How to Hire a Contractor or Other Vendor…When You’ve Never Done It Before

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Puzzled about how to hire a contractor?

There’s a natural division of labor that occurs in marriage. It’s different for each couple, but very often, it’s the husband who deals with contractors, auto mechanics, and other vendors. Once you become a widow, you have to do it yourself. I’ve talked to lots of ladies who are intimidated at the prospect. No need to be; it’s really fairly simple.


I learned how many decades before when my job as a facilities and construction manager included dealing with contractors and vendors all the time. I can tell you that I do not remember running across a single shyster or cheat. They exist, I know, but they are few. When conflicts arose, it was almost always a misunderstanding. One of us hadn’t been clear enough, maybe about the description of work requested, payment terms or schedule. Sometimes, I was the one who was not clear enough!


Contracted projects generally involve 4 key elements:

  • Scope of work
  • Type of materials
  • Schedule of completion
  • Payment terms.

Smaller jobs often don’t require a written agreement, but if you are new at this, don’t be afraid to either provide that document or ask for one. Legitimate contractors won’t hesitate to provide it for you. It protects them from misunderstandings as well as you. A signed proposal can suffice, or if it’s a larger job, such as an addition or a new roof, a contract is in order.

So with that background and frame of reference, how do you begin?


How to Hire a Contractor


The Process:


Have a clear and defined idea of what you want to achieve, what the result should be. For example, if you need some landscaping, know how large the beds should be and what type of plants and how many you want.  If you are talking about a repair such as broken washer, the first defined idea would be to learn how much it will cost to repair, or if it makes more sense to replace it. Are you replacing light fixtures? Who’s buying them and what should they look like? The defined idea is known as a scope of work, and you can get help with figuring out what that should be from friends or neighbors, internet research (every widow should get good at this), or even talking to one or more contractors. Most contractors are very proud of the work they do and love to teach their customers about it. Make sure you have your final scope of work written down.

  1. Find one or more contractors or vendors. If it’s a small job, it may not be worth soliciting bids. I don’t bid anything under $1,000. I’ve found that I don’t save enough between the bids to make it worth the trouble. Ask people who have had similar work done and if they can recommend their vendor. Ask people who have lived in your area a long time, and even better, ask those people who work in a related industry. Look for online reviews. Try Angies’s List or Takl Start making contact with them. I do not recommend that you reveal that you are a widow. The successful bidder will probably figure that out as work progresses, but there is no need to broadcast that information.
  2. Contracted jobs are bid one of two ways. They are either estimated as a total project or as “time and material”. Time and material work is an hourly rate plus actual materials with a profit mark-up. Both are valid approaches. If you are going to solicit bids, make absolutely certain that they all get the same scope of work, so you are comparing apples to apples. You’ll get the best bids, meaning realistic, and your contractors will thank you. Give your bidders a date certain that the proposals are due. You may need to negotiate that date, depending on how busy the contractors are. Tree trimming and removal vendors, for instance, will be swamped after a hurricane in your area. Ask for references, licenses and evidence of insurance (certificate of insurance) when appropriate. I wouldn’t ask a lawn cutter for those, for example, but I sure would require it for a tree remover or building contractor.
  3. As the due date arrives, gather the bids. If a vendor does not submit a requested bid, they are self eliminating, and it’s a message that they just aren’t interested or are just too busy. Pay attention to how well your bidders comply with your requests. Check their references.
  4. Review the bids and make sure they all are bidding on the same terms, same or similar materials, techniques etc. The prices should be fairly close together. If two bids are close and one is way off, too high or too low, something is wrong. There may be an oversight or a misunderstanding. It is generally unethical to disclose prices to competing contractors. I’ll tell them if they are too high or low, but not by how much. You may give the outlier an opportunity to revise their bid, but you don’t have to do that. Remember that the lowest bid is not always the best bid. You want the bid that will make you the happiest with the completed job, and you don’t want the work to have to be redone.
  5. Review the payment terms. Some contractors will want a deposit before starting work. With that deposit they will purchase materials, such as paint. Often, on larger jobs, contractors will ask for a progress payment.  At completion of the work, the remainder is due. It’s common to break payments into a third, a third and a third or half and half or one lump sum at completion.
  6. Award the work to the contractor of your choice and determine a start and finish date. Make the initial payment, if that’s your agreement.
  7. As the work progresses, keep an eye or an ear on it, to be certain that it is proceeding as planned and on schedule. Problems and complications do arise, and the key is to work with your vendor to get things back on track. Be firm, but not unreasonable. The sooner a complication is addressed, the sooner the job will get back on track.
  8. When the job is done, inspect it to be sure that it is complete and in compliance with your agreement. Pay them with a thank you, and then reach around and pat yourself on the back for learning yet another skill. You can even take a bow!


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