What to know before hiring a contractor

Household 4 min read

Homeowners starting their first remodeling project must 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 few know how to vet a contractor aside from the obvious questions about licenses, bonds, and insurance.

Finding the right contractor to work with can be difficult. That’s because it requires special knowledge you may not have, making it hard to evaluate a contractor’s ability or even to know what questions to ask a home contractor. Learn more about what questions to ask a contractor in our checklist.

Questions to ask a contractor

If you’re preparing a home renovation or construction project, the following questions to ask your contractor are a starting point to help you better understand how to vet a contractor and how to find one who can handle your project.

1. How is your company structured?

General contracting businesses can be organized in several 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. What type of projects do you specialize in?

This is a great question for your contractor 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 it well. Management of kitchen and bath projects is different from the 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.

3. What members of your team will be working on this project?

This could be a company owner for a few hours or the whole day, 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 they will handle job site security and how much attention your project will get from the staff on- site and in upper management. It’ll also help you understand the skill level of those involved.

4. How do you handle scheduling?

This is an open-ended question for contractors that can cover everything from how they schedule staff and subcontractors to how they communicate the schedule to you. Many contractors use a task-based schedule with a start and end date to schedule your project and the project after yours. Having a copy of this will help set expectations about sequencing and help you understand when you will have to make material decisions.

5. Who will communicate the project start and end date?

In some companies, the person who makes the initial visit and estimates your project also 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.

6. Who will supply 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, make sure you discuss it upfront. 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 carefully, so you know what the contractor is and is not finishing.

7. Do you subcontract any of your work?

Things vary by state, but a licensed subcontractor is usually limited to one or two trades, while general contractors can have their staff and subcontract out to other companies for some work. Knowing what work the contractor will do with their staff 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 work on at a time?

Generally, the more employees a company has, the more projects it can run concurrently. Asking your contractor this question will start a conversation about the number of employees the company has and how they handle multiple ongoing projects. A follow-up question is: “Will the person assigned to manage your project be managing other projects at the same time?”

9. What paperwork can I expect during this process?

The final paperwork generally does include lien releases, final permit signoffs, and some information about warranties. It can also have as-built drawings showing mechanical locations, photos of the home’s interior before they install the insulation, 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 taking on this project?

This question will give you immediate feedback about the feasibility of what you want to do, and any parts of the project are obvious unknowns with price tags that cannot be easily estimated. Contractors might have questions about your existing house and structural system or have useful feedback about the design. Either way, it will yield useful information about what to expect as you move forward.

Other considerations for hiring a home contractor

If you’re planning eco-friendly home upgrades or renovations to restore your home after a flood or other disaster, finding the right contractor may be even more critical. Contractors may be extra busy in recovery periods, and you’ll want someone who can give their full attention to your home while you put your life back together. You’ll also want to be sure that restoring your home can happen on the budget available to you.

No matter what kind of project you’re planning with your contractor, home renovation is a good time to evaluate your homeowners insurance and see how you are covered. Learn how homeowners insurance covers renovations.

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