The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Contractor

Part I: Know the difference between “certified, licensed contractor” and “registered contractor”.

We all daydream about upgrading different areas of our homes and in most cases, it stays a daydream.

The minute we start thinking about getting started we start having mini panic attacks with questions flowing through our mind;

  • Where do I even start?
  • Where do I go to find a contractor?
  • When will they be available?
  • Are they trustworthy?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Can they even do the things I want them to do?
Perhaps all of these concerns do more to deter you from actually beginning a remodel process. We put off the initial steps toward making our daydream a reality because the questions seem large and we aren’t always sure where to turn first.

Making a start

​It is true when they say: that, referrals are everything when it comes to home improvement, remodeling, and construction.

At the end of the day, you are allowing a person to enter and transform your personal space, and changing what you are used to. Changing what you may have even built yourself in terms of furnishings, environment and design.

Due diligence

Even if you do find a contractor through a friend or a family, it is also wise to vet them yourself. Basically, do your due diligence when it comes to finding a good contractor.

You may say, “That is what reviews are for!”
That is true, yes. And at the end of the day, everyone has different opinions about what actually works for them.

It is important to have measurable metrics or comparables to watch out for when searching for a reputable contractor, even when you are combing through reviews on Houzz or GuildQuality.

Navigating the sea of details

With so much information out there, it can be hard to focus and absorb the most important or relevant bits. So here is a quick summary of the questions to ask yourself, the main keywords you will come across, what they mean and ultimately what you should look for in an ideal contractor.

Is your contractor a part of an organization or body?

​Did you use a directory to find a contractor? If so, did you use a reputable source?
Here is a list of local organizations worth noting (with a link to member directories):
Master Builders Association (MBA)
National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I)Knowing where to look is important. However, once you find ‘that’ list of potential candidates it can be difficult to decide which company is better for you and your loved ones.The directories and associations often use terms that aren’t straightforward (industry jargon, if you will). These terms are confusing and at their best, vague, for a person delving into their first remodel project.Review these definitions of a few main terms you will likely come across scoping contractors:

Is your contractor licensed?

Each state sets its own licensing requirements for general contractors. Here in Washington State, general and specialty contractors must register with Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I).

A general contractor can perform or supervise numerous building trades or crafts. However, a specialty contractor may only perform one building trade or craft.

When do you want a registered contractor?

​If you are looking to hire someone to complete any of the tasks below, then they must be a registered contractor:

  • Construct buildings and other structures.
  • Do flooring, roofing, siding, painting, install drywall or similar work.
  • Install cabinets.
  • Install plumbing, electrical, HVAC, septic or other building systems (additional requirements for plumbing and electrical).
  • Repair or alter buildings and structures.
  • Plant plants, build flower or garden beds or create a path.
  • Clear land, if it involves cutting trees or moving dirt.
  • Develop residential property for sale.
  • Serve as consultant or superintendent on a building project.\Add to or subtract from real property.
  • Clean up construction sites.
  • Pressure wash decks, roofs, buildings or other structures.

General contractors must pass a licensing exam with a grade of at least 70 percent. Standard requirements in many states include: a contractor must pass a criminal background check and showing you have the financial resources to keep the company going.

Is your contractor registered?

Registering with the government is a separate step from licensing. In Washington state, for instance, sole proprietors and partners first get a license, then register with the state. To register in Washington, a contractor submits the registration form and takes out liability insurance, among other requirements. It is important to note that registration doesn't require tests, classes or special training courses (and so should be at the bottom of your qualifying criteria). If a contractor works when he isn't registered, he can be hit by fines of $1,000 a day.

Now, the juicy part: certifications.

​As property values, increase many opt to remodel instead of moving. This may be true of your case, especially in Greater Seattle.

When we outgrow our space, we tend to start thinking of upgrading which would normally mean finding a bigger house. Lately, in Seattle, this has been difficult due to escalated housing costs, so the alternative is to use whatever savings we have, or ability to refinance, and then choose to remodel.

In fact, this is what Mike, our Project Manager did with his house. You can check out progressive videos of his addition remodel project on our YouTube channel.

Is your contractor Certified?

Some states use "certified" to mean "licensed." A general contractor may also certify with the various trade or government organizations.

A contractor can win certification as a green builder, for example, building energy-efficient, affordable homes or offices. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) offers more than a dozen different specialty certifications. Each organization sets its own certification requirements.
Certification is one way a contractor can stand out from other licensed, registered companies.
Letters (such as MCGP, CAPS, CR, DST) at the end of a contractor’s name provide a lot of information not only about their educational level, but also their experience and their commitment to continuing education.

Remember, the best contractors are the ones who keep up to date with the latest trends in this ever-changing industry. They are the ones who will know the latest methods, materials, and products available on the market.

Here is a list of few certifications to look out for:

The Certified Green Professional™ designation recognizes builders, remodelers and other industry professionals who incorporate green and sustainable building principles into homes— without driving up the cost of construction.

As green and high-performance construction turns to the mainstream, experienced green industry professionals seek an educational designation that signifies their long-standing commitment to and experience with sustainable building and remodeling.

The baby boom generation has many choices as this large population of potential clients for remodelers, builders, contractors, and occupational therapists consider where to live – but overwhelmingly, seniors would prefer to stay in their own homes. The CAPS designation offers reassurance to homeowners that contractor has the knowledge to help them stay in their homes safely and securely. More info on Aging-in-Place can be found here.

Certified renovators are responsible for ensuring overall compliance with the Lead-Based Paint Renovation, Repair, and Painting Program’s requirements for lead-safe work practices at renovations they are assigned.
Dust Sampling Technician (DST)

Affiliations and community engagement

​So, after spending time combing through reviews and receiving referrals, you have your top 5 potential local contractors. Their profiles impressed you. Awesome.

Time is valuable. So before investing your time contacting and setting up meetings, take another few minutes to browse each contractor’s website and do just a bit more research.

What is important to you in this process?

Before you contact anyone, decide what is important to you. If a contractor’s community engagement is important, see if they are affiliated with any local organizations that are meaningful to you. Do they volunteer?

If being up to date and market savvy is important to you, then, what conferences have they gone to recently? What organizations are they a part of?

Here are a few affiliations you may come across:

  • American Lung Association

For a contractor specializing on improving indoor air quality

For a contractor specializing in Aging-in-Place

For a contractor specializing in sustainable and green building

The bottom line

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the never endless options when it comes to contractors so having smart qualifying criteria will save a lot of time now and down the road.
Remember to decide up front what is important to you and adjust your qualifying criteria accordingly.

  • Non-negotiables:
    • Your contractor must be licensed and registered, not necessarily certified.
    • Always ask to see a contractor's license and registration paperwork. (Contractors who are not registered may be scam artists, willing to take a down payment, then perform substandard work or vanish with the job unfinished.)
    • Always get a contract that includes the general contractor's registration number.
    • Third-party certification is important if you're looking for a particular skill set or special qualifications.
  • Negotiables:
    • Contractors with earned certifications and proactive affiliations. This depends on what you are looking for e.g. a green building contractor, aging-in-place etc.

What else about remodeling projects?

If you’re entertaining thoughts of a remodel project for yourself, consider downloading our Remodel Reality Check worksheet. Download yours today!

Remember to also follow our projects on Houzz, or follow and watch our progressive remodel live videos on our Facebook page.

In the mood for more reading?
Check out our blog: What Does it Take to Remodel a Basement?


About Olga Lockhart

Olga Lockhart, Marketing Manager for Pathway Design & Construction, researches, analyzes, and writes about these key topics: Universal Design, Aging in Place, Northwest building & Seattle remodeling trends, air quality issues, and solutions, during construction. She's also willing to chat about travel and culture out of the office.