Reluctant Renovator: Tips for hiring a Chicagoland contractor

Reluctant Renovator: Tips for hiring a Chicagoland contractor

I’ve hired an electrician, a plumber, a tile guy, a painter, a tuckpointer and a general contractor in recent months as we (really, they) worked to turn our new-to-us house in the Chicago suburbs into a modern home.

The Plan A of our renovation process involved gutting the kitchen, knocking down the wall between the kitchen and dining room, ripping up the existing carpet and flooring in addition to polishing up the wood buried underneath and installing new flooring where needed.

It also involved taking what used to be a mother-in-law kitchen upstairs and turning it into a laundry room and a master bathroom with a wall dividing the two rooms. We also bumped out two existing dormers at the front of the house expanding two bedrooms and adding closets to them.

Now at the tail end of Plan A, I’ve learned a few things about hiring the right pro for the job.

First off, do a gut check related to your potential hire. If your inner voice raises suspicions, there aren’t enough certifications or glowing references in the world to balance that out.

It’s important to hire someone you trust because when problems arise - and there will be problems (troubles with scheduling, materials, measurements, permits, code issues, quality of work and more) - it will be easier to work through.

That said, trust but confirm. Check client references as well as licensing and certifications. And by all means, get confirmation that your home improvement pro is properly insured.

Did you know that only a handful of home improvement pros need a license to practice in Illinois? It’s pretty simple (and tempting during tough economic times) to call oneself a handyman or painter in order to earn a few bucks.

With just the click of your mouse, you can look up or confirm Illinois licensing for plumbers, home inspectors, locksmiths and interior designers (who knew?).

Many experienced pros carry certification even if the law doesn’t require it. Certification shows a dedication to and knowledge of the trade. State or national organizations can help you find qualified Illinois professionals in trades from A to T, possibly through Z (let me know in the comments what home improvement trade begins with that letter).

For the record, none of the tradesmen we hired raised an eyebrow when we requested these, though we did have a plumber drag his feet through the mud while we waited to receive a certificate of lien. If you’re not sure what a certificate of lien is, you must learn.

And if you’ve got questions about home improvement contracts in Illinois or simply want suggestions about what to ask when interviewing references, check out the useful tips and resources from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. I wish I had read this site last summer when we started our first major home repairs.

Once your potential contractor has cleared those hurdles, it’s important to define the job you want done. The more succinctly you can explain your vision and needs, the better off you’ll be. Clear communication will save you and your contractor time, money and frustration.

With the Plan A reno, we kind of muddled our way through it and often found ourselves running off to the hardware store, adrenaline pumping. Must get ceiling fans tonight! Need to buy cabinet handles and outlet covers by Monday!  When we start Plan B, we’ll have a much clearer vision of the end picture before we even begin getting estimates.

Another lesson learned is that if you’re hiring for a substantial project, there will likely be a crew of subcontractors doing the work. Find out who those folks will be and ask about them when you’re checking references. It wasn’t until I called the friend who recommended our GC to comment (OK, complain) about the plumber that I realized she had a different crew for that aspect of her job.

I no doubt have a many more gray hairs now than I did last summer, but it’s a sign that I’m wiser, right? I’m amazed at the wonderful transformation that took place in our house over the last few months. I’m savoring the moment (as I willfully fight to ignore the moving boxes that surround me), and soon I’ll starting working out the vision for the Plan B renovation.

Do you have tried and true tips for hiring the right pro? Please share them in the comment section.

Kim Moldofsky knows how to rock a tool belt, but her favorite technique for fixing things in her home is calling up tradesmen she finds on Angie’s List. That said, she’s learning a few things as she works to turn her “new-to-us” 1950s Cape Cod into a modern home in Chicago’s suburbs. She documents her home improvement projects at Reluctant

The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.


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