Every time I do something to repair the fucking bullshit my parent's old handyman did to their house, I mean to write this post. I finally am getting to it - though this most recent foray, is not quite as egregious as what this fucking moron did to their roof...
I hate to say this, given that I have spent much of my working life as a handyman and larger jobs were pretty critical to my survival. And because I know what I am capable of, I know that it's not an absolute generalization - not even close. But when you need a large scale repair done, or you need some remodeling done - do not hire a handyman.
Because for every handyman out there who can actually handle such jobs, there are probably five or six who will take the job knowing that they really can't - or thinking they can when they can't. And while general contractors, or even trade specific contractors aren't always up to snuff either, you are generally a lot more likely to get quality work. Especially if you follow a few simple rules when choosing a contractor...
1) Get at least three estimates and don't assume that because someone charges for the estimate, they must be good. Honestly, the majority of contractors who charge for bids aren't capable of covering their margins - the time spent on estimates should be part of their overhead. So if they're charging, it tends to be a red flag as far as I'm concerned.
2) Do not even consider estimates that are more than fifteen percent lower than the next lowest bid. There is a fair amount of wiggle room, but that is a huge red flag. Odds are if they can afford to knock that much off, they aren't covering critical expenses such as insurance or workman's comp. And in a lot of jurisdictions that passes the liability on to the homeowner. You are certainly within your rights to sue the contractor after the fact, but regardless of the judgment, odds are not favorable for a reasonable outcome.
3) Ask for references that will let you see work the contractor has done. This is not always possible - for example I did a lot of work for people who quite specifically wanted to keep it unique and while they were happy to give gushing recommendations, most of them weren't keen on letting potential clients see the really cool stuff I did. Volume counted at that point - that and the vast majority of my jobs were referrals - so potential clients probably have seen the work. Which brings us to...
4) Talk to friends and co-workers, look for referrals. Contractors love referrals because it provides them with security. The reverse is also true - you get a little more security knowing that your contractor did work for someone you know and it worked out well for them. Not perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than the yellow pages.
5) Don't hire a contractor who isn't interested in spending the time to make sure you are getting what you want, or doesn't want to provide you with as much understanding of the problem/solution, as you want. If they aren't willing to talk about it, it is that much more likely you aren't going to be happy with the results.
6) Do not pay more than 35% up front. This is generally enough to cover materials and some of the labor, so the contractor knows that if you don't pay, they aren't left holding a massive loss. There are exceptions - times when material costs are a significantly higher percentage of total bid - if you are, for example, putting in Italian marble counter-tops, expect to pay a lot more up front. Getting a water-heater installed is probably going to be a similar issue. But when that is the case, the contractor will go over the material costs - if they don't, don't hire them. It should also be noted that for really large scale jobs, there may be a payment schedule. This is not uncommon and is quite often necessary for the contractors survival. When there is a payment schedule, it should be explicitly defined in the contract - various stages of the job will require certain payments. This should not be stated as percentages, the payments should be clearly delineated.
7) Do not hire friends, unless they have a solid reputation in the field you are hiring them for. And if you do hire friends, still get other bids so you have a very clear perspective on the job and your friends competency. Friendships are severely shaken on a regular basis, because of a variety of issues. Sometimes a friend will feel they have more leeway with you, time and even quality wise. Others will bite off more than they can chew, because they want to "take care of you." I'm not saying just don't do it - but if you do expect potential problems and accept that this may end that friendship. The same applies to family - only more so.
And finally, if the work is completed and looks like shit, or is otherwise un-satisfactory, don't pay the balance and get another contractor in to see the work as it stands. Do not be afraid to take the contractor to court if they fucked you - you won't get the money you spent back, but it can keep you from being required to cover the balance due and the contractor from putting a lien on your property.