Questions to Ask Your Home Contractor

When it comes time to renovate a home, whether it’s a gut job or a refresh, the team you hire can make or break your project. For most people, remodeling a home is outside their skillset, so understanding how to hire the right team can seem daunting. Even minor updates in your home can snowball expensively, and mistakes can be costly to fix.

You can hire an electrician or plumber for a specific repair. But if the scope of your project is more extensive, hiring a general contractor to lead a team of subcontractors, including electricians, carpenters and plumbers, can be crucial to making sure the project runs smoothly.

Try to get in touch with contractors recommended by trusted sources, meet with more than one, walk the property with each and ask for competitive bids for your project.

What is a General Contractor?

“When hiring a contractor, it helps first to understand what they do,” says Dawn McKenna of the Dawn McKenna Group at Coldwell Banker Realty in Chicago and Naples, Florida. The general contractor oversees a construction project, including hiring and managing subcontractors and workers, and will likely be your main point person in executing your vision.

The GC is also in charge of keeping everyone on schedule to meet deadlines and maintaining the quality of the work. “They are a combination of logistics, team manager and quality-control specialist,” McKenna says. “They get the crews and supplies to your home and manage the teams doing the work.”

Although you might hire an interior designer or project manager to help liaise with the GC, it’s essential to know and understand who you’re hiring so your home retains or improves its value with the renovation project you’ve decided to undertake. Knowing this, here are four questions to ask a GC, why you should ask those questions, and some red flags to keep in mind.

— Are you licensed and insured?

— Can you provide references?

— Do you have the workforce available?

— Do you have access to the necessary materials?

— Red flags for hiring a contractor.

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1. Is the Contractor Licensed and Insured?

A contractor must be licensed and insured. That cannot be overstated. This goes for not only the GC, but the subcontractors as well.

“The contractor should easily be able to present all documentation before any work begins,” says Sam Brill, a licensed GC and president of Classic Homes of South Florida Inc. “If the contractor can’t say ‘yes’ when asked if they are licensed and insured, it’s a huge red flag. It’s also the GC’s responsibility to make sure all subs are licensed and insured. In addition, they should list you, the homeowner, as ‘AI’ (additionally insured) on their insurance policy.”

“It will cost more to have a contractor that’s licensed and insured,” says Michael Fowler, principal of the Fowler Group at Compass Real Estate in the District of Columbia and the surrounding areas. “But that will be your only safety net if things go south.”

Depending on where the property is, for example in a high-rise building or within certain districts, the homeowners association or building’s board of directors may have specific requirements for all GCs and subs. In these cases, there is a good chance that all relevant licensing and insurance documentation must be presented and approved prior to getting the green light to start any work.

2. Can the Contractor Provide References?

The contractor should be able to provide references from satisfied customers. Home improvement projects can be expensive and stressful, so a short list of references can give some security.

“If the GC can’t easily provide three referrals, walk away,” Brill says.

Ed Feijo, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Realty in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees: “It’s a major red flag if a contractor can’t provide references.”

References can be especially valuable because it serves you well to work with a contractor whose previous projects have been similar to yours.

“Some contractors are better at certain types of projects than others,” McKenna says. “When hiring a contractor, pick someone who has done a project similar to yours and ask to speak to that client. Make sure to ask about how it went regarding costs, overruns and change orders.”

It will also prove valuable to familiarize yourself with a contractor’s completed projects before hiring him to take on yours.

“Ask for a portfolio of previous work and, if possible, ask for a walkthrough of these finished jobs,” says Nathan Green, director of sales and marketing at Hatchet, a design-build firm in New York City.

However, “don’t forget that GCs are always going to show their best work and refer you to their happiest clients, so be sure to check their online reviews to see if they have negative feedback,” Green adds.

“Hiring a contractor involves a lot of trust,” McKenna says. “In many ways, you are at the contractor’s mercy regarding cost, delays and unexpected issues. Most people can’t monitor the job and confirm whether these extra costs or delays are appropriate. Previous clients can tell you how the contractor handled these issues.”

A contractor’s knowledge of and experience with your local building department can also prove invaluable, and it’s often something that many homeowners haven’t considered since navigating permits can be so behind the scenes. Ask the referrals about that as well.

“Has the contractor built in this local jurisdiction and worked with this local building department or homeowners association?” Brill asks. “It helps if there’s already familiarity between the GC and the local permit process because they will help to avoid delays and navigate the nuances of that jurisdiction and HOA, or both.”

[READ: What to Consider Before Getting Your Roof Repaired.]

3. Does the General Contractor Have the Labor Available?

Given the spike in real estate activity around the country these last few years, many contractors are spread thin. Furthermore, many jobs are taking longer than they have in previous years mainly due to worker shortages.

It’s essential to ensure that the GC has subcontractors and tradesmen ready to start — and complete — your job. Since delays can prove costly, if a GC can’t get an electrician, plumber or carpenter to your site, it will lengthen your timeline and possibly create cost overages for the project.

However, “in this climate, if your contractor isn’t busy, that’s a red flag,” Fowler says. You don’t want to hire the contractor that “no one else wanted. Every good and even decent contractor is busy, as people are in a home renovation frenzy,” he adds.

Given how busy contractors are, the availability of subcontractors and workers will affect your timeline and may jeopardize your GC’s ability to hire the right subs for your job.

“Many contractors are so stretched right now,” Brill says. “Ask them if they have the workforce to complete this job on time. This will affect the estimated end date, which they should also be able to give you. And if the GC is extremely busy, ask who would supervise the job on a day-to-day basis or as needed. If they have multiple jobs, you must ensure your project gets the proper time allotment and attention.”

Ideally, your GC will be hiring experienced subs with whom he or she has long-standing relationships, not just the cheapest available.

“Contractors often run multiple projects simultaneously, especially given how busy some of them are these days,” Fowler says. “You need to understand their priorities while running your project and if you’re comfortable with that.”

As Feijo puts it: “On how many projects are you currently working? What is your availability to make our project a top priority? It is important to know that you have a contractor who can work on your project as promised and deliver without much overage on time and budget.”

4. Do You Have Access to the Necessary Materials?

Not only might worker shortages lengthen your project and cause delays, but supply chain issues and inflation have affected the availability and cost of necessary materials to remodel a home. In today’s well-documented economic climate, a savvy homeowner should plan and budget for delays and overages. Experienced contractors should have insight as to which materials might be delivered later than anticipated or end up being more expensive than budgeted.

“An experienced contractor should have a good network of suppliers that can deliver on time, especially given all the supply chain issues,” says Feijo. “Both the homeowner and the contractor should expect delays and their associated costs, but the contractor should help the homeowner understand what to anticipate and why.”

“Having a contractor that understands supply chain issues is especially important right now, and any construction job’s timeline must take into account the current realities facing suppliers,” Fowler says. “Current lead times for supplies should be communicated to you with some accuracy. If a contractor claims they can get you a preferred appliance set delivered the next day, you should be cautious because they are either lying or unaware of the current environment. If they can deliver on this claim though, they’re the most amazing contractor in the world.”

Red Flags for Hiring a Contractor

It’s important that the GC seems prepared and organized every time you meet. “If a contractor shows up to bid on your job and seems unorganized, sloppy or tough to communicate with, move on,” McKenna says. “If you’re hiring a contractor and that’s the best foot they can put forward, don’t expect anything to be better when the job starts.”

Additionally, while meeting with prospective contractors, “if the interview process makes you feel uncomfortable or it’s not a personality match, then don’t work with them,” Feijo says.

You also want to feel comfortable asking questions and getting clear answers from any experts you’ve hired. “Feeling comfortable communicating consistently with the GC is key to a successful renovation,” Green says. “Chat with them as much as possible — it’s a long journey that will require frequent conversations containing both good and maybe some bad news.”

Given the cost and stress of renovating a home, communication is critical. You and the contractor should both be clear that you understand the project’s vision and the realities of what is and isn’t possible, given the budget and scope of the job and the bones of the property.

“There’s a vernacular of design that contractors don’t speak and some homeowners don’t either,” Fowler says. “Understanding how to express the vision in a way your contractor and designer understands is important.”

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When you meet the contractor, “do not get involved if you smell alcohol on their breath,” Brill says. This might seem obvious and slightly far-flung, but it might be more common than you think for workers to have a beer on-site. “If a GC or subcontractor shows up to your job and they’ve been drinking, tell them to leave your home immediately. You’re incurring a liability,” he says.

When hiring a contractor, not only should they be able to answer a few key questions easily, but clear communication is paramount. Mistakes and delays can prove costly. Commonly, unforeseen issues will arise, but experienced contractors should be able to anticipate many of these and properly communicate them, so there are few unpleasant surprises.

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