Homeowners starting their first remodeling project have to make their way through what can be an overwhelming amount of information and decision making. One of the first and most important decisions is selecting an architect or designer to design the project and a general contractor to build it. Homeowners often interview potential contractors but are at a loss for what to ask aside from the obvious questions about licenses, bonds and insurance. Here are a few more questions to help you with your selection.
1. How is your company structured?
General contracting businesses can be organized in a number of ways. Understanding who owns the company and who is assigned to tasks will give you an idea of the company’s capacity to handle paperwork, manage your project and provide you with the service you expect.
2. Who from your company will be at my house each day?
This could be a company owner for a few hours or the whole day, or a lead carpenter or superintendent full time, or a lead carpenter plus a project manager for several hours a week. Understanding staffing will help you get a handle on how job security will be handled and how much attention your project will get from staff at the jobsite and in upper management. It’ll also help you understand the skill level of those involved.
3. How do you handle scheduling?
This is an open-ended question that can cover everything from how the contractor schedules staff and subcontractors to how a schedule is communicated to you. Many contractors use a task-based schedule with a start and end date to schedule not only your project, but the project that is scheduled after yours. Having a copy of this will help set expectations about sequencing and help you understand when material decisions will need to be made.
4. Who will communicate with me once the project starts?
In some companies the same person who makes the initial visit and estimates your project is also the person who performs the work. In others there may be separate salespeople, estimators, project managers, superintendents and a crew of carpenters who perform the work onsite. Understanding how information about your project is handed off from one employee to another or kept track of by a single employee or owner is important. Know how the company works so you can compare it to others and select the one whose system best aligns with your needs.
5. Is my project the kind you like to do?
This is a great question that very few people ask. The answer will tell you if your project is larger or smaller than typical for the company and if it has processes in place to manage your project well. Management of kitchen and bath projects is different than management of other projects. Some companies specialize just in kitchens and baths, and some are set up for projects of all sizes. Knowing you will get full attention from the contractor for your project — whatever the size — is essential.
6. Deal-breaker questions
Will you let me do part of the work? Can you leave the bath unfinished? Will you let me supply all of the materials?
If you want any of these or other things that don’t leave the contractor in control of the materials and able to complete the project in its entirety, make sure you discuss it up front. Many contractors will take on projects only for which they do all the work from start to finish, but some are more flexible. Go down this path very carefully so you are clear about what the contractor is and is not finishing.
7. What do you subcontract?
Things vary by state, but usually a licensed subcontractor does work that is limited to one or two trades, while general contractors can have their own staffs and subcontract out to other companies for some work. Knowing what work the contractor will do with his or her own forces and with subcontractors will give you a sense of how the contractor runs the business and the skills the employees will bring to your project. Check with your state licensing board for specifics about contractor licenses in your area.
8. How many projects do you have going at one time?
Generally, the more employees a company has, the more projects it will be able to run concurrently. Asking this question will open up a conversation about the number of employees the company has and how multiple ongoing projects are handled. A follow-up question is, Will the person assigned to manage your project be managing other projects at the same time?
9. What can I expect at the end of the project in the way of paperwork and lien releases?
The final paperwork generally does include lien releases, final permit sign-offs and some information about warranties. It can also have as-built drawings showing mechanical locations, photos of the interior of the home before insulation is installed, manuals for installed equipment and a complete list of subcontractors on the project. Ask about this in advance so you know what you will receive and if you’ll need to track something down or document something yourself.
10. Do you have any concerns about what we have planned, or think something might be a problem once we get started?
This question will give you immediate feedback about the feasibility of what you want to do, and if there are any parts of the project that are obvious unknowns with price tags that cannot be easily estimated. Contractors might home in on questions about your existing house and structural system or have some useful feedback about design. Either way, it will yield useful information about what to expect as you move forward.