You’ve probably heard some scary stories about remodeling projects going tragically wrong. You don’t want to end up starring in one of those stories, so how do you ensure that you hire the right contractor for your home improvement job? A good way to start is to ask the right questions.
Before you consider hiring someone to handle any remodeling project—whether small or large—do some careful investigating. Your due diligence can help you weed out questionable prospects and ensure that you get the best guy or gal for the job. We polled experts in related industries to find out the best screening questions. Here’s what they had to say:
Senior content manager at Good Night’s Rest. A perpetual reinventor of self that loves to write, is annoyingly curious about everything and everybody and can switch from being a social butterfly to a binge-watching homebody in a heartbeat.
I’ve been in situations where I didn’t get past the initial phone call to a contractor because they didn’t have the proper credentials.
- Ask if they are currently licensed and bonded to do business in your city and if they carry workers’ comp and liability insurance. If yes, ask them to either scan or fax the documents to you before you sign a contract. Make sure the documents are up-to-date and accurate – nothing has expired, the name and address on the contract matches the information on their business card or Google search result. If not, move on to the next contractor.
- Ask if they’re going to use subcontractors. In most cases, the answer is yes. Make sure they identify for which areas of the remodel – plumbing, electrical, concrete work, etc. Request copies of the subcontractor’s proof of workers’ comp insurance.
Questions to ask a remodeling contractor:
- Are you licensed, and could you send it to me? (Depending on the state, it may not be required for a GC to be licensed.)
- Are any of the subs you use for trades such as plumbing, electrical, HVAC licensed?
- Do you have workers comp, liability, and can you send proof? Also, do your subs have their own policies and can they send proof?
- Do you have any current project(s) going on or close to completion that I can see in person?
- Could you send me pictures of recently completed work?
- Do you have past clients that I could talk with?
Principal Architect and Interior Designer at Bone Collective Studio where she designs boutique spaces for life, work, and play. She has previously taught architecture students at Cal-Poly Pomona and is based out of Boston and Los Angeles, A Boutique Architecture + Interior Design Studio
As an architect and designer, I get this question a lot and due to my work, I’m often the one asking the questions to the contractors that my clients hire. Here are my top things I think homeowners should know.
Ask to see photos of their completed work. Anyone can do a demo job, but it takes a skilled contractor to ensure their subcontractors do great finish work – tile work and painting, for example. A good contractor will even offer a few homes that you can view in person – this is a great sign that they did excellent work as their previous clients are letting you view their home. You can use that opportunity to ask about their experience.
On that note, ask for references/testimonials from past clients. Ask those past clients where pinch points occurred and if they could do it over again, what they would have done differently. Ask about the contractor’s communication style. Lack of communication is the #1 reason that projects go south. A communicative contractor is a good thing.
Get an estimate for the work, and get it in writing. A huge problem in the industry is that remodel work, usually being small scale and done more on the fly, doesn’t come with proper bidding paperwork because doing so takes contractors a long time. If you find a remodel contractor who actually does a line item pricing quote for your work – hire them! They come few and far in-between.
But more often than not, you’ll be dealing with some lump sum amount – get everything spoken about in writing and keep track of all checks you have paid your contractor. On that note, don’t pay for everything upfront. Only pay for the work that has been done/is in the process of being done. Always keep the final payment amount until the punch list is complete.
Ask to meet the subcontractors prior to work commencing. These are the people that will be in and out of your house from day to day – the electrician, the plumber, the tile and or floor layer, the framers, the dry-waller…. You will see the contractor there from time to time, but they won’t always be around, so make sure they introduce you to the rest of their team.
Lastly, if you aren’t working with an architect or interior designer, be sure to ask if the contractor will require any drawings in order to do his job. It’s always recommended to hire a design professional if you’ve never undertaken remodeling on your own before because having a set of drawings and a person with experience on your team will always make for a less expensive and lower stress remodel.
After years of obtaining contractors to do work, these are my most important questions:
- Please provide 3 references (and I talk to these people.)
- How will you close off the work area and minimize dust/mess to the other areas of the house?
- How many workers will you have on the job? What hours will they be working?
- Depending on the size of the project: where will you be putting a Call-A-Head? (This prevents all of the workers traipsing through your house to use the bathroom.)
- Will I be notified of town/city inspections and their results?
- How often will we be meeting to make sure we’re on track with the schedule?
- Will I be alerted as to any substitutions in materials prior to your purchasing them?
I like putting an end date on the contract so the work has to be completed within a certain time frame. Often, contractors will pull workers from your job to run other jobs, thereby delaying the project. An end date helps to keep the workers on your job to get finished on time. A monetary figure as a penalty if the job runs substantially past the projected completion date is good, but many contractors don’t want to sign on with that requirement. The good contractors will do it because they know that they will complete the work.
Elizabeth S. Vaughan
In-Site Interior Design is a leading design firm with expertise in the multi-family, high-end single family and commercial arenas. Founder and Creative Principal, Elizabeth Sanchez Vaughan, is a LEED Accredited professional in Interior Design and Construction (LEED-AP, ID+C), ASID Allied Member, Associate Member of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and the Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI), and an alumna of Parsons School of Design.
Steve Gow is the Inbound Marketing Specialist at Renoworks Software Inc. He is a Canadian Forces Veteran, marketing professional and self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer” with a passion for innovation and technology in the remodeling and construction industry.
Ask your contractor whether they can provide realistic visualizations of your home remodeling project. There’s never been more home design and visualization tools available to homeowners. Many of these options are free and your remodeling contractor may even have access to premium home visualizer services through their loyalty program with manufacturers. It’s worth it to request project visualizations upfront to avoid misunderstandings and design regret when your remodel is complete. You just need to ask!
Here are some key questions that I think are often missed when homeowners contract for remodeling work:
- How will what you’re doing impact the potential for mold in my home? Oftentimes, the things we do to make our homes more airtight or energy efficient can also increase the potential for mold. Things like venting fans and vents to the outside become more critical, as does ventilation in the attic. If warm, moist air is trapped in the attic, condensation and mold will result.
- Who will be doing the actual “nail banging” on my project? How experienced are they? How long have they worked for you? Are they local? Are they part of your team or a sub-contractor? Are they properly insured, licensed, and do they have workers’ compensation?
- What recent jobs do you have, done by the crew that will be working on my home, that I can go see?
- What specific steps do you take to ensure the safety and security of my home and family?
- Will someone be available to give me a daily progress update?
- If products are being installed that are new or out of the ordinary, what experience and training does the contractor have with them? Will a manufacturer’s representative be available to provide oversight and training?
- Are there any tax or local utility credits available for the products you will be using?
- Finally, if there are things that you definitely do NOT want to have happen with your project, perhaps things that you have had happen on a past project, have an open, honest discussion with the contractor about those things. Do not make them “guess” what is required in order for you to be a satisfied customer.
I hope this helps. Please contact me anytime.
My name is Todd Miller, and I have been in the building products and home remodeling industry since 1984. I am president of Isaiah Industries, Inc., a leading manufacturer of specialty residential metal roofing. I also manage a website, www.asktoddmiller.com, where I answer questions and give advice about roofing, ventilation, and other home remodeling ideas. I interact with thousands of contractors and homeowners each year.
David Roberson, Esq.
My name is David Roberson. I’m a real estate attorney, real estate broker, and I own and operate a 150+ property – property management company. I practiced real estate law for 12 years – represented dozens of remodeling contractors, and also represented consumers unhappy with their contractor choices.
Some important questions to ask a remodeling contractor:
- Is there currently any pending litigation against your company or you personally? Have you ever been sued by a consumer for a remodeling project? If so, please explain the circumstances and outcome.
- Have you ever been disciplined by the Contractor’s State Licensing Board? If so, what were the circumstances, project location, consumer name, etc.
- Do you have Commercial General Liability insurance and are you willing to give me a copy of the current policy, are you willing to name “me, the consumer” as an additional insured on the policy during the project?
- Is your contractor’s license bond up to date?
- Do you use a contract? And can I have a copy of it? See my articles attached right here re: missing terms from contractor’s contracts and unlicensed contractors:
- Do you use a contract with your sub-contractors? And can I have copies of each of those for my project? Do you require sub-contractors to be insured? How? Can we get copies of your sub’s insurance policies?
- Do you have a bank reference? And can I have their name and contact information? (You don’t want to hire a contractor who “Robs Peter to Pay Paul.”)
- Is your worker’s compensation insurance fully paid? And can I see a list of your employees you plan to use on my project? See article I wrote on this topic below.
- What is your current project schedule? How many current jobs do you have? How many jobs are under contract but have not been started?
- Can I have a list of your 10 most recent jobs, the owner’s contact information and the job addresses?
- How long have you been in business? How long have you been a licensed contractor?
More In-depth Investigation/Due Diligence is Advised
There are certainly more pertinent questions to be asked. I can’t emphasize the importance of evaluating a contractor before they begin to disrupt your lives and your property for several months.
When I hire someone, whether it be in my professional or personal life, I hire them based on trust. I want to trust that they’re capable of completing the job correctly. It is equally, if not more, important that I can trust them to do the right thing when problems arise. Problems are inevitable in remodeling and, therefore, you need someone who will deliver the bad news if and when it is necessary rather than attempting to cover it up. Base your questions on the values that you want your contractor to posses.
When deciding on a contractor, I would recommend asking the following:
First, based on your project’s specific needs, what makes that particular contractor the best choice for the job? Their answer should be based on previous experience with similar jobs.
You should also ask what potential issues could arise during the construction process? This is important because you want your contractor to be prepared for any potential issues. If they are experienced in their line of work, they should have a good idea as to what could happen during the process, and how to identify and solve those problems as quickly and efficiently as possible.
You should also ask, what impact could unforeseen issues have on the price estimate? This is essentially the same question but a contractor may be hesitant to talk about problems for fear of losing a sale; however, they should be more comfortable discussing work scope changes or additions, which to a homeowner, may be considered a problem.
Finally, I would ask what are you or your company’s main values? They should be able to provide you with an instance of how their company has exemplified those values in their day to day work. You want to trust that your contractor is going to meet your expectations, especially when things may not go according to plan.
MVP Home Specialists LLC
The Most Valued Professionals
Owner Breyer Home Buyers
- Types of contractors:
a. Licensed – whether you have a general contractor run your project, or run it yourself, make sure every contractor working on your property is licensed, bonded, and carries their own insurance.
b. Corporate General Contractor:
- Great for large jobs
- Paying for management skills to keep job schedules on time
- Retail pricing
- Most expensive
c. Mid-sized contractor—typically a team of 6-8 guys that handle nearly everything in the house:
- The laundry list of subs to call
- Can handle a couple of projects at once
- Mid-level pricing and quality
- Able to handle roughly 1-2 jobs at a given time
- Great for flipping projects or rental rehabs
d. 1-2 man teams:
- These guys are great
- Cheap, but can be very knowledgeable and hardworking
- Don’t get the ones who are just cheap quality and price
- Slowest contractors
- If you can find guys who are really great at their certain niche (drywall, woodworking, flooring) and they are a 1-2 man team, and you plan on properly managing these guys, you can score pretty great with them. It has to be a perfect storm of management, expectations, agreements, logistics, etc. for them to work out really well.
- How to pay them:
- Set up a payment schedule, and STICK TO IT. 50% is arbitrary, so you both need to come to an agreement on what milestones should be completed to receive payment vs. just saying a percentage.
- DO NOT pay 50%+ up front. If your contractor argues this, suggest buying materials for 1 week of work, and paying for that week’s labor costs up front. Work something out. THEY HAVE TO BUILD YOUR TRUST TOO. Just tell them you’ve been screwed over before, and you are really cautious now. Don’t pay the final until it’s 100% done.
- Liens: Spell out how materials, subs, and the general contractor will be paid. If the general doesn’t pay the subs that he hired for your company, the subs will put a lien on your property. Find a system to make sure that the subs sign a lien release form upon payment.
- Hiring: Make sure that you are checking their IDs, licenses, bonds, and insurance. This seems like a menial task but is very important so that you don’t lose a ton of money. Typically, contractors who have everything correct will show you up front.
- Get phone numbers
- Check websites and reviews
- Ask for references
- Ask referrals open-ended questions, and not yes and no questions
- Make sure you get at least 3 bids for each property and that the bids have the same materials and type of work on them
- Make use of your SKY list and rehab excel sheet in the BRRRR Calculator
- GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. If they say that they are going to do something, and you are expected to pay for that, be sure to have it in writing or else you’ll be a week until the end of the project, and you won’t have what you were expecting. This is great and doesn’t have to be combative. Simply state that you just want to keep track of everything so that you both are on the same page.
- Professional contractors will create a detailed scope of work.
- Cheapest isn’t the best.
- If you get a cheap contractor that takes 3 months to do a 3-week project, then you’re not saving any money because you’re spending money on holding costs. More expensive can mean better systems, people, and management.
- Talk about who is going to get materials and how to pay for them. If it’s you, make sure you know the schedules, and MAKE SURE you have items there on time.
- Try them out with small tasks. If you know you have a big project coming up, try one or two contractors on small jobs to see how well they perform.
- Be proactive, not reactive:
- Continuously ask people if they know good contractors
- Continuously be on the search
- It’s cheaper to have someone ready that you know is good vs. having an emergency and having to call someone unreliable
- Price versus cost:
- May be cheap but may have to fix it 5 times
- May be expensive and never have to fix it
Ask the contractor how he handles complaints from clients. Does he show a sincere interest in resolving the issues or does he take offense?
What’s his strategy for dealing with an unhappy customer, and ask if he can share some examples of how things were resolved. Short and to the point. Most contractors don’t expect that question from consumers.
Jody Costello is a Home Renovation Planning & Contractor Fraud Expert who founded her website, ContractorsFromHell.com, after a remodeling nightmare. Since then, her mission has been to raise awareness about the risks and realities of hiring and working with contractors, completing renovations successfully and understanding the construction planning process.
Imagine this: you decide that you want to hire a contractor to redo the family bathroom, or the kitchen, or perhaps finally finish off the basement, turning it into a warm, friendly, usable space. Two months into the project, however, your contractor is suddenly not taking your calls and not responding to your emails or texts. This after you paid 50% down on the estimate just to get the project moving faster. Have you been scammed?
Home improvement scams happen: it pays to be wary. In addition to feeling ripped off, there is the reality that home improvement scams can create significant financial burdens for you and your family. But as the saying goes: forewarned is forearmed, so with a little knowledge about what to look for, you can keep your home improvement project scam-free. Here are a few home improvement scam red flags to be aware of:
Your contractor won’t give you a written contract
If a contractor will not give you estimates and / or a contract in writing, beware! True and professional contractors know that contracts and a paper trail are essential and just plain good business. Contracts protect them as much as they do you. By laying out the work in a contract, you both know what the expectations are and have something to refer to should the project go off the rails a little. A contract should include pricing as well as timelines for the project, and should also outline procedures in the event that there are additional, unforeseen costs.
Your contractor is cheaper than all the rest… by a lot!
You think you are doing your due diligence by asking for three or four quotes on your home improvement project, but one of the four comes in significantly cheaper. They might be able to justify that difference to you by claiming that they have some materials from a previous project, which will save you a lot and they can save you more if you decide to pay at least half of the project in cash. Don’t fall for it!
Home improvement is definitely one of those areas where you get what you pay for: if three quotes come in within a thousand dollars of each other and the fourth is thousands cheaper, there’s something wrong. Don’t fall for a scam that could leave you with shoddy work that needs to be re-done, if it’s done at all.
Your contractor asks you to pay in cash
They’ll tell you that it’s a cost savings for you: if you pay in cash, they don’t have to impose any local or state taxes. There are a couple of flags here. One, the contractor is probably not declaring some of their income. That’s a problem for you if it’s discovered and they insist that you were the one who wanted to pay in cash.
On a more general level, making large payments in cash means you have no paper trail. If something goes wrong or the work ends up being shoddy, assuming it’s done at all, you will need proof that you made a payment.
Your contractor asks for a huge deposit
Paying a deposit on a home improvement project is standard, but the rule of thumb is to pay in thirds: one third at the signing of the contract, one third half way through and the remainder when the project is completed to your satisfaction and according to the contract.
If your contractor is asking for a deposit in excess of a third, this should be a major red flag. And if they’re unwilling to negotiate with you, this is further cause for concern. While some projects require a cash outlay by the contractor up front for materials, that’s the cost of running a business and they should have the cash flow to be able to handle that. From your perspective, your responsibility is to ensure that the project is done fairly and well.
Watch out for natural disaster chasers
The old image of the lawyer chasing the ambulance can happen in home renovation projects, too. In the event of a natural disaster, be wary of anyone who approaches you saying that they are a qualified contractor and can help you rebuild or fix your home right away. If a tornado hits a certain area, there is going to be a lot of need for skilled labor, but there isn’t likely to be an overabundance of those people about.
The best contractors are fully booked ahead and, while that can pose problems for people whose homes are seriously damaged by an unforeseen weather event, it’s worth waiting for the right business to help you. Scammers will be available immediately and promise quick work for less than you might expect to pay, under the circumstances. They might even apply a bit of pressure, claiming that they’re in major demand so it’s now or never! Be careful about signing over your insurance check until you know exactly who you’re dealing with.
Your contractor won’t show you their insurance or permits
You want to know that your contractor is properly licensed, insured, including their staff, and that they have acquired all the necessary permits that your municipality requires before going ahead with your project. If they can’t furnish these documents at your request, it’s time to move on. An unlicensed contractor might not have the proper insurance and might cut corners by not obtaining necessary permits. While that might save a few dollars up front, the downstream cost to you could be hefty.
Another red flag is if you encounter a company that has been in business for some time but cannot, or will not, provide references. A job well done is something to be proud of, and any contractor who takes pride in their work and their business will be happy to share that information. If they’re not, move on.
Your contractor keeps moving the deadlines and prices
Sure, sometimes there are unforeseen costs in a project. Like they take down some drywall only to discover that you’ve got a leak and some mold building. That needs to be dealt with before continuing the project and since it wasn’t part of the original estimate, there will be extra time and costs involved. In fact, the smart contractor (or client!) will build in a contingency amount (both time and money) on the estimate, to make sure that extras like this can be funded without stress.
A good contract will make reference to this circumstance, as well as the procedures for handling it. For example, both parties agree to the extra work and payment with a new signature. However, home improvement scammers will bank on your not knowing what’s what in the project and might tell you that there are suddenly a half dozen unexpected costs and additions that need to be made. If you are worried about whether or not the changes are valid, get a second opinion from a building inspector or another established contractor.
A couple of other points to know before you start on a home improvement project
- Do a little research and find out what your local / municipal / city and state laws are with regards to home improvements, building codes, permits, contracts with home improvement contractors and so on. While the contractor is the expert, you don’t want to find out too late that your home improvement isn’t up to code. This could end up requiring costly upgrades or repairs, particularly if you ever want to sell your house.
- Check out the shortlist of contractors that you’ve come up with at the Better Business Bureau (BBB). You may discover very positive—or possibly some negative—information about a business on your list! Go to bbb.org before hiring anyone!
A little up-front research and preparation can save you a lot of time and money, in the long run!
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