family to recommend a contractor, making sure you hire someone you’re comfortable with, and verifying that the contractor has been in business for a while and has liability and worker’s compensation insurance. Then when you meet with your contractors to discuss the job, you should ask these questions to be confident that you’re getting the most for your remodeling dollar.

Exterior paint

Painting the outside of a house is a big and often expensive job. The last thing you want is to face the project again in a few years when poorly applied paint starts to flake and peel. You can greatly improve the odds of getting a job that lasts 8 to 10 years by asking these questions before you hire a painter.

How do you plan to prepare the surface for painting?
I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, but proper preparation is the key to a long-lasting paint job. You can apply the best paint in the world but it won’t last if the surface is dirty or loose. Make sure your contractor is planning to wash the surface to remove dust, dirt and other contaminants, either by scrubbing or with a pressure washer. The next step should be scraping all loose paint followed by sanding and,finally, another wash or wipe-down to remove sanding dust.

Will you prime before caulking and painting?
Primers are absolutely necessary over bare wood and a good idea over old paint too. If there are layers of old paint with exposed edges, ask your painting contractor to use a binding primer on these areas. Binding primers form a flexible seal to help prevent old layers of paint from peeling off.

What areas are you planning to caulk?
Most paint failures start at edges where water can seep under the paint and loosen it. A thorough job of caulking solves this problem and extends the life of the paint job. Your painter should caulk cracks where the siding meets windows and doors, and any other cracks where water could enter. However, the painters we talked to advised against caulking the cracks under lap siding.

What kind of paint do you plan to use?
Good painters will use good paint, but they may not plan to use the best paint. Ask the painting contractor to include 100 percent acrylic exterior paint in the estimate. Even if you’re charged a little extra, you’ll save money in the long run.

Roofing

When it’s time to reroof, it pays to make sure the materials and workmanship are first rate. A poorly installed roof can cost you a fortune if it leaks or blows off in a storm. When you get bids from contractors, be sure they’re licensed, bonded and insured and can provide references from past customers. Then ask these questions:

Do you plan to tear off the old shingles and pull the nails?
When you’re comparing bids, ask if the roofing contractor recommends tearing off the old shingles. Removing the old roofing materials allows the roofing contractor to inspect the roof sheathing and repair rot or other damage, exposes problems with flashings, and provides a smooth surface that’s easier to waterproof and roof over.

How will you charge for extra work, like replacing rotted wood?
Regardless of how careful the contractor is to include all the necessary work in the bid, there are bound to be surprises. For example, it’s hard to know the condition of the roof sheathing until the shingles are removed, and at that point in the job you don’t have much bargaining power. That’s why it’s important to include in the contract an hourly rate for extra work, or a square-foot price for replacing the sheathing. If possible, plan to stay home on the day the roofers tear off the shingles so you can work with the contractor to establish an agreeable price for repairs.

Will you replace damaged or rusted flashing?
One of the most common roof leak sites is at the intersection of the roof and a wall, like the sides of a dormer. These areas are waterproofed with a series of overlapping pieces of sheet metal, approximately 8 in. square, that are bent to lap onto the wall. These step flashings are then covered with shingles on the roof side, and siding or another piece of flashing, called counterflashing, on the wall side. It’s always best to replace the step flashing. But in some cases, it’s difficult to remove step flashing from under the siding. Make sure your roofer is planning to inspect the step flashing and explain your options for replacing or repairing it.

Will you replace the roof vents and valley flashing?
It’s bad economy to try to save money by reusing roof vents, plumbing vent flashing or valley metal. Replacing all of these with new materials only adds a few hundred dollars to the cost of a typical roof, but ensures a leakproof job. For the best appearance, also ask the roofer to use metal that’s prefinished to match the color of the shingles.

Once you start, will you stay on the job until it’s done?
Less-reputable contractors may take your down payment, start the job, and then disappear for a few days to start other jobs. Make sure your contractor plans to stay until the job is done. And to ensure timely completion, don’t make the final payment until every detail is complete. Another common tactic is to subcontract the work to other crews. This isn’t necessarily bad, but make sure your contractor plans to inspect the job daily and keep tabs on the progress and quality of the work.

Asphalt driveways

Fly-by-night contractors are common in the asphalt industry, but there are ways to avoid them: First, don’t buy from door-knockers—reputable contractors seldom resort to this technique to get jobs. Then ask your contractor the following questions to get a long-lasting driveway and the most bang from your buck.

How are you planning to prepare the base for the asphalt? Just as for a concrete driveway, a well-compacted, stable base is essential for a long-lasting asphalt job. Ideally, soil containing organic material would be removed, as well as enough clay or other expansive soil, to allow the installation of a 6- to 8-in. base of compacted gravel. But this level of preparation may not be common in your area, especially if you don’t have severe freeze/thaw cycles. When you compare bids, pay close attention to how your contractor proposes to prepare the base, and choose the contractor who seems the most likely to do a job that will last.

How thick will the asphalt be once it’s compacted? In most areas of the country, a 2- to 3-in. layer of asphalt is sufficient if it’s installed over a stable base.

Will you slope the driveway to avoid standing water? Water pooling on or at the edges of an asphalt driveway can cause damage and shorten the life of the asphalt. Make sure your contractor plans to slope the driveway and surrounding area for good drainage.

How do you plan to finish the edges of the asphalt? A top-notch asphalt job includes beveling the edges at a 45-degree angle and packing the asphalt with a hand tamper for durability.

What equipment will you use to compact the driveway? Asphalt must be compacted with heavy equipment soon after it’s spread, while it’s still hot. Choose a contractor who has 1- to 3-ton rollers for compacting the asphalt.

Concrete driveways

A concrete driveway is a big investment that will last a long time if it’s done right. But choose your contractor carefully. Poorly installed concrete can crack, buckle and heave, leaving you wishing you’d spent a little extra up front for a first-class job.

How do you plan to prepare the base for the concrete?
The type of soil under your driveway determines how much preparation is needed before the concrete is poured. It’s important to find a contractor who’s familiar with the local soil conditions and can recommend a course of action. Typically the best base for a concrete driveway is a 4- to 6-in. layer of compacted gravel.

How thick will the finished concrete slab be?
While 4-in.-thick slabs are the norm, adding an inch of concrete is a great investment. The extra inch adds only 25 percent to the amount of concrete needed but increases the strength by about 50 percent.

What are the specifications of the concrete you intend to use?
In its most basic form, concrete is a mixture of cement, aggregates (sand and gravel) and water. The proportion of these ingredients helps determine the strength of the concrete. Engineers we spoke to recommend a 4,000-lb. mix (strength) for driveways. Adding fiber mesh to the concrete mix increases resistance to hairline cracks and is a good investment. In cold climates, order air-entrained concrete to help the concrete survive freeze/thaw cycles.

Do you plan to add rebar to reinforce the concrete?
For ultimate strength, concrete requires an embedded mesh of reinforcing steel. You can see this skeleton of steel being incorporated into every road and bridge project. So it only makes sense to add it to your driveway. Wire mesh doesn’t add much strength. Find a contractor who typically installs a grate of 3/8- or 1/2- in. reinforcing steel and you’ll be assured of the strongest slab money can buy. Typically the overlapping steel rods intersect to form 3- or 4-ft. squares.

How many control joints will you cut into the concrete?
Concrete driveways are going to crack. Control joints provide a weakened line that encourages the cracks to form where you won’t see them. For a 5-in.-thick slab, control joints should be added in a pattern of squares no larger than about 10 ft. The joints should be at least 1-1/4 in. deep to be effective. Some contractors use a tool to cut the joints while the concrete is wet. Others return to cut the joints with a saw after the concrete sets.

Will you provide a sketch showing the dimensions of the driveway?
To make sure you know what you’re getting and to prevent any misunderstandings, ask for a sketch of the proposed driveway showing all the dimensions and how it intersects with existing structures like the garage, house or street.

Will you apply curing compound after you finish the driveway?
Concrete needs to cure for about a week to approach full strength. During this time, evaporation of the water in the concrete has to be slowed to allow proper curing. Misting the slab or covering it with wet burlap or plastic sheeting are two methods of slowing evaporation. But applying a liquid, membrane-forming curing compound to just-finished concrete is better because it doesn’t require constant vigilance to succeed.

Gutters

“Seamless aluminum” gutters are the most common contractor-installed gutters. The quality of these installations can vary widely, so hire a contractor who’s been in business for several years and can show you examples of past work. Then ask these questions to be certain you’re getting the best-quality job.

How will you slope the gutters so they drain?
It may look nicer to have level gutters, but it’s better if they slope slightly downhill toward the downspouts. Just a little slope, about 1/16 in. per foot, is all that’s needed. Long gutter runs may require downspouts on each end and a gutter that slopes both directions from the center.

What size downspouts are you going to install?
Ask for oversized, 3 x 4-in. downspouts. They don’t cost much more but have the advantages of carrying more water and clogging less.

How thick is the metal on the gutters you’re planning to install?
There are two common thicknesses of aluminum used for gutters, .027 and .032 in. If you’re getting bids on aluminum gutters, make sure the contractor is planning to install the thicker, .032-gauge gutters.

Are you going to install new gutter apron?
Water running behind the gutters can stain or otherwise damage the fascia board and soffit. To avoid this problem, the gutter installer should install metal flashing, also called gutter apron. Gutter apron slips under the shingles and over the edge of the gutter to direct the water into the gutter.

How close together will the gutter hangers be spaced?
The contractor will attach the gutters to your house with screws through the back of the gutter, and then add gutter hangers to support the front edge. Since aluminum gutters will bend if they’re not well supported, it’s important to have plenty of hangers to reinforce the outside edge. Be sure your contractor is planning to install a hanger at least every 3 ft. In climates where snow and ice remain on the roof over the winter, ask for 2-ft. spacing.

Does your bid include downspout extensions?
One of the main purposes of gutters is to keep water from accumulating near the foundation. Adding horizontal extensions to the bottom of the downspouts helps move the water farther from the house. Usually the extensions are just another length of downspout material attached to an elbow at the house. But flip-up or roll-out versions are available for areas where downspout extensions might interfere with mowing or other activities.

Ceramic tile floor

Properly installed tile floors should last decades. But poorly installed floors will start to crack or fall apart in a matter of years, if not months. Here are some questions to ask your tile contractor to ensure a long-lasting job.

Do you plan to apply a grout sealer to protect the grout?
Grout sealers help keep grout clean and seal out water. Applying grout sealer is an easy job that you can do yourself. But when you’re comparing bids, it’s good to know whether it’s included.

How are you planning to deal with transitions to other flooring?
A well-planned and attractive transition is the mark of a top-quality tile job. Adding an adequate base often raises the floor level and creates a height difference at transition areas. In many situations, marble or solid surface thresholds make attractive transitions to other floors. Ask tile contractors how much height difference there will be between transition areas and how they plan to deal with it.

Will you use latex mastic or thin-set adhesive to install the tile?
According to experts at the Tile Council of North America, thin-set adhesive is superior to mastic for setting floor tile. Thin-set provides solid support when it sets, and can bridge slight variations in the subfloor. Be sure your contractor is planning to use thin-set to adhere your floor tile.

What material do you plan to install as a base for the tile?
A tile job is only as good as the substrate it’s on. The base has to be stiff and flat. Tile can be adhered directly to sound, crack-free concrete. Ask your contractor to install an isolation membrane if there are cracks in the concrete. Even though they’ll be covered by backer board or a mortar base, wood floors have to be stiff, with at least 3/4 in. of solid wood or plywood over properly spaced floor joists. Ask your contractor to inspect the floor for sponginess and strength and recommend reinforcements if needed. If the floor is flat, sheets of tile backer installed in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation will be fine. Over uneven wood floors, a traditional mortar or modern self-leveling mortar base is a better option.

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