Questions Your Contractor Doesn’t Want You to Ask

Your home is usually the single biggest physical investment you can make, and the difference between a dream home and a nightmare can come down to finding the right contractor. Here are the questions you need to be asking.

1. Are you a handyman or a contractor?

If you need small repairs done around your house that don’t involve utilities or permits, go for the handyman, as he can do jobs for $500 or less. But if you’re thinking on a larger scale and plumbing, electrical or mechanical remodeling, then it’s a contractor you need.

2. Is the quote an estimate or a fixed-price bid?

The difference between the two is huge: an estimate is open to varying charges, while a fixed-price bid won’t exceed the price given. Fixed-price bids also tend to involve a more thorough investigation, such as going behind walls or into crawlspaces. And when you get the bid, make sure it’s itemized so you can see how much each aspect of the job will cost—something that makes it easier to compare bids.

3. Can I see a list of your references and suppliers?

Both are important. References are vital to knowing how the contractor performed in the past (the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior), while the suppliers tell you at what quality level your contractor performs. Think of it as the difference between Walmart and Ethan Allen: both supply furniture items, but one contains items of vastly higher quality than the other.

4. Will you be subcontracting the work?

General contractors have a Rolodex of subcontractors who work for them: plumbers, electricians, roofers, etc. But what you want to find out is the kind of people who comprise the subcontracting team because they’ll be in your home. Do they speak English? Chain smoke? Take off their shoes inside? Arrive on time?

5. What kind of deposit do you require?

Be careful of this one, as you’re not required to lay down a large deposit. In fact, states like California stipulate that you should be putting down either 10% or $1,000, whichever is less. Two other tips are to pay on a schedule to motivate the work to get done faster, and to use a credit card so there’s a paper trail. A common method to use is the 30-30-30-10 rule, where installments are paid by each 30%, with the final 10% paid once everything’s done.

6. Will you do a home inspection?

It’s always a good idea to meet the general contractor for two reasons: so he or she can get a really thorough idea of the work—and cost—involved, and so you can see who you’re hiring and will be overseeing the project. A phone call is a good place to start, and an in-home visit is the right way to proceed. And while you should trust your gut, a call to the local business bureau (and googling them on the Better Business Bureau site) is also a safe bet.

7. Can I buy my own materials?

As well as labor, contractors also markup materials. Buying your own windows, doors, tiles, paint and other supplies can save you a great deal of money, but be careful: if something chips or doesn’t fit, you’re on the hook for it and can possibly push the project deadline far back.

Remodeling can be a hassle-free process, but only if you know the right questions to ask.

Amy Wright
Amy Wright is the Lead Editor of Remodeling Central. When she isn't playing with her dogs she is trying to remodel a classic Chicago style brownstone with her husband.
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