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Need to Hire a Contractor? Make Sure to Ask These 10 Questions

So, I told you we love fixer-uppers right? As much as I also love a good DIY project there are a few things we do not touch (structural changes, electrical work other than super basic stuff, and plumbing just off of the top of my head). We have hired our fair share of contractors at this point. And, we have (unfortunately) learned the hard way how to better interview potential contractors for jobs and some potential red flags that something might not be quite right. A contractor you decide to hire can make your home renovation dreams come true, or, quickly turn it into a nightmare so you want to tread carefully in your selection. Make sure you interview multiple contractors so that you have comparison points. Here are some important questions to ask to make sure the individual is a good fit for the job.

1. How long have you been in business?

Contractors with experience have created systems to ensure their work is on time, on budget, and of high quality. Plus, contracting companies that have been in business for many years have had time to get details ironed out and become a more well-oiled machine. Especially if you are looking to hire someone for a large, expensive project, having someone with a significant amount of experience with the type of work you want to be done can save you some headaches. Look for contractors near you and do your research. Look at online reviews and other information available to you and voice any concerns you may have during the interview process.

2. Are you licensed and insured?

Every city and state has different requirements on whether contractors must obtain a license or have some other credentials. You want to make sure the contractor has gone through all necessary channels to obtain any required certifications. In Georgia, contractors are required to have a license to work on single-family or two-family homes and for projects over $2,500. Curious about what your state or city mandates? Check out this resource. I would also recommend checking with your state's individual licensing website to confirm any requirements as they can change over time.

As for insurance, ask to SEE the certificate of insurance. Just asking if he or she is insured isn’t going to give you enough information. Contractors should have BOTH workers’ compensation and liability insurance specifically for the type of job they perform. If the contractor uses subcontractors to perform work, also ensure that they are covered under the insurance. This will also help protect you in case of an injury on the job.

3. How are permits handled?

While not every home renovation project requires a permit, most projects that change the structure of the home in some way will. The contractor should be able to tell you what kind of permits are needed and should also pull them for you.

4. What is your timeline for completion?

A timeline unfulfilled tends to be the number one frustration in home renovation projects. No one wants to live in a construction zone, especially not for twice as long as originally planned. In addition to general questions about the timeline, asking more detailed follow-up questions can be helpful to get more information and clarification including:

  • Are there any other projects that you are currently working on that could affect your schedule?

  • Do you have any current bids that haven’t been finalized that could impact this job?

  • If changes need to occur, how will they be addressed?

5. What is the payment schedule?

This might be the biggest red flag of all. Never, I repeat NEVER, make full payment for work in advance. Payment schedules can speak to a contractor’s financial status and work ethic. Actual schedules can vary significantly depending on the size of the job but make sure you’re comfortable with the structure. If a contractor wants a really large payment upfront, they may have financial problems or be worried you won’t pay the rest after you’ve seen the work. It is customary to hold back the final 10-15% until the project is completed, and you are satisfied with the work. Paying all money upfront gives away any leverage you have on getting the job done correctly. Less honest contractors may vanish after payment or, at the very least, be less likely to make a full attempt to fix any issues if payment has already been received in full.

6. Who is going to be doing the work?

Contracting companies usually have multiple projects at once, but consistency with work is important. Some detailed questions to ask could include:

  • Will the same team be working on my home each day?

  • Who will the designated project manager be?

  • Do you work with subcontractors? If so, what have you done to properly qualify them for the job?

  • Will you be on-site?/How often will you check in on the project?

Having the same team working on your home can improve the consistency and quality of the work and a designated project manager will ensure someone is overseeing the renovation. Sub-contractors should be vetted thoroughly for quality as well. Perhaps this is just my personal experience, but we have consistently gotten lower quality work from subcontractors and have had to repeatedly get this work corrected at the end of projects. Perhaps because their name and reputation aren’t directly attached to the project itself or maybe our contractors have not done their due diligence in vetting them as thoroughly. Either way, make sure you know who is working on your home. Also, don’t assume the general contractor will be on-site unless specifically stated. We’ve hired a general contractor we literally never saw again until we had major issues with the project. Ask to see if they are regularly on-site, and, if not, how often they will check-in on the project, then hold them to it.

7. What steps will you take to protect my property and how will clean-up be handled?

This is a two-fold question. A worksite should be cleaned up at the end of every day. Make sure to establish that trash will be removed, stray items like nails will be picked up and surfaces will be wiped down to keep the area clean.

Also, if the project is larger and spans days or weeks a contractor may request a key so that the workers can get in and out of the project if you are not there. Knowing HOW the key will be stored and who has access to it is critical for your security, especially if multiple groups are coming in and out of the house. If it is a really large project or you have a lot of different workers in and out you want to be sure that everyone doesn’t have access to the key. You don’t want anyone coming back later as an unwelcomed guest. In addition, knowing how the workers will protect your personal items around the worksite equally as important.

  • How will the furniture be covered/protected?

  • Will crew members wear shoe coverings or other protective gear?

  • Should specific items be removed/

  • How will they close or lock doors as necessary when entering and leaving the home?

8. How much will this project cost?

If we’re being honest, major red flag number two is a lowball bid. This is why it is important to get more than one estimate, so you have different points of comparison. Yes, it is tempting to just blindly go with the lowest price but more often than not you get what you pay for. A contractor who bids significantly lower than others is more likely to cut corners, and, there are no guarantees the price won’t start to increase as the job begins for one reason or another. While price should absolutely be a factor in your decision, the most important factor in selecting the best contractor is communication. All other things being equal, it Is better to spend a little bit more to hire someone you are comfortable with and that will be more hands-on during the project.

9. How will any additional charges be handled?

While the estimate should be pretty accurate, home renovation can be unpredictable at times and can reveal issues with the property that were not previously known. It is critical that you are clear that your approval is required before spending a penny over the agreed-upon amount. This should also be explicitly stated in your contract.

10. Can you provide me with references?

Calling former clients can tell you a lot about how a project is most likely to go. Speaking directly to another previous customer can also allow you to confirm specific details or information that was discussed in your interview. Some targeted questions might include:

  • Did the project run on time?

  • How were any issues handled?

  • What were the results of the work?

  • Are you still satisfied with the job done?

  • Have there been any issues since the work was completed?

Once you have selected a contractor, be sure that a contract is drawn up that outlines a lot of the questions you asked including payment schedule, proof of liability and workers’ compensation insurance, start and completion dates of projects, materials to be used, and a requirement to obtain lien releases for any sub-contractor work. Having something in writing is key because verbal agreements are much less enforceable. The written agreement will protect both you and the contractor, clarify expectations, and outline a plan for the project. After that, all that’s left is to try not to add too many projects to the list. One of the most dangerous games to play during major renovations is the infamous "while you're here..." that can grow the project list significantly over time. Making changes or add-ins increases the timeline and, of course, price.

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My name is Lindsay Walston.

I'm a healthcare provider turned real estate agent with an eye for luxurious details. Let me show you how to create (or find!) a beautiful and functional home, no matter your budget.  Want to learn more?

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