How to Hire a Contractor in 5 Easy Steps

house shape made of tools
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Nail down the details of your dream home reno by finding the right pro to do the work.

So your house isn't quite a dream home…yet. Don't worry, remodeling your space to make it work with your lifestyle and tastes isn't as daunting a task as it might seem—so long as you know what you're getting into. Once you've defined your vision and set a budget, finding the right contractor is key to transforming your house from drab to fab. Below, our best tips for choosing one you can trust to get the job done, and how to ensure the project is a success from start to finish.

A major renovation can seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn't have to be. The project will go a whole lot smoother if your vision is clearly articulated from the start. That way, you and your contractor will be on the same page. Think about the type of work you want done, and search for similar projects online for inspiration (try sites like Houzz or Porch). Also check out different building materials as well as the pros and cons (and costs) of each. Pro tip: Look up any technical language or terms you come across in your research, so you won't be in the dark when talking to the pros.

Friends, family and neighbors are great resources when it comes to home updates, so use them. If you know someone undergoing a remodel, pop by for a visit to check on the progress. (Bring coffee and donuts—contractors love that. Then again, who doesn't?) If your friends come up empty, review sites like Angie's List or Yelp are good places to start searching.

Once you have a preliminary list of four or five contractors, schedule a meeting with each. It's good to talk in-person so they can see your space and present you with options accordingly (keep in mind the cheapest quote doesn't necessarily result in the best work). Meeting on-site also helps the contractor write an accurate estimate of costs, and you can both get a sense of whether you're seeing the project the same way. Ask each contractor how long they've been doing business, whether they're licensed and insured to work in your area, and if they'll guarantee their work. If you have any concerns or there are any unknowns, now's the time to address them.

Once you've narrowed down your list, ask for references (preferably clients within the last five years as well as longtime subcontractors). Some questions to ask: Was the job completed on time and if not, why? What was the quality of the work and professionalism of the crew and lead contractor? Did the contractor communicate well with you? Was he or she easy to reach? Were there any unforeseen costs or delays? Would you recommend him? You should also do a quick internet search for the contractor's name and check review sites like Home Advisor to see what previous customers had to say.

A signed commitment keeps both parties liable and on the same page. It also establishes clear communication, sets expectations and, most importantly, can protect you from unexpected costs and lawsuits. A good contract will contain a list of specific work the contractor will perform, and detail all materials and finishes needed, including colors, quantities, models, sizes and costs; estimated start and completion dates and payment schedule; a promise that the contractor will obtain all necessary permits and insurance requirements; and a clause for penalties and/or termination for unfinished or unsatisfactory work. Never sign a contract that doesn't have these requirements spelled out in full.