7 Tips for Hiring the Best Contractor

The hardest part of a home renovation might be finding the right contractor.

Often getting the best one for your home -- the true pro who shows up and delivers quality work on time and on budget -- depends on doing some serious screening before the job starts, says Mike Holmes, professional contractor and host of HGTV's "Holmes on Homes."

And that could be one area where a lot of homeowners fall short. "I don't think people try half as hard as they should," he says.

Too many times, he says, enthusiastic homeowners hire the first person they interview. "They get so excited that they made the commitment (to do the renovation or upgrade), that they forget the job they have in front of them," he says.

"One thing I've learned: It will take you longer to find the right contractor and check out the job, than to do the job," he says.

To make it a little easier, here are seven pro tips for getting the right contractor for your next home addition, upgrade or renovation.

Slow Down

"Take your time," Holmes says. "Do not be in a hurry."

You're not ordering a cup of coffee to go, he says. This is a home alteration that you're going to live with every day.

The best thing to do before you start interviewing contractors is educate yourself on the project, he advises. The more you know, the more able you'll be to ask savvy questions and make smart decisions concerning the project. "Do you want to run (category)-five or (category)-six (cables)? How far do you think you need to go? Do you need to gut your kitchen?" he says.

You can also make a wish list: What are the things you'd like to do in conjunction with this project?

One wise move is to call your local government and find out what kind of permits you're likely to need, Holmes says.

Talk to Friends and Neighbors

Referrals are a primary source for finding a good contractor, says Paul DiMeo, designer and co-star of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." "You want to make sure that, whoever you're using, that you have a personal referral," he says. "That's why it's best to talk to a friend."

Then follow up with your own due diligence, says Holmes. Good referrals alone are "not enough," he says. "Just because a friend liked the contractor, doesn't mean the job was done right. But that's a good starting point."

Another promising sign is when two sources recommend the same pro. When Norm Abram, the master carpenter of "This Old House," needed someone to retrofit a home with air conditioning, he asked one of the show's contractors for a recommendation. The same name was mentioned again by a local pro Abram respected.

"I went ahead and ended up hiring him, and he did a great job," Abram says.

Do your part on the other end of the referral process, too. When you do find someone great, "tell everyone," says Holmes.

Determine the Contractor's Specialty

"Sometimes people assume all contractors are equally qualified to work on different types of houses," Abram says. Interview contractors who do the type of work you need. For instance, if you want a renovation, you want a renovator, rather than a new-home builder, he says.

Look for someone who focuses on homes that are the same age and style as yours, Abram says. While a contractor may have more than one specialty, you want to make sure that your type of home is one of the contractor's strong suits.

Make a Good Match

Interviewing a professional contractor is like dating, Holmes says. You want to get to know the person. Ask about his or her experience, life history, specialties, and what work he or she really loves to do.

Also cover the nuts and bolts: Is the contractor licensed? Insured?

"You can't ask them enough questions," says Holmes. "And if they're not pros, they're quickly going to leave your house."

At various points during the job, the work has to be inspected, and you want to be there for each of these milestones. Mention this before you hire. "Any contactor who says 'I don't want you there,' you don't want to deal with them," Holmes says.

Interview contractors until you find the right one -- even if it takes awhile. "You have to keep going until you're 100% happy," Holmes says. "Trust your instincts."

Get (and Check) Plenty of References

Forget the old rule of three. Your prospective contractor should show up with at least 20 references, says Holmes. More is better.

How many should you call? "All of them," Holmes says. Ask about details that really matter to you: Did they start and end on time? Clean up the mess? Follow up a month later to see that everything was OK? Did the price escalate from the estimate even if the job didn't?

If you can look at projects that were similar to the one you're contemplating, go for it. "Most homeowners who have a good job will be happy to show it off," Holmes says.

As you contact former clients, "follow up with someone most homeowners don't think of: local suppliers," says Abram. "No one knows a contractor like their suppliers." The relationship is a good benchmark, he says.

Don't Part with Too Much Money at One Time

If your contractor is any good, he or she likely won't be able to start for a few weeks. So don't part with a large chunk of your renovation money upfront.

To book the job, you should put no more than 10% down, Holmes says. And even that should "should not be more than $1,000," he says.

Follow up in 10% increments as the contractor meets certain preset milestones on the project. But that doesn't mean you should "pay time and labor as they go," says Holmes. "You want it to be a set price."

Schedule the final payment -- about 15% of the total -- for 30 to 45 days after the job is complete, he says.

Incremental payments ensure against disappearing contractor syndrome. Withholding the last payment guarantees that if there are any problems after the job is done, they'll be fixed promptly.

This type of payment schedule is business-as-usual for professional contractors, Holmes says. They'll say, "once you're totally satisfied, call me up and pay me," he says. "It gives you that window in case things go wrong. And little things can go wrong."

Be first to use the 'G' word

Want to go green? Tell your contractor during your first meeting.

"You have to do it first," says Holmes. "You're not going to find too many people who say 'I'm a green freak.'"

But what it comes down to is "the more friendly for the earth, the more friendly for you and your family," he says. This is where doing some research ahead of time can pay off. What are the green or greener options for the job you're planning?

The more you arm yourself, says Holmes, the better chance it is that you are going to find the right contractor for you.