5 Essential Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Contractor
Ready to remodel? Here’s how to know who you’re hiring.
It’s the contractor you pick that makes -- or breaks -- your remodeling project. Finding the right contractor for your job will determine the quality and timeliness of the work, and the amount of emotional and financial stress you'll have to deal with.
To make sure you’re getting the best work from a contractor,
here are five questions to ask the candidates.
Tip: Listen for how prospective contractors answer your questions. Difficulty communicating now means difficulty communicating on the job later.
1. Would You Please Itemize Your Bid?
Many contractors prefer to give you a single, bottom-line price for your project, but this puts you in the dark about what they’re charging for each aspect of the job.
For example, if the original plan calls for wainscot in your bathroom, but you decide not to install it, how much should you be credited for eliminating that work? With a single bottom-line price, you have no way to know.
If you get an itemized bid, it’ll show the costs for all of the various elements of the job, including:
Demolition and hauling trash
Framing and finish carpentry
Tiling or other floor covering installations
Drywall and painting
That makes it easier to compare different contractors’ prices. If you need to cut the project costs, you can easily figure your options. Plus, an itemized bid becomes valuable documentation about the scope of your project, which may eliminate disputes
Contractors shouldn’t give you a hard time about itemizing their bids. If they resist, it's a red flag for sure.
2. Is Your Bid an Estimate or a Fixed Price?
Some contractors treat their bids as estimates, meaning bills could wind up being higher in the end. Be sure to request a fixed price bid instead.
If a contractor says he can’t offer a fixed price because there are too many unknowns about the job, then try to eliminate the unknowns. For example, have him open up a wall or examine a crawl space.
If you can't resolve the unknowns, have the project specs describe only what he expects to do. If additional work is needed, you can do a change order -- a written mini-bid for new work.
3. How Long Have You Been Doing Business in This Town?
A contractor who's been plying his trade locally for five or 10 years has an established network of subcontractors and suppliers in the area and a local reputation to uphold. That makes them a safer bet than a contractor who’s either new to the business
or planning to commute to your job from 50 miles away.
4. Who Are Your Main Suppliers?
Contractors are networked with their suppliers. You can tap into information on your contractor's reliability and level of quality by talking to proprietors of:
Ask about a contractor’s professional reputation, whether he has left a trail of unhappy customers in his wake, if he’s reliable about paying his bills -- and whether he’s someone you’ll want to hire.
Your contractor should have no qualms about telling you where he gets his materials if he’s an upstanding customer.
5. I’d Like to Meet the Job Foreman — Can You Take Me to a Project He’s Running
Many contractors don’t actually swing hammers. They spend their days bidding new work and managing their various jobs and workers. That makes the job foreman -- the one who’s working on your project every day -- the most important member of your team.
Meet the foreman in person and see if his current job is running smoothly. Asking to meet the foreman on the job gives your general contractor an incentive to assign you one of his better crews, since you’re more likely to hire him if you see his
If your contractor says he’ll be running the job himself, ask whether he’ll be there every day. He’ll want to give you a positive response -- something you can hold him to later on.
5 Secrets Your Contractor Doesn’t Want You to Know
You’ve asked friends to recommend great contractors, picked your favorite, checked references — and maybe even conducted an online background check on their business. So you know you’ve found a top-notch pro for your home improvement project.
But remember that their bottom line is getting you to sign a contract, and they're not going to mention anything that might get in the way. Before you make a commitment, here’s what you need to know to protect your own bottom line.
1. They're Not the Only Game in Town
Even if you believe you found the best contractor in the area, don’t hire them unless you’re sure they're right for your project.
You should solicit at least three bids from three contractors before awarding a home improvement project. This way you can make an educated hiring decision by comparing costs, methods, and materials.
What you should do: Make sure you have a basis for comparison when asking for bids. Provide each contractor with the same project details. This may include materials you wish to use and floor plans. Although cost should be one of your deciding
factors, other points to consider include scheduling and communication style.
TIP: Once you picked the best contractor for the job, keep your project on track with an ironclad contract.
2. They're Going to Farm Out the Work
General contractors often don’t do the physical work themselves. They might have been carpenters or plumbers, but now that they run their own businesses, they’ve retired their tool belts.
Instead, their role is to sign clients, manage budgets, and schedule a cast of subcontractors. When they're trying to win your business, contractors can be pretty vague about how involved they're going to be — and who will be running the
What you should do: Inquire who will be in charge of the job site. Ask to meet the job foreman, preferably while they're at work on a current job site, says Stockbridge, Mass., contractor Jay Rhind. “You want to make sure you feel comfortable
TIP: Don’t underestimate the power of being nice. It can help keep your contractor and crew on track while improving the quality of their work.
3. A Big Deposit is Unnecessary — and Possibly Illegal
When you sign a contract, you’re usually expected to pay a deposit. But that’s not for covering the contractor’s initial materials or set-up costs.
If their business is financially sound and they're in good standing with their suppliers, they shouldn’t need to pay for anything up front. In fact, many states limit a contractor’s advance. California maxes out deposits at 10% of the
job cost, or $1,000 — whichever is smaller. To find out the law in your area, check with your local or state consumer agency.
What you should do: A small deposit is reasonable to kick off a project. But your payment plan should be based on a defined amount of work being completed. This way, if the work isn’t proceeding according to schedule, the payments
will be delayed.
TIP: When possible, charge it. The Federal Trade Commission suggests when paying for home improvement work, use a credit card. Doing so may protect homeowners if a project goes south. After making a good faith effort to work out
any problems with your contractor, consumers have the right to withhold payment up to the amount of credit outstanding for the purchase. This includes any finance or related charges.
4. They're Marking Up Not Only Labor, But Materials, Too
Contractors don't want to talk about it, but they're going to mark up everything they pay out to make your job happen. That’s fair; it’s how they pays their own overhead and salary. Keep it in mind that the 50% or more markup may apply
not just to materials but labor costs, too.
What you should do: If you can handle buying items such as plumbing fixtures, cabinets,
ask your contractor to take them out of their bid price. Be sure to agree on specific numbers and amounts of what you’ll be buying, and that you’ll have the items to the job site when they’re needed. You could save 10% to 20% or
more on the overall cost of the project.
TIP: Salvage materials are one way to save on building costs. Just make sure you use upcycled stuff wisely so you don’t harm your home’s value.
5. They're Not the Design Whiz They Claim to Be
Sure, there are contractors who have strong design abilities. Chances are, however, they’re spending a lot more time running their businesses than honing their design chops.
What you should do: Depending on the complexity of your project, you may need a number of skilled pros to get the job done. So don’t count on a contractor to design your space and add clever details, unless they clearly demonstrate
their abilities and have a portfolio of their own work.
Ask their references specifically about the contractor's design skills. Keep in mind, in some instances you might be better off hiring an architect for overall planning, and a kitchen and bath designer for the details.