Tips for Hiring a Contractor

Not all contractors understand older buildings, even though they may say how much they admire the character and craftsmanship of your house during an appointment with you. It’s important to select a contractor who has the training and experience to do the job correctly, as well as ability to run a sound business, in order to save yourself the headache and expense of having to correct poor work or resolve misunderstandings later. In some cases, the damage done to historic materials—such as gouged bricks when an unskilled mason removes old mortar—is beyond repair and permanently compromises both the aesthetics and soundness of your building. Or, if the scope of the project isn’t agreed upon from the start, change orders quickly can increase the cost.

Be an educated consumer so that you can evaluate what a contractor is telling you. For example, many window replacement contractors will be happy to sell you a new window that costs $1,500 or more, takes 2 hours to install, and will fail in 10-15 years…when the original wood window could have been repaired, weatherized, and left in a condition to last far longer than a modern replacement and at half the cost.

Here are the steps for finding a qualified contractor: 

  1. Get educated about your project.
    • See our webpage How do I Rehab my Historic Building for sources of information on historic building components.
    • It helps to think holistically about your building. For example, it’s pointless to repair a spalling brick wall without addressing the underlying cause.
    • You may want to research the history of your building, looking for the permit history, original plans, and old photographs that will help you understand changes that may have taken place over time. See our webpage How do I Find Information about a Property’s History
  2. Decide what you want. Determine your budget and make a list of work items you’d like addressed. This will help contractors focus their bids and make it easier for you to compare and evaluate them later.
  3. Find qualified contractors.
    • Check on license status at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s website. The site also reports on any license enforcement actions taken.
    • Check online reviews, like Angie’s List. Keep in mind that these reviews may help you ascertain a contractor’s customer service, but most reviewers aren’t evaluating from a preservation perspective.
    • Call prospective contractors. Ask:
      • Are you bonded and insured?
      • Have you done similar work on buildings the same age as mine?
      • Do you have references?
  4. Meet with at least three contractors. For exterior work, some contractors will offer to stop by while you’re away and leave an estimate. Always meet with the representative in person. You will get a better sense of their ability and interest in your job. If you’ve done your homework, you will be familiar with the preservation-friendly ways to accomplish the job; sometimes just listening to the contractor’s recommendations--without interjecting--will tell you whether the contractor understands how to do the work correctly. Sales people want to please and reassure you, and they are unlikely to admit that they can’t handle a project. It’s up to you to be discerning.
    Ask questions, such as:
    • Are you familiar with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation? Have you ever presented to a heritage preservation commission?
    • Who will be performing the work and what is their training and experience? Some companies use sub-contractors, and it’s important to be sure they are qualified and reputable.
    • How busy is your company, and will you have time for my job? When do you expect to start/finish my job?
  5. Check references.
    • Call past customers and ask: Were you satisfied with the work? Was the project finished on time and within budget? Were there any unexpected issues and, if so, how were they handled? Would you hire this company again?
    • Visit past projects similar to yours. It may be tempting to skip this step, but better to recognize a contractor’s poor workmanship at someone else’s house than when he gets to yours.
  6. Get bids in writing. Be sure the bid contains the bid amount, deposit amount, and a list of any specified materials.

Additional tips from Bob Yapp of Preservation Resources, Inc.

  • Always get a contract. Even if you are friends with the contractor, a written contract will insure that everyone understands what work is to be done, when it is to be completed, and what costs are involved.
  • A good, tight wooden storm window is more energy efficient, so don’t be pressured into buying a triple-track aluminum storm window to replace your wooden one. Even if the original wooden windows need to be replaced, you can sometimes keep the original wood sashes.
  • It is perfectly reasonable to withhold 5-10% of the cost of a new or repaired roof until the first heavy rain.
  • Always secure permits no matter how small the job is.
  • Most vinyl siding will fade and warp after 10—15 years and will require repainting and repair. Consider this when a contractor tries to persuade you to cover your historic building with vinyl siding.
  • You need a lien waiver signed by a contractor to show that they have been paid in full.