People who wish to renovate or repair a home are faced with the task of choosing a contractor. Simple enough, right? Not so. As a veteran forensic home inspector with over 20 years of experience, I have been called in as an unbiased expert to settle disputes between homeowners and contractors in a court of law, and I have learned that there is a way to make a good-versus-bad choice. It involves having an in-depth understanding of the overall process that most contractors don’t have.

It’s important for home inspectors to understand the challenges that contractors face when they take on a job. They are hired to come into a home, dismantle parts of it, reassemble it to the customer’s wishes and do it all perfectly, quickly and at a low cost. This would always happen—if we lived in a perfect world.

The desired outcome for the consumer falls into three categories: quality, cost and speed. As you provide information about needed repairs or consultation to your clients in your inspection report, you might also want to share with them these guidelines about selecting contractors.

Quality is something we all seek, whether we are selecting a physician, hiring an architect or choosing a contractor. Quality comes from extensive experience, training or both. A quality contractor has typically been in the business for a long time or was apprenticed to a qualified craftsman for an extended period and is now working on his or her own. Quality contractors are pleased to provide references and a list of past projects that potential customers can review. They also will provide proof of licensing (if applicable) and insurance information when requested, showing that they have met the minimum requirements of workmanship to be insured and licensed.

The cost of a project is always of concern to consumers. It is also the biggest problem area. Although we all like a bargain, if we choose only “low price” when selecting a contractor, we may be asking for trouble. Keep in mind that a contractor’s “estimate” is just that, an estimate. Contractors are trying to give the best price possible to get the job, but also earn enough to make a profit. However, a myriad of things can happen on a job that can and will make the project’s cost go up. Opening up walls often reveals previously undetected insect or water damage, shoddy work from a previous homeowner or contractor, or plumbing, electrical or asbestos hazards that require upgrading to current Code requirements. Changes or additions made by the customer as work proceeds also will raise the cost.

Low-bid contractors have numerous ways to keep costs low. They might hire unskilled subcontractors, not carry adequate insurance, not obtain the proper licenses to perform the work, not get the necessary building permits from their municipalities or even engage in flat-out fraud and deception just to get the job. One often-seen and potentially costly practice is for low-bid contractors to simply leave out key elements on a job, such as not including the required flashing when replacing a roof or using substandard materials. Whatever the job, there are always ways to skimp on the work, leaving the consumer uninformed, at least for the short term.

Requiring a contractor to obtain proper building permits will likely ensure that the municipality’s qualified building inspector will appear on the job periodically, obligating the contractor to conform to the minimum standards set forth by the applicable Codes.

Home repair projects, new additions or renovations are all loud, dirty and disruptive activities, rendering important areas of a home temporarily unusable. All of this will cause a great deal of stress, especially if one is living in the home during construction. Every consumer wants the project to be completed sooner rather than later so they can reclaim needed living space, regain the use of the repaired item and enjoy the finished project.

Even though the consumer wants all three of these components, history shows that one can have only two of them at the same time. A job will rarely, if ever, have all three elements. To understand why this is true, one must look closely at what actually happens with each paired selection.

Choosing Quality and Cost
With this selection, choosing a contractor who offers excellent workmanship at a great price will mean hiring a contractor who is booked solid for a long time, possibly causing your job to be put off for a while. Or the quality contractor may work on several projects at the same time, getting to your job only a few days a week, thus prolonging your work over a longer period.

In-demand contractors even find it challenging to take the time to simply offer estimates when they are booked solid. Unfortunately, many don’t return calls, leaving potential customers frustrated and angry. Some busy quality contractors will show up to give an estimate, fully knowing that they do not have the time available to do the new work. This busy contractor may write up an estimate, doubling or tripling the projected cost. If the homeowner accepts the unusually high estimate, the contractor may temporarily leave his or her current job to do this new work (see the “Choosing Quality and Speed” category below). If the homeowner rejects the high estimate, the contractor loses nothing but the time it took to make the estimate.

Choosing Quality and Speed
When an emergency arises, such as a water heater failure or a roof leak, customers want quality work done right away. When time is of the essence, price-shopping is not an option. Usually, the first company to respond to your distress call will get the job and their high price will, out of necessity, be gladly paid. However, buyer’s remorse may set in later when the consumer has time to reflect on choosing too quickly.

Certain preventive measures on the part of the homeowner can minimize exposure to such expensive and stressful situations. Doing things like having your furnace serviced annually, trimming large trees away from your house, or having a periodic home inspection to uncover unseen potential problems or give advice on what to do next can help reduce the stress and cost of dealing with emergency situations.

Choosing Speed and Cost
The combination of speed and cost is the choice homeowners most regret making. Remember that you can get a great price with a quality contractor, but the wait may be long. Or you can choose quality work done quickly, but the cost will be high. The homeowner who wants the work done right now and at the lowest possible price will almost always get substandard work. Granted, there are times that a homeowner may be lucky, when a quality contractor just had a job that was canceled that provided an unexpected opening, but this occurrence is rare. More commonly, the contractor who can be available quickly at the cheapest price either just entered the business with little experience, does not have the proper license or insurance, does not obtain the required building permits or will dispense with certain key elements of the job. If the homeowner is knowledgeable enough to ask about including all of these key elements, the estimate will grow accordingly.

Some homeowners think that they can gain the quality that was lost when they chose the low-cost and speed option by suing the contractor, thereby trying to acquire by force all three elements. These lawsuits, however, are rarely successful because the concept of “quality” is subjective and, if the minimum Code standards of work are met, the verdict will likely favor the contractor.

Because it is virtually impossible to have the perfect three-way combination of high quality at a low cost with the work done quickly, homeowners must choose the two options that are most important to their situation, accepting, as well, the results of that choice.

As with most things in life, an informed choice is the best choice.