ConstructionConsumer Guides

Selecting the Best Service Professional

Finding reliable service professionals who are matched to your needs and interested in your job is only the first step in getting your home projects completed to your satisfaction. Selecting the right professional to do the work is an equally important second step. Depending on the nature of the project and your personal preference, you should aim to get bids from up to three service professionals. How do you choose the best? The key is to organize the decision making process so that you make the right choice.

Communicate. Part of your decision will depend on your ability to communicate your needs clearly. Discuss every aspect of your project and what your expectations are. If any red flags go up early in this process, trust your instincts. The choice of actually working with this person is yours. It is better to make this decision before any work has started. That is why it is so important to talk with him/her in the beginning.

Photos. To help communicate what you want, gather photos from publications that illustrate your preferences, and create a folder. Sharing these images will help your service professional get a feel for your tastes. Visual aids take a lot of uncertainty out of this process.

Worksheet. Before getting the first estimate, it is a good idea to organize a worksheet. List all of the job features down the left margin. Include key questions you have. As you get estimates, assign a column for each firm and record how they will handle each issue or feature. As you talk to them, you will learn more and more about the work to be done. Each time you learn of a specific item that one firm includes in the price, or charges as an extra, make a note of it.

With your worksheet completed, you are in a good position to make an informed decision. Price on its own doesn’t mean much, but when you know exactly what it includes and excludes, you can decide which company offers you the best value.

Evaluate Companies

Should I choose the company with the lowest bid?

Don’t immediately select the lowest bidder for the job-sometimes a low bid just means the service professional may not have understood everything you wanted. Make sure each estimate details your specifications. Look at the estimates and see where cost differences exist, then ask the service professionals to clarify any differences. If you are confused about any part of the estimate, ask.

I’ve heard a lot about firms who overcharge. How can I get a good deal?

Your best bet is to make a habit of getting three estimates for any major work. For minor repairs, working with a reputable firm should provide you with ample protection. Keep in mind that if a low-priced firm only pleases a third of its customers, it may not be the bargain you’re looking for. Stick to firms with consistent, good track records.

Are home services one of those sectors where price is a pretty good indication of quality?

Yes and no. While virtually all reliable firms will have higher than average prices, some of the worst performers may also have higher prices. So expect to pay more for reliability, but don’t assume that because someone is expensive that they are good.

Do I need insurance?

If a service professional does not have the appropriate insurance, you may be held liable for any injuries or damages that occur during the project. General liability insurance, workers’ compensation and property damage coverage are particularly important. If workers are injured on the job, the service professional’s insurance will cover their injuries and you won’t be held liable.

Insuring your project can provide safeguards not only to prevent liability but also to protect you against errors and breaches of warranties. For example, without insurance, if the service professional orders supplies and fails to pay for them, you will have to pay the bill to the suppliers-even if you’ve already paid the service professional for the supplies.

Homeowner’s insurance may provide further protection. Read your homeowner’s policy carefully or ask your insurance agent. If faulty workmanship leads to problems, your homeowner’s policy may not cover damages.

Is licensing important?

Licensing is often overrated. It does not assure competence or reliability. However, contractors are required by law to be licensed. If they aren’t, you have to wonder what other legal requirements they have opted to skip.

Should the size of the firm be a determining factor in my decision?

Size is not a good predictor of quality. There are tradeoffs. Larger firms often have more technical expertise available, but may have less technically proficient people on your job. Larger firms have more bodies, so that a ripple in one person’s personal life won’t usually mess up a job. On the other hand, large companies usually have more communication problems. “Who said what to whom?” is at the heart of most service problems. Instead of size, focus on their actual performance record and reviews from previous customers.

Are samples a good indication of a professional’s work?

Ask for samples. Most service professionals have portfolios containing photographs of past work. This will help you compare their experience with your needs.

Starting the Project

Negotiate the Contract. Once you’ve selected a service professional, a contract should be developed, especially for large projects. Contract laws vary, but it is in your best interest to make sure the following basics are included in your contract:
* The service professional’s name, address, phone and license number.
* All the work to be done, including an explanation of each segment of the job.
* A detailed list of all required building materials.
* A start date and a target end date.
* A payment schedule. Adopt a schedule with which both you and the contractor can agree.
* Payments should be made in steps as the work is completed. If at all possible, withhold a final payment of at least ten percent until the job is completely finished and clean up is complete.
* Specify that it is the service professional’s responsibility to obtain necessary permits.
* Detail how change orders will be handled. A change order is a written authorization to the service professional to make a change to the work described in the original contract.
* Clearly outline what the service professional will and will not do.

After signing a contract, service professionals may notify their insurance agents and have an insurance certificate mailed to you. The certificate will show active insurance for that service professional. This is important if your project is substantial in size and expense.

You could give the contract to an attorney to review, but this is usually not necessary if you are dealing with a reputable service professional. If you have done your homework, collected competitive bids from several different service professionals and feel comfortable working with this company, common sense will usually prevail.

Setting a Date.Realize that your professional probably has a busy schedule just like you do. You might need to be flexible when it comes to deciding on dates and times for the work to be completed. If you are arranging a recurring service such as maid service or lawn maintenance, decide on a day of the week that compliments your normal routine.

Rules. When someone is ready to come into your home to do their job, establish any rules of the house up front. Let your professional know which bathroom he/she can use, if and where they can smoke, whether you have pets or small children, if they can use a phone if necessary, etc. If you do have pets or small children, respect your professional and his time by doing your part to keep them away from the worker. This is in your best interest as well, since animals and children could be harmed potentially.

Ratings & Reviews. Once your project has started and you feel you can accurately review your service professional, please provide future customers the benefit of your experience. Your ratings and reviews form the cornerstone of ServiceMagic’s on-line community-by providing unbiased, word-of-mouth information about the service professional you selected. It will only take you a minute to help other homeowners find the right service professional for their home project.

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