A general contractor can leave you with “nightmare stories” if you’re not careful, and most of you know what I’m talking about, or have heard stories from a friend, with respect to home improvements -- homeowners get overcharged, projects take way too long to finish or just plain incompetence leads to shoddy work. But if a major remodeling project needs to be done and you’re not a Do-It-Yourself-er, a general contractor is the person you will need to seek.

Here are my 5 tips in what to look for when hiring a general contractor:

1. Get Referrals/ Reviews/ Photos for your General Contractor .

First of all, I recommend meeting with at least 2 contractors. Not only is it important to see if personalities are a good fit, it’s a good idea to get a couple of bids and compare quotes. If one estimate comes in much higher than the other, examine why.

Is it because of the contractor’s level of expertise?

Does the more expensive quote include fees for permits (a possible necessary expense -- see below)?

Cheaper isn’t always better, but the same could be said for the most expensive. If the contractor comes to you by way of personal referral, that’s a plus. Ask that referral questions about their experience and the type of work they had done. You should also look at reviews and photo examples of previous jobs. If you need a kitchen remodel and the general contractor has 10 great reviews on window installation and no reviews on kitchen remodeling, he/she may not be the best fit for the job.

Granted, everyone has to start somewhere. But the pro should at least have experience and photos to show of work similar to what you are looking to have done -- in this example, previous experience with bathroom remodeling would be a close relation.

2. General contractors, licensed vs. unlicensed .

Would you hire an unlicensed attorney to represent you or an unlicensed doctor to operate on you?

While a bid from an unlicensed contractor may be lower (possibly significantly so) from that of a licensed contractor promising to do the same work, there are risks to consider. Licensed contractors are required to pay for their licenses and/or obtain bonds which protect their work -- this creates accountability.

They are also required to carry insurance for their companies and employees. Without insurance, should an accident or negligence occur while on the job, you the homeowner, will be held responsible. Lastly, many home projects require permits to complete work done, but many unlicensed general contractors will not go to the trouble or expense to obtain those permits. Unpermitted work can be detrimental to the homeowner, impacting the value of the property and leading to liability if the house was ever put up for sale.

3. Contracts.

BEWARE OF THE CONTRACTOR WHO DOES NOT PUT HIS BID IN WRITING.

Preferably, the contract should be typewritten and as specific as possible. Generalities leads to misunderstandings and lack of accountability. Costs should be broken down into labor and materials- know what you are paying for!

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get answers in writing, whether it’s text, email or in contract amendments. Should problems or questions arise once the project is underway, referring to the contractor’s written word will be beneficial.

The contractor who says he always prefers answering questions via phone because it’s “more personal” is a huge RED FLAG.

4. Communication.

How accessible is the contractor?

Will he/she respond to phone calls and emails/ texts promptly (or within a reasonable time frame (24 hrs)?

If questions are being asked, are you getting answers in writing?

Good contractors are busy, but they should never be so busy that you can’t get a hold of them or someone on their team. Beware if you will only be communicating with an assistant and rarely hearing from the contractor personally. The contractor should be checking in with the client periodically and certainly if/when any problems occur.

5. Promises, promises, promises.

Expectations, deadlines and guarantees of work should all be spelled out IN THE CONTRACT. A contractor should be able to provide a reasonable time frame of when a job will be completed as well as a rough schedule of when and what kind of work will be taking place as the project moves along.(Keep in mind that unforeseen complications can arise, which could cause some delays.) A contractor who is thorough will communicate with the Client-providing updates and adjustments to any timelines.What kind of guarantees of work (if any) is the contractor providing?

There are plenty of people in the home remodeling field available to work on your home, but just like any profession, there are differences that separate the good from the bad.

By following these 5 tips in what to look for when hiring a general contractor, hopefully you can avoid having a “nightmare” story of your own and your remodeling experience will be a happy one!