When a home construction or renovation project goes wrong, it’s often because the home owner chose the wrong contractor. Asking these questions can help you find the right one…

What are your favorite types of projects to take on? You want a contractor who focuses on and enjoys the sort of work you want done. For example, if you are doing a renovation, you want someone who loves to remodel versus someone who builds only new houses and hates the remodeling process. Ask before you tell the contractor what type of project you have in mind. Do not accept the answer “I like all projects.”

How is your business structured? Do you have a lot of full-time employees? Who are your key subcontractors? You want a contractor who has worked with the same core group of trusted subcontractors and workmen for years. This core group does not necessarily have to include full-timers—certain subcontractors such as plumbers and electricians are rarely on staff—but if they’re independent, the contractor should note that he has been hiring these subcontractors time and again for many years. What you don’t want to hear is something vague such as, “I find people when I need them.” 

When you get to the end of a job, how do you handle closing things out? The contractor’s response should include that you will have an opportunity to list things that you believe still need to be done before the crew packs up and leaves. Example: “When we feel the job is substantially complete, we will invite you to provide a list of anything you see that needs attention. We’ll tackle your list immediately.”

Follow up by asking what you can do if you spot a problem a month after the project is complete. Get a written warranty or guarantee confirming that the contractor stands behind his work and the materials he uses. The warranty should be a minimum of one year on all labor and materials the contractor furnishes.

Are you licensed and bonded? Is everyone who is going to be on my property covered by workman’s compensation? Don’t work with a contractor who answers no or gives a vague response. If the answer is yes, follow up with, “Can your insurance provider send me confirmation of your general-liability coverage?” Do not work with a contractor who acts as if this request is inappropriate—it’s not. A contractor who implies that it is inappropriate is either trying to hide that he does not actually have coverage, which could put you at financial risk…and/or he’s a pain to work with. Contractors who have coverage generally are happy to prove that they have it—doing that makes them feel that they are getting their money’s worth out of their insurance policies.

How will I communicate with your company once the project starts? You want to hear that you will have one specific person whom you can call or text—either the contractor himself or a project foreman—and that this person will either pick up or get back to you promptly. “Just call the office and leave a message” is not acceptable.

What will be the normal working hours for the crew on this project? It’s a great sign if after you are told a daily schedule, you are asked, “Does that work for you?” This suggests that the contractor prioritizes the client’s needs.

Will you use a standard contract? The answer you don’t want to hear is, “I don’t bother with contracts.” It’s fine if the contractor has had his own contracts drawn up, but confirm that this contract will lay out in detail what the contractor will be providing…what he will not be providing…what the payment schedule will be…and what the total payment amount will be.

How long have you been a contractor? What did you do before that? Three years of experience might be sufficient for a small renovation, though five or more is better. For a large project, look for someone with at least 10 years of experience. It’s a good sign if the contractor previously worked as a supervisor or project manager for a builder…or as a framing contractor. It’s a bad sign if he did something unrelated to building—whenever the economy booms and construction surges, people with limited background in the field try to become contractors, often with poor results. (Prior profession is less important if the contractor has been a contractor for a decade or longer.)

Have you always operated under your current business name? Changing business names can be a red flag—the contractor might have closed an earlier business to escape lawsuits from dissatisfied clients and unpaid vendors or other problems. If the contractor says that he never has changed company names, enter that contractor’s first and last name and the word “contractor” into a search engine to see whether you can find any evidence that he actually has. You also could ask building inspectors in nearby towns whether they know anything about the contractor’s background and for an off-the-record opinion of the contractor…or, especially if you are planning a large project, ask a lawyer to do a quick search for lawsuits naming this contractor as defendant

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