The Five Keys To Choosing A Reliable General Contractor

You’ve heard the horror stories of renovations gone wrong, and are determined to do it right. Sweeten, an award-winning, free renovation matchmaking service started by trained architect Jean Brownhill after a bad renovation experience of her own (see below), shares how the company screens its general contractors when it comes to reliability, project management skills, staffing, filing permits and more.

Sweeten’s minimum projects start at $15,000, ranging upward of $1.5 million, and all of the general contractors in its network undergo a rigorous series of checkpoints. What’s more, Sweeten clients can post a review on their contractor’s profile page, so there’s an extra incentive to do excellent work.

Here, an inside look at the “Sweeten standard” screening process and checkpoints any renovator should look for in hiring the right general contractor for their project:

Check for necessary credentials

A locally valid license and proper insurance is a must for any reliable general contractor. Your county or state website will list all licensed contractors in the licensing or consumer affairs sections. To join Sweeten’s NYC network, for example, a contractor must have a valid Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) license and pass the Department of Consumer Affairs background check, assuring certain industry standards.

A note of warning to those tempted by the lower estimates of an unlicensed contractor: Contractors without bonafide credentials may not be able to obtain the required permits for your job, so if work fails to meet building codes, you will be responsible for the repairs. (That can turn into an unpleasant surprise when some homeowners want to sell their house.) Allowing work on your property by an unlicensed contractor could also void your homeowner’s insurance policy. If the contractor lacks workers’ compensation insurance, you become the de facto employer, responsible for any accidents on the property, or anyone else’s property, if the contractor is negligent.

General contractor

Take contractor reference checks seriously

Most renovators ask for references, and then don’t call them. Or they call just one. Reach out to a number of prior clients to verify the contractor’s scope of experience, probing how they project-managed success and setbacks. Did they show up on time? Did they stay on schedule? What was it like for your family to have the contractor in the house during the renovation? Did the contractor follow through on the last details? Sweeten transcribes candid references and posts them on contractor profile pages when they join the network, taking care of that part of the process.

Inspect quality of the work

Look at prospective contractors’ past projects for quality and to confirm that their portfolio list of skills aligns with the work actually completed. Make sure you’re seeing the level of finish and high standards reflected in their photographs. Not every contractor has magazine-worthy photography, but you should be able to ascertain quality.


Look for experience matching your project

You want a professional with a history of doing the type of work you need, including demonstrated success with your type of project, in your city, at your budget. This is an essential part of the matching formula at Sweeten. It goes beyond that, of course, in finding someone who can express your style, offer solutions and who you genuinely like being around during the course of the work. Some contractors become almost like part of the family by the time the project is completed.

Watch for interview-style cues

When meeting and interviewing with potential contractors, gauge their level of communication. Do they communicate effectively? Are they responsive? Do they exude professionalism, respect, and passion for their craft? Do they have thoughts about making your project even better? Do they seem organized?

Sweeten’s Story

Jean Brownhill’s experience trying to renovate her Brooklyn home was the spark for Sweeten (as in “home, sweet home”) in 2011. She had saved for years to remodel a 19th-century townhouse that was in bad shape—only to hire the wrong contractor and be left with a mess. “I made all these mistakes…and I’m in the industry!” she says, “All I kept thinking was, how would my mom renovate her bathroom? I’m also amazed at how, like many renovators, I did not trust my instincts in who I hired.”

She set out to change the industry and Sweeten was born—a free service for renovators to match them with trusted professionals for their particular job.

Named “Best Contractor Locator” by New York Magazine, Sweeten is a free service that matches homeowners and business owners with the best general contractors for their renovation, with personal support from start to project completion.