Choosing a Good Contractor

If your project goes much beyond replacing lights and a few appliances, you would probably benefit from using a home performance contractor. The book No-Regrets Remodeling provides a good definition if this emerging specialty:

Because the whole-house, or systems, approach to homes is a fairly new concept, not everyone in the building trades is familiar with it. And it goes against traditional building practice, which is based on specialty trades. You probably already know how that goes: a different contractor for every task. And none of them has any idea what the other is doing. This is changing with the emergence of the home performance contractor, a person trained and equipped to test homes to see where problems exist. These contractors go by a variety of names, such as house doctor, or comfort solutions specialist. Often there is a reference to energy on their calling cards since many of them learned their trade as weatherization technicians or energy auditors and retrofitters. More and more traditional heating/air conditioning contractors, insulation contractors, and general contractors are being trained in the whole-house approach, so the only way to know if this is part of their practice is simply to ask.

Interview contractors who want to do your job. Make sure that the contractor knows what's important to you and what kinds of problems you might already be aware of: comfort, health, safety, energy costs, sustainability/green) and be sure that the contractor has an understanding and experience of how to address these issues. Here are some questions to ask and listen for before making your selection:

  • Do they poo-poo energy efficiency and tell you it's not worth the effort?
  • Is the contractor certified or accredited by an a professional organization that specializes in home performance?
  • Describe some of the energy-saving strategies that they've used on recent jobs.
  • Will they perform an professional energy audit (including computer calculations to identify savings opportunities) before proposing work, or refer you to someone who will?
  • Will they provide cost-benefit estimates to you for the improvements they recommend?
  • Describe the kinds of tests and measurements they do find out where the efficiency gains can be found and the kinds of tests and measurements they do after the work has been to determine that leaks have been successfully plugged and your home is safe. This process is sometimes referred to as "test-in, test-out."
  • Can they diagnose comfort problems you may have, or tell-tale issues like moisture damage or bad indoor air quality?
  • List out the types of financial incentives (rebates, tax credits, etc.) available in your area.
  • Will they evaluate your current energy bills and benchmark you against other homes?
  • Do they test combustion devices for safe operation?
  • If they're replacing your furnace or air-conditioner, will they go by the existing size or will the re-evaluate the situation to ensure that they are not oversizing (and that you are not over-spending)?
  • How long will their assessment of your home take and what will it cost? A number between two and four hours is typical for a comprehensive audit and assessment. Prices vary considerably depending on thoroughness of the investigation and complexity of the home: for normal-sized homes expect a range of $300-$700.