GETTING THREE ESTIMATES IS NOT ENOUGH. Simply put, unless you are a Millionaire with a Swiss bank account, your house is the biggest investment you have. The home improvement business for years has had a bad reputation. It's slowly getting better but it's still no different than a used car lot versus a dealership when buying a car. Caveat emptor. One of many misconceptions home owners have is the cliche "get three estimates and go with the one in the middle". Nothing could be further from the truth. Picking the one "in the middle" is the first mistake many home owners make. Price, affordability and quailty are what you, the consumer will and should at the end of the day, base your final decision on. However, before you sign on the dotted line, consider this - in Ontario alone there are more than 8200 contractors who are not established, not insured and have minimal experience in the trades. If you play the law of averages in the GTA, that "middle quote" without investigating the company beforehand could turn out to be a very costly mistake and you and your home could very likely become the next "renovation nightmare".
Stories of home owners putting down up to $25,000 dollars for a kitchen which never gets done as the contractor cashes the cheque and moves to Mexico, or when contractors ask for 80% of the money up front and do two days work and never come back are NOT UNCOMMON. It is extremely important to get as many estimates as you can. Ask your contractor if they carry liabillity insurance. After they tell you "oh, we're covered", request to have a copy of their certificate of insurance. (any legitimate contractor will have no problem presenting this to you). Ask them for references going back 2 years and then follow through and check those references.
THE TAX MAN. Another misconception. If you are at the point with your contractor in the planning stages of your project and your contractor offers you the option "pay cash, no tax", thats fine. But that said, the contractor still has the obligation to claim all income (including cash jobs) at the end of the year. Be wary as this also shows the contractor as potentially unethical and unless he has an HST # on his contract, chances are he isn't paying it and was about to charge you an addittional 13% on top of your quote but to get the sale he dropped it. You as the homeowner are putting yourself at risk unless you get all of this in writing on the contract. Paying a contractor cash with no contract leaves you with no warranty or guarantee.
THE RETAILERS. Going to the local building centre or any supplier is DEFINITELY the best place to start for any home owner to go and educate themselves on product, price and quality. However the retailer is NOT the place to go to for serious advice regarding your project or installation techniques. (Personally there have been times where, after overhearing the sales person tell a potential purchaser the wrong information, I correct the sales person and tell the home owner the right way to do it and thus save them a potential financial headache with a job done wrong).
BOTTOM LINE. Protect your investment by researching your particular project and play it smart. If you feel your powder room needs an upgrade, or you know your dining room deserves crown moulding, or you're tired of your linoleum floor in your kitchen and want ceramics; talk to friends and neighbours first. Go on the internet, talk to people but most importantly, before any money changes hands and before any work begins, GET IT IN WRITING! Once you have found your contractor and the work begins, communication is essential between you and your contractor. If you don't like the way the job is going or you decide to change something, you as the homeowner have every right to speak up. And on the contractors side; no two jobs are ever the same and unseen problems commonly arise. If you feel you can't communicate comfortably with your contractor before the work begins, communication will be difficult if and when a problem does arise.