When Nancy Peterson decided to renovate the kitchen, master bathroom, windows and floors in her 65-year-old house she realized she didn’t know how to find a contractor to carry out the work.
The dilemma sparked an epiphany, of sorts, that led her to start up the online contractor review site Homestars.com.
Nine years later, the North Toronto resident has become something of an expert in advising homeowners looking for reliable contractors.
She employs a mix of first-hand knowledge and observations gleaned from running a website that monitors contractors.
“The most absolutely important decision is to hire well,” she said in a recent interview. “We call it the three Rs: research, reviews and references.”
Peterson recommends homeowners start their research online, by looking up topics such as home improvement or interior design on websites like Pinterest to get an idea of what they’re looking for before undertaking the search for a contractor.
You can also get an idea of how much projects might cost. On Homestars, visitors can select from multiple building and renovation categories, and most reviews include a Price & Advice section that reveals what the customer paid for a particular service.
But cheaper isn’t necessarily better, Peterson pointed out.
Once you know the job you’re hiring a contractor for, the next step is creating a shortlist, using sites like Homestars, Google, TrustedPros or Yelp.
However, simply reading a company’s online score isn’t the end of your research commitment, Peterson cautioned. You should also visit the company website and make sure it tells the same story, and make sure the reviewers themselves are legitimate too.
“(The contractors) should probably know who they are,” she said. “Actually tell them, ‘I want to talk to Sally from Leaside, or Mr. Smith from North York,’ so they’re not just giving you references off the fly.”
Tip Top Trough co-owner Myriam Goldman, who has worked in a variety of midtown neighbourhoods including North Toronto, Forest Hill and Leaside, said a reputable contractor will be happy to provide local references.
“We’ll get calls from a lawn sign that we’ve left, and being able to go to the neighbours and say, ‘I see that Tip Top Trough did work on your property — how did you find them, how was the service?’ … is important,” she said.
“I’d rather take care of a client who’s not 100 percent satisfied with our service than start another job.”
Three Little Pigs Masonry owner David Fritz said where possible homeowners should find examples of work that is more than a year old.
“Lots of times the jobs look nice and pretty when they’re first done, but go and look at ’em after one year, which is usually when the warranty expires, and they could be unrecognizable,” said Fritz, whose own company offers warranties ranging from five years to more than 20.
On top of ascertaining that they’re professionally accredited, insured and provide workers’ compensation, Peterson said homeowners should also make sure the contractors they hire have worked in the local neighbourhood before and therefore understand local bylaws.
As well, the contractors should know if the work requires a permit.
“It doesn’t take a lot of work to require a permit,” she said. “Anything structural.”
According to Hotwire Electric owner Hanna Taylor, whose company works in a variety of midtown neighbourhoods, homeowners who risk conducting renovations without a permit, either by doing it themselves or hiring a generalist, could find themselves in hot water if something goes wrong.
“If someone is coming into your house, or if you’re doing your own work, and you’re not getting a permit, you’re not getting anybody to inspect it and there is a fire, good luck getting the insurance company to cover you,” she said.
If you find the amount of research required to locate the right contractor a daunting task, hiring a project management company to do the legwork for you is an option.
It is admittedly a more expensive way, because you’re hiring a third party, said Josh Kastoryano of Kast-Con Development and Property Management. But with that extra investment “you get somebody who’s been through the motions of doing a renovation.”