How to Select the Best Painting Contractor

The fact is that there is a big difference between painting companies. Consider the ingredients that make up a company: contractor philosophy, a focus on quality, level of service, employee commitment, painting procedures, experience, communication, and leadership.

A right mix of these ingredients will make for a smoothly running project and will result in a paint job which will look great for many years to come. The absence or weakness in one or more of the above ingredients will likely produce an opposite effect.

Finding the right contractor is the most important and perhaps the most difficult part of any remodeling project. "Who do I call?" is a question that will likely come up. This is a good question indeed! Phone books are full of painting companies but perhaps a better question to ask is: "What company has the necessary expertise, and can they be trusted to do a good job on my project?"

A phone book is the last place you will find answers to the above two point question. If you must, use it but only as a last resort. The best way to look for a contractor is to get referrals from friends, relatives or anyone else whose judgment you trust.

You may get lucky and some names will keep coming up. If so, put those names at the top of your list. But, in whatever way you put together this list, you should ask your prospective bidders a few pre-screening questions before you invite them to come and take a look at your project.

At the very least, you should ask your prospective bidder if they are licensed and if they have general liability and worker's compensation insurance coverage.

By law, all contractors doing home improvement are required to have a valid contractor's license. To get this license, applicants must verify their experience and must pass an exam testing their knowledge of the trade. If a person does not have a contractor's license, it can be an indication that they lack the necessary expertise.

It is very easy to check if someone has a valid contractor's license, just call the Contractor's State License Board (CSLB) at 800-321-2752 or visit their website at

Here is a quote from the CSLB:

Contractor's State License Board is the state consumer protection agency that licenses and regulates construction contractors.

Use only licensed contractors. If you file a complaint against a licensed contractor within the legal deadline (usually four years), CSLB has authority to investigate the complaint. If you use an unlicensed contractor, CSLB may not be able to help you resolve your complaint. Your only remedy may be in civil court, and you may be liable for damages arising out of any injuries to the unlicensed contractor or the unlicensed contractor's employees.

The value of insurance coverage is not so readily obvious until something goes terribly wrong. Still, the law requires that all contractors carry worker's compensation insurance for their employees.

This brings us to our other point. If the law requires that all contractors be licensed and insured but this prospective bidder is not, can they be trusted to do what is required on your project? You will have to decide this for yourself but, personally, I try to take my clues from what a person does.

As I said, you can easily check the status of the contractor's license. As far as insurance is concerned, the only way to be sure that the insurance policy is current is to require that certificates of insurance be faxed or mailed to you directly by the contractor's insurance carrier, for both general liability and worker's compensation insurance.

The insurance carrier will normally do this at no additional cost to either you or your contractor. This way, the insurance carrier can also notify you if your contractor's policy is cancelled, in the middle of the job, for some reason.

Of course, being licensed and insured is not a guarantee that your contractor will perform, but having this knowledge early on, you can avoid spending your time with someone who is perhaps completely unqualified.

Another good question to ask your contractor is about the length of time they have been in business. Do not ask how long they have been painting or how many years of experience they have. This can mean to them - their first finger painting experience in the Boy Scouts Camp. The question is: "How long have you been in business as a licensed painting contractor?"

You can tell approximately when a contractor's license was issued by looking at the license number itself. A contractor's license number is six digits long. The higher that number, the more recently it was issued.

For example, in the 1980's the numbers started with 4 and 5 as a first digit. In the 1990's it was mainly 6 and 7. The last time I checked, they were issuing license numbers that had 9 as the first digit. (When it gets above 9, I suppose, they will switch to a seven digit numbering system.)

Once again, the length of time in business does not guarantee good performance but it can be a good clue as to the contractor's stability and, more importantly, it will indicate the availability of their track record.

When you meet with contractors, give them your job description and make yourself available to answer any questions about the job. At this stage, you want to make sure that every contractor knows exactly what needs to be estimated.

Now is also a good time for you take a measure of the contractor themself. There are telltale signs. Did the contractor timely return all of your phone calls? Were they on time for your meetings? Is this person easy to communicate with?

We have all heard stories about disappearing contractors that were impossible to get ahold of. Well, this is your opportunity to decide whether this is someone you will feel comfortable dealing with and having around your home.

After the proposal is received, there will be even more telltale signs. Did the proposal arrive in a timely fashion? Does it reflect your job description? Does it state clearly what they will do?

Once all of the proposals are received, it is time to compare them. Carefully review all of the proposals and your personal notes on every contractor, making sure that you are comparing "apples to apples."

At this point, you may have a clear winner and are ready to award the contract; however, I recommend that you take it a step further and test your contractor's track record. Check the Better Business Bureau to see if they have a history of complaints against them. Ask to speak to a couple of their recent clients. If this is an exterior job, ask to see a few homes that they have painted in your neighborhood.

You see, from a short interaction with a contractor or an estimator, it is very difficult to determine if they possess the ingredients that you are seeking in a painting company. The proof is always in the pudding. Client testimonials, finished projects, and the Better Business Bureau record may be your only true indication as to whether or not they have the right stuff.

Here is a summary of steps for selecting a contractor:

  • Put together a list of contractors (from referrals, if possible.)
  • Pre-qualify contractors on the list (check if licensed, insured and experienced).
  • Get comparable proposals (read How to Evaluate Painting Proposals article).
  • Check the track record of the winning proposal contractor (past jobs, references, BBB record).
  • Award the project if the record checks out or check the track record of the next contractor on the list.

All of this may seem like a lot of work just to hire a painter. Actually, the selecting process does not have to take very long and can even save time. Besides, what is the alternative? You may have heard stories of jobs that have gone terribly wrong. (If not, read Young Couple's Paint Job Story.)

Perhaps you also have a story like that. I am sorry if you do! It makes me very sad to see that a few "bad apples" give a bad name to the rest of my industry. There are a lot of good contractors out there! I hope this will help you find them a bit easier.

I would truly love for your very next contractor story to be: "So, you are looking for a painting contractor. I have a great one for you!"

Yefim Skomorovsky
Painting Contractor in San Francisco Bay Area

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