For many homeowners, the hardest part of a renovation project isn’t the work itself — it’s finding and vetting a reliable general contractor to do the job. Although you may be a hardcore DIYer, you’ll want a general contractor if the project involves extensive construction, an addition to your home, multiple tradespeople and/or building permits.

Your first step is to find several contractors to interview. “You used to call your favorite aunt to get a referral. Now there are so many places to look for a contractor,” says Chris Egner, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and owner of a design-build remodeling company in Milwaukee. “And it’s not just a question of can they do the job, but can they manage the job.” Here are four steps to success.

Step 1: Conduct a smart search

One simple option is NARI’s consumer site, remodelingdoneright.nari.org. Click on “Find a NARI Professional Remodeler” and enter your Zip code. Suggested contractors are vetted NARI members, all of whom must meet strict membership criteria, including referrals from clients and vendors, proof of licensing, continuing education and adherence to a code of ethics.

An alternative is the National Association of Home Builders. Check its site, nahb.org, to find your local chapter. Then reach out and request the names of five remodeling specialists.

“I have even called a building code officer and asked who is a good contractor,” says Steve Cunningham, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Council and president of Cunningham Contracting in Williamsburg, Va.

Be wary of online services that promise to connect you with dozens of area contractors if you fill out a simple form. Most are lead broker operations that receive money for every name sent to a business, and your name will probably be sold to multiple contractors that aren’t necessarily a good match.

Step 2: Hold question-filled interviews

Experts recommend you interview three to five potential contractors. Make a list of questions before holding your first meet-and-greet, so you can note and compare the answers of all the prospects. Here are some questions to ask (and the reasons behind them).

  • How long have you been in business? Are you insured, and do you have the licensing required for our area? “You want to ensure it’s just not a door with a name on it, but a company behind it,” Cunningham says.
  • Do you have in-house employees, or do you subcontract specialty work, such as plumbing, electrical, finish carpentry and tiling? Both in-house and subs are fine; however, company employees may be more likely to show up on time. Also, you’ll want to get a list of all subcontractors and have the general contractor provide proof that each one is licensed and insured.
  • Have you done a project like this before? Some contractors prefer small projects, while others specialize in major redos. If it’s a remodel of your kitchen or bath, you may want a specialist who understands all aspects of that niche.
  • Are there projects in the area I can go see, and can I talk to the homeowner? Even speaking with other clients who love a specific contractor may offer insights. For example, the homeowner may tell you the contractor is good but slow, says Teresa Mears, a former home and design section editor of the Miami Herald who has had more than a half-dozen renovations to her homes over 20 years.
  • Are permit(s) needed for this project? If so, follow up by asking whether permitting costs are included or whether you will incur extra charges for the permit and/or the handling process.
  • How long will the project take? It can be very disruptive to have people in and out of your house, so you want to get an idea of the estimated time frame and prepare yourself and your family accordingly.
  • What inspections will be required? A contractor should schedule all inspections and be on-site when they are done in case an issue arises.
  • What if I want to provide some of the materials? Although most contractors would prefer you shop with them at specialty showrooms, some have no issue with homeowners finding the light fixture of their dreams. However, who is responsible if something goes wrong with a fixture you provide, or if you order an appliance and it doesn’t show up on time?
  • Will you provide an estimate and written contract? Pros will give you a written document, detailing exactly what will be done and for what price. The more specifics you get, the better.

Step 3: Vet your top candidates

Once you narrow down your choices, ensure they pass muster. Depending on where you live, a contractor may need licensing. The easiest way to verify requirements is to contact your local building department. Mears says it wasn’t until her contractor started on a second project that she learned that her contractor’s license wasn’t actually his. Instead, he was “license borrowing” — basically using someone else’s license to bid or work on a job. “That was on me. I could have looked it up in the state database in a few minutes,” Mears says.

General contractors should be insured and carry workers’ compensation. Request that they have a copy of their liability insurance sent from the insurance company. If the contractor just shows you a piece of paper, contact the insurer to confirm coverage.

You may also want to run a criminal-background check. Some states allow you to see charges filed against an individual or business. Mears also recommends conducting a court record search for any lawsuits against the individual or business.

It won’t hurt to do an online search of “company name” and “complaints.” However, a complaint isn’t necessarily a reason for exclusion, especially if the company has been in business for a long time. “The complaint itself is not as important as how it was resolved,” Egner says. “You want to be working with pros who will take care of a problem.” Often, if you read to the end of an online review or a post about a complaint, you will find the resolution.

For projects using subcontractors, it is important to see a signed lien waiver from each one. Should a contractor not pay a sub, the waiver protects you from having a mechanic’s lien slapped on your house to make you pay what they are owed.

Step 4: Clarify how you will communicate

Working with a general contractor is not unlike a marriage. “You are looking for someone with whom you are comfortable and can openly communicate. After all, they may be part of your family for three to nine months,” Cunningham says.

During that initial interview, the most important question is how you will communicate — email, text, phone, Zoom — and how often. Set up a schedule to chat, whether it’s every Monday at 10 a.m. or three times a week.

Look for someone who is open to communication and who responds quickly. “If someone says, ‘Lady, I’m too busy, I’ll get back to you in a month,’ … run,” adds Egner, whose company sends an email at the end of each day with a recap of work done and any homeowner-requested changes.

Know who will be in charge of your project and whom to contact with questions and concerns. Will the contractor stop by each day, or is there a field or job supervisor who serves as a conduit?

Finally, realize that there’s a certain amount of chance involved when hiring a general contractor. You can check everything and still have something come up. “The best thing you can do to ensure success is know what you want, set the ground rules, vet the contractor and stay in touch,” Mears says.