What to Ask a Contractor

Getting quotes for a project might feel overwhelming for some homeowners. Construction projects and home improvement might be foreign to them, and they could feel at a disadvantage. But, even if a homeowner doesn't have much experience in the field, they can feel comfortable making a decision if they know which questions to ask a contractor when getting quotes.

24 Questions to Ask a Contractor When Getting Quotes

Do you have a license?

This is arguably the most important question to ask a contractor during the quote process. Trade licensing shows prospective clients that the contractor has the experience and know-how to handle the job. In most cases, contractors have to take tests, apply for background checks, and carry insurance. Business licenses ensure that their business is legitimate and meets state requirements.

Also, most cities, counties, or states have strict licensing rules about who can perform work within their jurisdictions. Contractors working without a license may be breaking the law, and if they're caught during a project, that job can come to a crashing halt. Also, homeowners who hire unlicensed contractors are sometimes liable for fines and other penalties.

Do note that licenses aren't universal. A license from one state does not necessarily mean a contractor is licensed in other states. Also, some states don't require trade licenses for general contractors so familiarize yourself with your local regulations.

Do you have insurance?

The second most important question to ask a contractor while getting quotes is “do you have insurance?”. Contractors should carry insurance that protects them, their employees, and the customer's property in the event of an accident, and asking for proof or copies is always a good idea.

The first insurance policy to request proof of is general liability. General liability insurance will protect the customer's property in the event that damage occurs. It will also protect the contractor against major financial losses due to accidents, helping ensure they're able to continue your project through completion without going bankrupt.

The other insurance that a contractor should prove they carry is worker's compensation. Worker's compensation insurance protects their employees in the event that they get hurt on the project. Without that insurance policy, the contractor or the homeowner may be liable for injuries, neither of which would be good for the life of the project.

How many years have you been in business?

While new contractors aren't necessarily bad contractors, homeowners who prefer to work with an established contractor have the right to do so. Asking how long a contractor has been in business is important, and it can say a lot about the contractor itself.

A contractor that has been in business for 10 years probably knows their way around a construction project, the financial side of the business, and customer satisfaction. Construction can be a tough industry so lasting a few years is a good sign.

But, if the contractor says they've been in business for 30 years, but their company is only a few years old, this could be a red flag. Shifty contractors often change business names or change ownership between family members to outrun bad reputations or poor financial decisions.

Where are you from?

Don't be afraid to ask a contractor where they're from. Local contractors are often more desirable to homeowners, and that can be for good reason.

First, out-of-town contractors may be willing to take the job, but logistics could be an issue. Getting the tools and crew to the job site for weeks on end can be tough. Also, the profit margin is likely less enticing for traveling contractors, which would mean your project won't receive the attention it deserves.

On the other hand, local contractors have reputations to protect. They'll work hard to ensure that their customers are happy because they value word-of-mouth marketing. Local contractors are typically familiar with permitting processes, local codes, and other need-to-know information—things out-of-towners might not know equally as well.

Do you have references that I can speak to?

Asking for references is key. In a world with such easy access to social proof, getting other folks to speak on the contractor's behalf is a basic business practice.

A good contractor should have at least a handful of satisfied customers that they're willing to put you in touch with. You'll be able to ask them questions about the timeline, whether the job stayed on budget, and what communication was like. Inquiring homeowners who like the answers they receive may choose to move forward with that contractor. If there's a red flag, it might be worth moving on.

However, remember that a contractor would be foolish to put a potential customer in touch with an unsatisfied customer. For this reason, it's just as critical to perform internet searches and read reviews. Constant complaints about budget, timelines, or communications should be red flags despite what the contractor's references say.

Have you done projects like this before?

Asking if this is their first time with a project like yours can provide some insight into the contractor's experience. While every project is unique in its own way, the contractor should have some experience to draw upon.

Ask if the contractor has a portfolio or online gallery to showcase their work. They should be able to show similar projects so don't be afraid to ask how they went. Also, if they don't have a project or two to reference, ask what makes them qualified for your job.

Can you itemize the quote?

If you'd like to see the cost breakdown associated with your project, don't be afraid to ask. Itemized quotes not only explain where the money is going, but they also help homeowners when comparing quotes.

Contractors should be willing to break the quotes down into specific areas such as framing, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and any other specific trade. These quotes should explain how much money is going to materials and how much labor will account for.

There may be other fees associated with the job, as well. Permit fees, waste removal, equipment rentals, and design fees are all common costs associated with construction projects. It's helpful to see how a contractor is pricing those costs compared to other pros.

Will you provide proof of permits?

Most projects require permits and almost every quote will include the cost associated with pulling them. This is an honest business practice as the permit process can often be difficult and time-consuming.

Contractors are often required to post their permits in plain sight on the job site so providing proof for the homeowner shouldn't be an issue. However, asking for proof tells the contractor the homeowner knows how the permit process works.

When can you start?

Contractors need to keep their schedules full to run a successful business. Just because a contractor is able to give a quote doesn't mean they're available right away. There may be a substantial wait until they're able to get to the job they're quoting.

While this can be a factor in deciding which contractor to choose, it's not necessarily a bad thing for a contractor to carry a big backlog. This typically means they're in demand, and that usually indicates that they're good at what they do. However, if the job requires immediate attention, it may be necessary to move on to another contractor.

Who will be working on my project?

Don't be afraid to ask about who will be on the property. Homeowners have a right to know who will be on their property. This is especially true when the renovation or project is taking place inside their current home.

The contractor might be able to give you specific names of who they'll assign the project to and who works with them. If they can't, and they often can't due to logistics, inquire about their hiring practices. Do applicants need to pass background checks before hiring? Are drug tests part of their policies? If you're uncomfortable with someone on your job site, can you request someone else? These could be important questions to some homeowners.

Who is my point of contact?

Communication is paramount on a construction project, and things get murky when there isn't one point of contact. While good contractors are masters of communication, there can still be shortcomings or misunderstandings.

Very often, homeowners are to blame for poor communication because they think they're speaking to the correct person, but that isn't the case. That person may have four or five supervisors or managers between them and the person who actually needs the information. To avoid this issue, ask for the contact information of the POC (point of contact). This is usually the general contractor themselves or a project manager.

Who are your subcontractors?

General contractors aren't typically equipped to take on a large project by themselves. Whether it's due to licensing, manpower, or trade expertise, they often lean on a trusted circle of subcontractors. The general contractor is still ultimately responsible for the direction of the project, but these subcontractors are important pieces of the puzzle and the homeowner should ask.

First, do a little research on the subcontractor to ensure you're as comfortable with them as you are the general contractor. Also, ask for the contact information for the subcontractors on your job and introduce yourself. This can go a long way to ensuring that everyone on the project is on the same page.

Who are your materials suppliers?

Just as the case is with subcontractors, homeowners have a right to know where the materials used on their projects are coming from. Asking the general contractor who their main materials suppliers are helps the homeowner gain some insight into the contractor's supply chain.

It's also acceptable to ask for materials quotes from different suppliers. Homeowners may be able to get the quote lowered a bit if they're able to shop materials and timelines.

What materials brands do you use?

Asking which brands or manufacturers a contractor works with can help homeowners decide if a contractor is right for them. Some contractors have certification agreements with specific brands and depending on what those brands' reputations are, homeowners may opt to go with another contractor.

There are cases where a manufacturer will only warranty work if a certified installer handled the job, as well. While the individual product might be warrantied, the installation might not. Finding a contractor that works specifically with the desired brand may ensure the entire project is covered.

How will I receive updates?

The job's progress matters to the homeowner. They want to make sure things are on track, on budget, and going as smoothly as a project can go. And that information needs to come from the contractor, so be sure to ask about updates.

Unless it's a small project, most contractors are too busy to give daily updates. However, it is reasonable to expect weekly updates. These updates should be quick but they can mean a lot to a homeowner who isn't familiar with the process.

Do you offer warranties on your work?

Even the best contractors using the best materials occasionally make a mistake, and homeowners need to be understanding. However, the contractor should take responsibility and warranty the work for a certain period of time.

Ask about how long their warranty period is. Also, ask them if the materials and labor are covered or if it's just the material warranty. It's also a wise idea to ask them what the warranty process is like and how long it usually takes them to rectify potential problems.

How many other projects will you be running?

Let's face it: Good contractors are busy. However, it's critical to ask them how many projects they'll be running alongside your job. If they can't give the job the attention it deserves because they're spread too thin, it may be worth waiting for slower times or moving on to another contractor.

How many is too many? The answer is relative. For a small contractor employing a handful of people, more than two jobs may be too many. For a larger contractor, five or six simultaneous projects may be well within their capabilities.

How does payment work?

Make sure to ask the contractor how they prefer to handle payments. How much do they expect down? How often will they submit invoices (weekly, monthly, just once)? Do they work with a financing partner to allow for payment plans?

Just a note: Homeowners should never put down more than 30 percent of the total cost for a project. This should give the contractor enough money to purchase the first phase of materials and get the job underway. Beyond the down payment, contractors should submit invoices to the homeowner for future payments.

How do you handle changes?

Construction projects rarely run perfectly smoothly, whether it's the fault of the contractor or the homeowner. Altering the original plan may cost more (or less), and it's okay to ask the contractor how they handle these situations.

Any changes to the plan should be written out in a change order and approved by the homeowner, the contractor, and any subcontractors it may affect. The change order should clearly explain the new scope of work as well as the cost implications it will have.

Note that the homeowner shouldn't always have to pay for mistakes made during the quote process. If materials costs rise considerably from the time the contract was signed and the time the contractor attempts to purchase them, those costs are on the contractor. This specific scenario is worth asking about, as well.

What time will you start and end each day?

It's helpful to know what time the project will start and end each day. Early starts and late finishes can be a problem in your neighborhood, but if the contractor is unaware, it can affect their timeline and ultimately the project.

It's also important to know what time to expect the crew to show up for accountability purposes. If the project is supposed to start at 8:00 am each day and the crew doesn't show up until 10:00 or 11:00 am, or they're cutting out early, it will affect the timeline and the homeowner should be fully aware.

How many days each week will you be on-site?

Knowing how often to expect the contractors on-site each week is worth the question. There will be instances where it doesn't make sense for the crew to be there, such as when waiting for materials or when the concrete is curing.

But, if the crew is supposed to be there Monday through Friday, the homeowner at least knows what to expect. If the crew won't be there on a Friday, the homeowner should know ahead of time. Asking about this schedule is another way to keep the lines of communication open.

Who is responsible for clean-up?

For larger projects, the responsibility of tossing the waste is cut-and-dry: It falls on the contractor. However, it may not be so obvious for smaller projects, so it's a question worth asking.

Will there be a dumpster in the driveway? Who's responsible for calling to have it emptied? If the homeowner handles clean-up, will they save money off the quote? Who will dispose of used appliances? Getting these questions out in the open keeps everyone on a level playing field.

Are you asbestos certified?

This question can be a very big deal for folks renovating or adding on to older homes. The restrictions on who can perform asbestos removal are getting tighter and tighter. Contractors working in certain municipalities need to take special courses and carry certain certifications in order to handle these jobs legally.

Beyond legal issues, homeowners should know that the contractor working on their project is using safe asbestos removal practices. This is true even when working on small projects. Knowing the proper way to remove asbestos or encapsulate it could mean the difference between healthy air and possible complications.

How can we handle disputes or disagreements?

Disagreements or misunderstandings happen on many construction projects. These ripples can be between the homeowner and the contractor, the sub and the homeowner, or the sub and the contractor. Most of the time, these issues are easily managed, but it's still helpful to know how the contractor handles disagreements.

Ask the contractor about past disputes they might've dealt with and how they went. Gauge their honesty and how you would feel if you were the customer in the story. Would you be happy with that resolution?

Homeowners can ask for dispute resolution clauses in their contracts, as well. This is typically reserved for large projects, but these clauses often include a third party to hear the parties out and make a ruling. While the hope is to avoid the issue, this clause can give some homeowners peace of mind.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions

Ultimately, the homeowner and contractor need to have open communication to ensure the project goes as smoothly as possible. Asking the important questions helps the homeowner feel a bit better prepared and also shows the contractor that communication is important to their client. This interest can start the relationship off on the right foot and help it stay on track moving forward.

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