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How to Select Best Painting Contractor

Whether you’ve only heard horror stories of remodeling projects that have gone terribly wrong or you yourself is a survivor of such a project, you can probably appreciate the importance of hiring a right contractor for the job.

The fact is that there are big differences among painting companies out there. Consider some variables that can account for this difference: focus on quality and service, level of experience and expertise, company philosophy, employee and leadership commitment, to name a few. A proper set of these variables will make for smoothly running projects and will result in paint jobs that will look great for many years to come. Weakness in anyone of the above variables will likely produce an opposite effect. (see Young Couple’s Paint Job Story)

Finding the right contractor is probably the most important, though perhaps most difficult, part of any home remodeling project. With the phone book and internet full of company listings, you may be wondering: “Who should I call?” This is a good question, but perhaps a better one is: “What company has the right expertise, and can I trust them to do a good job on my project?”

So, at this stage of the contractor selection process, your main concern is with your prospective bidders ability and trustworthiness. Unfortunately, neither the phone book nor internet listing is going to provide any clues to those two very important points. Use the phone book if you must, but a better way to do this is through referrals from friends, relatives or anyone else whose judgment you trust. However, in whichever way you put together your list, you should ask your prospective bidders a few pre-qualifying questions first, before you invite them to come and take a look at your project. At the very least, you should find out if they are properly licensed and insured.

By law, all contractors doing home improvement are required to have a valid contractor’s license. To get this license, applicants must verify their experience and pass an exam testing their knowledge of the trade. If a person does not have a contractor’s license it may be an indication that they lack the necessary expertise. It’s easy to check if someone has a valid contractor’s license. You can call the Contractor’s State License Board (CSLB) at 800-321-2752 or just visit their website at www.cslb.ca.gov.

Here is a quote from the CSLB:

Contractor’s State License Board is the state consumer protection agency that licenses and regulates construction contractors. Use only licensed contractors. If you file a complaint against a licensed contractor within the legal deadline (usually four years), CSLB has authority to investigate the complaint. If you use an unlicensed contractor, CSLB may not be able to help you resolve your complaint. Your only remedy may be in civil court, and you may be liable for damages arising out of any injuries to the unlicensed contractor or the unlicensed contractor’s employees.

The value of a proper insurance coverage can’t be fully appreciated until something goes terribly wrong on the job. Still, the law requires that all contractors carry the General Liability insurance and have the Worker’s Comp coverage for their employees.

This, incidentally, also brings us to our other important point – trustworthiness. If the person is required to be licensed and insured but they are not, can they then be trusted to do what is required on your project? I don’t know about you but, personally, I take my clues from wherever I can find them.

As I said, you can easily check the contractor’s license but, as far as insurance status is concerned, the only way to be totally sure the insurance policy is current is to require for certificates of insurance (for both General Liability and Worker’s Comp) to be sent to you directly by the contractor’s insurance broker. The insurance broker will normally do so at no additional cost, to either you or your contractor. Incidentally, this way the broker will also know to notify you if the policy gets cancelled in the middle of your job for some reason .

Being licensed and insured, of course, is not a guarantee that your contractor will perform but, with this knowledge early in the process, you can avoid spending time with someone who is perhaps completely unqualified.

Another good question to ask your contractor is about the length of time they have been in business. Don’t ask how long they have been painting. To them this can include their first finger painting experience at a boy-scouts camp. The question is: “How long have you been in business as a licensed painting contractor?” Once again, length of time in business does not guarantee good performance but this can be a clue as to their stability and, more importantly, it indicates the availability of a track record.

You can tell approximately when a contractor’s license was issued by looking at a license number itself. At the time of this writing, contractor license number is six-digits long. The higher the number, the more recently it was issued. For example, in the 1980’s the numbers started with 4 and 5 as the first digit. In the 1990’s it was mainly 6 and 7. Last time I checked they were issuing license numbers starting with 9. When it gets above 9, they will probably have to switch to a seven-digit numbering system and start licence numbers with 10, 11, etc.

While interacting with your contractors, you should also take measure of contractors themselves. There will be telltale signs. You should look for them and take notes. Did this contractor timely return your phone calls and emails? Were they on time for your meetings? Are they easy to communicate with? With all those stories of “disappearing contractors” who were impossible to get a hold of, this is your opportunity to decide whether this is someone you feel comfortable dealing with, and having around your home. After the proposal is received, there will be even more signs. Did the proposal arrive in a timely fashion? Does it reflect your job description and does it state clearly what they will do?

With all proposals in hand, now it’s time to compare them. Carefully review all proposals, and your personal notes on every contractor, making sure that you are comparing “apples to apples.” (see How to Evaluate Painting Proposals).

At this point, you may feel that you have a clear winner and are ready to award the contract. I, however, recommend that you take it a step further and test their track record. You can check with the Better Business Bureau to see if they have a history of complaints. Ask to speak to a couple of their recent clients. If this is an exterior job, you ask for a list of homes they painted in your neighborhood.

From your short interaction with a contractor or their estimator, it may be difficult to know if this company possesses all of the attributes you are seeking. Finished projects, past client testimonials and personal recommendations may be your only true indicator of whether or not they have the right stuff.

Here is the summary of contractor selection process:

  • Put together a list of contractors (from referrals if possible.)
  • Pre-qualify all contractors on your list (check if licensed, insured and experienced).
  • Get comparable proposals.
  • Check the track record of the winning proposal contractor (your notes, their past jobs, references, etc.).
  • If the track record checks out, award the project. If not, move on to the next contractor on the list.

With the above steps done, you can save yourself a lot of aggravation. Yes, there are “bad apples” out there who are giving a bad name to the entire construction industry. But there are also a lot of good contractors there and I hope this process will help to make finding them a bit easier. My true desire is for you to be able to say, when someone asks you for a referral, “You are looking for a good painting contractor? I have a great one for you!”

Yefim Skomorovsky

Painting Contractor in San Francisco Bay Area

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