About Hiring a Service Provider

Hiring a service provider to work in your home is not a task to be undertaken lightly. In addition to issues of quality, cost and scheduling, keep in mind that these professionals and their team may become an integral, albeit temporary, part of your life. The following eight-step process will help you make the best choice.

1. Determine Your Needs

First, you need to think about the nature and scope of your project. The service firm that may be perfect for a full-scale renovation may be unresponsive and unnecessarily costly for repair or maintenance work. Are you looking for simple built-in bookcases or an integrated, elaborate library? Do you want an heirloom-quality sofa or a playroom sleeper? Next, weigh your priorities. Is it crucial that the project is done by the holidays? Or is it more important to get a particular style? Is budget a driving factor? Evaluating your requirements will make it easier to decide upon a vendor, because you will know where you can compromise and where you can’t. Your requirements may evolve as you learn more about what is in the marketplace, but it’s a good idea not to stray too far from your original intent.

2. Identify Possible Candidates
To find the best professional for the job, start by asking for recommendations from friends, colleagues, neighbors, your building superintendent or related service providers you trust. The Franklin Report will help you evaluate those candidates and identify others by offering insight into their competitive strengths and weaknesses.
3. Check Public Records
To make most efficient use of your time, first do quick background checks of the candidates to eliminate those with questionable records. For all categories you should check with the Better Business Bureau (312-832-0500 or www.bbb.org) to see if any complaints have been filed against the vendor. In addition, for each specific category, licenses may be required or professional associations may offer additional information (check The Franklin Report overviews for each category for specifics). If you are investigating Franklin Report service providers, you will be informed of past client satisfaction in this book and on our regularly updated website, www.franklinreport.com.
4. Interview Service Providers
While it may not be necessary to conduct a face-to-face interview with a provider who is going to do a one- or two-day project, phone interviews are recommended before they show up. For larger projects, it is wise to meet with the potential providers to learn all you possibly can about process, expectations, quality and price and to judge your potential compatibility. Don’t be shy. Personality and style "fit" are extremely important for longer-term projects that will involve design decisions or complicated ongoing dialogues, but are less critical when seeking a professional steam cleaner.

The following are general interview questions that will help you make the most of discussions with potential vendors. More specific questions that apply to each specific profession may be found in the category overviews.
  • How long have you been in the business?
  • What are your areas of expertise?
  • Have you recently completed similar jobs?
  • Can I speak with these clients for a reference?
  • Who will be my primary day-to-day contact? What percentage of time will they spend on site?
  • What sections of the job will be done by your employees and what sections will be subcontracted?
  • Are you licensed, registered and insured? What about the subcontractors? (It is crucial to verify that all workers are covered by worker’s compensation; otherwise, you may be liable for any worksite injuries.)
  • How long will the project take? Any concernsor qualifications?
  • Do you offer warranties? Do you provide written contracts? Will the contract have an arbitration clause?
  • Are you a member of any national or local professional associations? (While not essential, this can show dedication to the profession.)
  • How will we communicate? Will we have regular meetings?
Other things to consider:
  • How long it took them to return your initial phone call.
  • Whether or not the firm’s principal attended the meeting.
  • How receptive they were to your ideas.
  • How thoughtful and flexible they were in pricing, budgeting and scheduling.
  • Personality/fit and how interested they were in your project.
Licenses, registrations, insurance, bonding and permits are key parts of the equation, but are category dependent (again, check the overviews). Any suspicious activity on this front, like a contractor who asks you to get the permits yourself or can’t seem to find his proof of insurance, is a red-flag event. Similarly, anyone who refuses to give you references, asks for all the money up front or who tells you what a great deal you can have if you sign today should be eliminated from your list.
5. Speak With Past Clients
In discussions with references provided by the potential candidates, be aware that these clients should be their greatest fans. For a more balanced view, review their Franklin Report write-up.
Suggested questions for client references:
  • What was the scope of your project?
  • Were you happy with both the process and quality of the result?
  • How involved were you in the process?
  • Were they responsive to your concerns?
  • Were work crews timely and courteous, and did they leave the worksite clean?
  • Did they stick to schedule and budget?
  • Were they worth the cost?
  • Were they communicative and professional about any issues or changes?
  • Were they available for any necessary post-mortem follow up?
  • Would you use this firm again?
6. Ask About Cost
Each service category works differently in terms of pricing structure. Projects may be priced on a flat fee, estimated or actual time, a percentage over materials, a percent of the total job (if other contractors are involved) and a host of other variations. What appears difficult and costly to some providers may be routine for others. Many providers will be responsive to working with you on price (and it is always worth a try). However, under strong economic conditions, the service provider may only be pushed so far; they may actually be interviewing you during your call. For more specific details and recommendations, see the pricing discussions in each of The Franklin Report category overviews.
7. Evaluate the Bids and Make Your Choice
Narrow your list and ask for at least three bids for substantial jobs. Describe your project clearly and thoroughly, including any timing constraints. Once received, do your best to compare the bids on an "apples to apples" basis. Ask each provider to break down their bids so you can see whether some include more services or higher quality specifications (processes and materials) than others. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions until you fully understand the differences between the bids.

Cheaper is not always better, as a bid might be lower because the workers are less skilled or the materials are of lower quality. Compare samples where possible. If speed is important, you may be willing to pay more for the person who can start next week instead of six months from now and who checked out to be more reliable on timing.
8. Negotiate a Contract
Just as with pricing, you will need to understand what the acceptable business practices are within each industry and negotiate a contract, if appropriate. Most service professionals have standard contracts that they prefer.
Smaller jobs: For one-time-only situations that you will be supervising (rug cleaning, window washing, etc.) a full-blown contract approved by your lawyer hardly seems necessary. Just ask for a written estimate after you thoroughly discuss the job with the provider.

Larger jobs: For larger projects, like a general contracting job that will cost multiple thousands of dollars and will involve many people and lots of materials, a detailed contract is essential. Don’t be afraid to ask about anything that is unclear to you. This is all part of the communication process, and you don’t want to be working with a service provider who intimidates you into accepting anything that you don’t understand.

The contract should clearly spell out, in plain English, the following:
  • The scope of the project in specific, sequential stages.
  • A detailed list of all required building materials, including quality specifications. Assume that they are just meeting minimum code standards unless otherwise specified.
  • Timing expectations. Don’t be too harsh here, since much may be contingent upon building conditions or supply deliveries. Some, but very few providers are open to a bonus/penalty system in meeting specific timing deadlines.
  • A payment schedule, which is usually triggered by completion of the stages above, offering incentives to move on to the next stage.
  • Permit issues and responsibilities if applicable.
  • A description of how any design changes ("change orders") will be processed and priced.
  • The specific tasks and accountability of the service provider, noting exactly what they will and will not do.
Once the contract is written, you may want an attorney to review and identify any potential issues. While most homeowners do not take this step, it could save you from costly and frustrating complications further down the road.
9. Overseeing the Job
No matter how professional your team of service providers may be, they need your input and direction to satisfactorily complete the job. Be specific as to who will be the overall project manager (responsible for the interaction between service providers and, ultimately, the dreaded punch lists). This task will fall to you unless you assign it away.

On larger projects, generally the architect (usually within their standard fee contract) or the interior designer (usually for an additional fee) will fulfill the project manager role. You should be available and encourage periodic meetings to ensure that there are no surprises in design, timing or budget. Whether or not you are project manager, stay on top of the process (but do not get in the way), as this will be your home long after the dust settles and these professionals move on to the next project.

The Franklin Report website—a virtual companion to this reference book—is updated regularly with new vendor commentaries and other helpful material about home repairs, maintenance and renovations. With expert, accessible information guiding you through the process and dedicated professionals on the job, every stage of your home project will move smoothly towards completion. Knowledge is power, regardless of whether you’re engaging a plumber for a contained upgrade or a general contractor for a complete renovation. The Franklin Report is your companion in this process, with current, insightful home service information.
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