It’s been my experience that many people, when looking to hire a remodeler, go through a basic, surface-level “background check” of candidates. They meet with them in person, they check out their online portfolio and reviews, and they ask around to see if anyone has heard of them or worked with them. And, for many people, this process turns out just fine. However, when you’re talking thousands — or hundreds of thousands — of dollars, and something as personal as your family home is part of the equation, it might be worth putting extra effort into the interview stage before you sign a contract.
My No. 1 suggestion: Ask to see a project your potential remodeler has already completed.
Pictures only show so much. Getting into the space and examining it with your own eyes — and hands — can help ensure that the quality is on par with what you expect. Here are a few things to look for.
A good tile installation is one in which all the tiles are square (meaning they all butt up to each other at 90 degree angles), level and installed so that there aren’t any tiles jutting out or caving in. The grout lines also should be level, evenly sized throughout and as thin as possible. I know there are exceptions. Some designers like to pick funky-shaped tiles or install them in funky ways. But a good rule of thumb is that the tiles should look smooth and evenly placed, and the grout should be skinny.
When observing the quality of a paint job, walk up to the area in question, close your eyes and feel it. Do you feel any rough patches, drip marks or overall inconsistencies? If the answer is yes, then it isn’t a high-quality paint job. Other markers of a decent paint job include clean cut-ins at the ceiling (no wobbly lines between the wall color and the ceiling color) and an even finish throughout (for example, if the walls are supposed to be matte, they should look matte everywhere).
A quality trim installation is similar to a quality tile installation in the sense that it is very geometrical and straight. Look up at the crown molding: Are the corners mitered together seamlessly? Check out the casing around the doors and windows: Are they level, and do they have neat corners?
The answers to both of these questions should be yes. In addition, you shouldn’t be able to see any nail holes in the trim or any obvious seams. This means the trim carpenter filled in the nail holes with putty and took to heart the phrase “measure twice, cut once.”
Doors and Cabinets
When you’re invited into someone else’s home, it’s hard to check the quality of doors and cabinets without getting too personal and gawking at all their stuff. (“Hey, do you mind if I open every door and drawer in your master bathroom vanity?” is kind of a weird question if you don’t know someone very well.)
However, a good, quick test for doors and cabinets is to open and close a few of them to ensure they move smoothly, without sticking. Side note: If a house’s foundation moves (I’m looking at you, Texas foundations!) and there has just been a period of excessive rain or drought, it’s likely that doors may stick because of extraneous conditions, not because of the contractor’s level of craftsmanship.
Countertops with weirdly placed seams or big gaps that have been filled with caulk are a sign that the original templating of the tops wasn’t done well. You remember that whole “measure twice, cut once” thing? If you see odd seams or gaps, the countertop fabricators probably didn’t follow that rule.
Look up and see if all the can lights are in line and evenly spaced. Ensure that there aren’t any flickering or flashing lights. While this could be because a lightbulb is getting old, it also could mean that there’s something faulty in the light fixture’s wiring.
Double check to make sure dimmers are functional. A common mistake I’ve seen, specifically with the introduction of LED lights, is that the LED bulb and the dimmer aren’t paired correctly, and lights that should dim don’t dim at all, or they flicker and act funny.
While that covers many of the features you can see for yourself on a project, be sure to ask the contractor a couple of questions about the remodel. Inquire about the scope of work and the customer’s requests or expectations. Were there any challenges (unexpected or anticipated), and, if so, how were they resolved? How long ago was this remodel completed? Have there been any warranty issues? Answers to important questions such as these can be just as important as the level of craftsmanship.
All this being said, it isn’t a requirement to see a completed project before choosing a contractor. You may decide that, since your best friend or parents (or someone else whose opinion you trust) have remodeled with a certain contractor and had a great experience, that’s all the “background checking” you want.
However, no matter what your situation is, there is truly no harm in asking to see some prior work. If your potential contractor refuses it altogether, I would suggest it’s time to look at some other options. As I said, your home and your money are valuable and shouldn’t be left in the hands of someone you don’t have complete faith in.