Questions for Homeowners to Ask When Hiring Contractors

Since buying our new house last fall, we have had lots of experience hiring contractors. For the most part, working with these professionals has been a positive experience,e BUT we did run into some “hiccups” along the way and even had to part ways with one contractor.

Needless to say, we’ve learned a ton along the way and today I’m sharing the questions we’ve learned to ask and the protocol we follow to ensure it’s a positive experience for everyone. 

Make Initial Contact

All of the contractors we reached out to were referred to us by people we know. My dad, uncles, our friends in the area, our inspector, and even our realtor all shared names and numbers of contractors for the various types of work we needed to be done. Getting recommendations from people we know and trust is always our favorite way to find these professionals.

However, don’t just take their word for it and hire them on the spot because this could become awkward (for everyone) if things don’t end well. Regardless of who gives us a recommendation, we ALWAYS do our homework before hiring anyone so we know they’re a good fit for us.

Schedule a Walk-Through

After giving the contractor a call, the first thing we do is schedule a walk through with him (or her!). We like to meet these individuals face to face to make sure our personalities mesh and we think it’s very important for them to see the job in person. Have all of your information ready for the walk-through so you come across prepared and knowledgeable about exactly what you want. Also, have your questions ready (more on that in a second) so you can get the most out of this time together.

Get on the Same Page, OVER COMMUNICATE

This could possibly be the most important piece of advice in this entire post. Communicate, communicate and OVER COMMUNICATE! Do not assume anything when it comes to planning or executing the project. Be as detailed as possible when you are explaining your expectations and be as detailed as possible as you ask questions about what/when/how the project will be completed. The more specific details you can cover prior to work beginning… the better. Here are some of the questions we always ask before hiring contractors.

1. What Will This Job Entail?

It’s important to have the contractor explain the steps that your project requires. There may be some unexpected steps that you weren’t accounting for that would impact the timeline, budget, supplies, etc. Hearing the professional talk through exactly what this job will entail always teaches us something new and helps us get on the same page from the very start!

2. How Long Will This Job Take?

The timeline will obviously impact your schedule, the budget, and the timeline of whoever may be coming for the next project (if you’re tackling a larger reno). Make sure you really clarify this before this contractor starts the job. Of course, some unexpected items may pop up (welcome to the world of construction) but it’s important to establish a timeline so the contractor knows you are holding him to it.

3. Do We Need to Be Home?

There have been some contractors where we know we want to be home while they work, which is important because that means taking off work or arranging our family to “supervise”. There have been other contractors we totally trust that we allowed coming in while we were at work for the day. Make sure you consider these plans when making your decision.

4. What’s the Cost?

It’s definitely a good idea to ask for a tentative cost during the walk-through, but it’s also important that the contractor provides a formal estimate before he starts the project. You definitely want this information documented for both parties before the project begins. The cost may change if something unexpected pops up, but you need a baseline documented before beginning. And any changes or additional costs that pop up should be communicated and documented before the contractor moves forward.

5. Are Materials Included? Can We Buy our Own to Save Money?

We bought our own material for almost every project so far because this strategy saved us some serious money and allowed us to get exactly what we wanted. However, some contractors don’t exactly love this. Make sure you ask and talk about the logistics (like the exact measurements and quantity) before buying anything. Sometimes the contractor can get a better deal or they want to use material that they love and trust to get the job done.

6. When Can You Start?

This was the biggest problem we ran into throughout our reno experience so far. The one contractor we did have to “let go” was solely based on the answer to this question. He promised us he would start on one date and still hadn’t started 4 weeks later! We needed him to finish his work before the rest of the work could be done so he was single-handedly holding up the entire process. #sofrustrating

Be sure to be confident and firm when agreeing to this date. We can all be flexible for a few days, but it’s unacceptable for contractors to keep pushing your work back because they are backlogged. Unfortunately, this is common practice for many so beware… and be firm!

7. Are There Possibilities That This Date Could be Pushed Back?

Can you tell I’m a bit jaded about the “start date”? Haha. Asking about how many jobs this contractor will be working on during the time he is tackling your job may give you a better sense of how thin his team is spread. Again, be as firm and confident as possible when establishing a timeline and start date so that you can make plans accordingly.

8. Do We Need a Building Permit?

You may need to research this on your own but also check with the contractor to be sure you are protected and prepared. Most cosmetic work doesn’t require a permit, but a lot of projects do. If your contractor works in your village/township often, he will probably offer to take care of this step and add the cost to your bill. These permits often take some time to process so be sure to chat about how it will impact the project’s timeline.

9. Will You Be On the Job Daily?

If you love your contractor but he won’t be on the job, is he really the best person for this project? Maybe he still is, but knowing what to expect before the project starts will help you make the right decision.

10. How Do You and Your Team Protect Our House?

Will they bring their own drop cloths? Do you have to provide any coverage? Do you need to move furniture? Or not? Will they wear their shoes inside? Does that even matter to you? Ask how your house/furniture/lawn/etc. will stay protected during this project so you aren’t surprised to come home to an unexpected mess (or even worse, damage).

11. How Will Payment Work?

Securing that estimate is important, but also talking about how payment will work is also crucial. Do you need a down payment up front? What happens if something goes wrong? Do you get that payment back under certain conditions? When is payment due after the project? Do they want cash…check…credit card?

12. What Do You Need from Us to Get Started?

When (or if) you end up hiring this contractor, it’s important to ask what they need from you in order to get started. Maybe it’s that permit or maybe it’s picking paint colors or prepping the space for work, you want to make sure you are doing your part to stay on-track with the anticipated timeline.

13. What Are the Next Steps?

Finally, when you have decided on which contractor is best for the job, ask what the next steps are so that the project can start rolling! There’s no such thing as over-communicating, so secure as many details in order to move forward.

Other Contractors Tips and Tricks

Be Alert to Communication Trends Before Committing

We have found that if we experience red flags while trying to schedule a walk-through, get in touch about the estimate, or just any communication prior to starting the job, chances are these trends will NOT change when the project starts.

If your contractor is a texter, but doesn’t respond back for days or can never be reached by phone, consider this before hiring him. Unfortunately, we have found that these “red flags” have only magnified after the job starts. Just an FYI to consider.

Sign Documentation (Confirm Payment)

I hate to sound repetitive but I can’t stress enough the importance of having some type of documentation before the project starts. This will ensure you don’t get a quote for $500 and then end up paying an unexpected $2,500 because “stuff popped up”. The document will ensure everyone is on the same page from the very start.

Be Prepared for Unexpected “Issues”

But like I said before, in the world of construction — expect the unexpected. Almost all of our projects came with an additional cost because of something unforeseen that popped up. Not exactly what we wanted, but it’s to be expected when working on an old house. As long as you are prepared and you communicate with your contractor before he commits to these additional costs, it’s okay!

Be Nice…Yet Assertive

Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way a few times. I’m convinced that some of my contractors took advantage (just a little bit) of my nice and flexible personality/tone. Other “emergency jobs” took precedence above ours a few times and I’m convinced it was because Matt and I were always very compliant and these contractors knew we wouldn’t give them a hard time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be very kind and nice to your contractor, but it’s also important to be assertive so they know you mean business.

Ask About Future Referrals/Projects

If you LOVE your contractor, ask them after the job is complete how they feel about you sharing their information. We’ve actually experienced some contractors who are so thankful and supportive for us to share their information, and others who would prefer us not to because they were already too busy. We understand either way and would never share their contact information without securing their blessing first.

Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you next time you’re looking to hire a contractor. I’m confident that putting in the time, research, and communication up front will eliminate A LOT of problems down the line. And if nothing else, hopefully, you learn from our mistakes so you don’t find yourself in some of the awkward positions we found ourselves in over the past few months.

Good luck and happy hiring!

Bridget