4 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Contractor

Candace Nelson
Written by Candace Nelson
Updated December 27, 2021
An owner talking to a candidate contractor
Photo: sturti / E+ / Getty Images

Be sure to check your contractor’s license, insurance, and experience before signing a contract to guarantee you have the best experience

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A general contractor is the captain of your home improvement or construction project team. They are responsible for assembling a team of sub-contractors, securing permits, and managing the project budget and timeline. You’ll want to make sure the job goes to someone you trust and who communicates well. When vetting candidates, collecting estimates, and hiring a contractor for your project, here's what you need to know.

How to Find a Contractor

Word of mouth is an ideal way to find a reputable contractor, so don’t be shy about asking neighbors, friends, and people at your local hardware store for referrals. You can also read online reviews on sites like Angi and neighborhood message boards.

If you have another skilled professional you like to work with, such as a plumber or electrician, you can always ask them for recommendations as well. They might have the inside scoop.

Before Hiring a Contractor

Once you've got a couple of names, do your own vetting to ensure the contractor feels like a good fit for your project. Look at their website. Does it look like they’ve done projects similar to yours? Here are some other steps to include in this project prep phase.

Plan Your Construction Project for Accurate Quotes

The first thing you need to know before soliciting bids is what you want your project to accomplish. A contractor will ask questions (many you probably haven’t thought about) and give suggestions, but you’ll want to have a general vision for the project before that conversation.

For example, if you’re planning a renovation, have a general idea of:

  • How many rooms or square feet are involved

  • What types of rooms

  • Any structural changes

  • Whether it’s a new build or remodel

  • Any major systems like plumbing, electrical, or HVAC that need to be added or moved 

Give potential contractors as much information as possible so that they can prepare a complete quote for you. Try to get prices from at least three different contractors and compare what’s included.

Check Your Contractor’s Qualifications and References

In your first phone call, ask the contractor if they are licensed, bonded, and insured. Then follow-up by checking with your state’s business registry and the Better Business Bureau for any red flags. This is a person you're going to be trusting with a significant investment, so you'll want to make sure that their business is on the up-and-up and all essential licenses and insurance are up to date.

Questions to Ask Your Contractor

  1. Will you get copies of permit applications before work begins? Be clear on who will be in charge of obtaining all necessary building permits before the project starts. You can go to your municipal building department yourself to ask questions and file for all required permits if needed.

  2. Will you use materials and fixtures purchased just for this project? Make sure that any materials you buy through your prospective contractor come fresh from the factory or supplier and haven't been sitting in a yard or on a shelf for months (or years). Older components could be out of warranty, and nothing made with moving parts—like plumbing fixtures, windows, furnaces, or water heaters—benefits from long periods of unuse.

  3. Do you use green practices or have any special environmental considerations? Insist on high-efficiency Energy Star–rated appliances and that building materials removed from your home are recycled or properly disposed of. For example, metal can be recycled, and cabinets or appliances that are still in good shape can be donated.

  4. Who will be doing the actual work? Your contractor might not be swinging the hammer themselves, so you’ll want to know who will be. Are sub-contractors and crew members trained and licensed as required? Will the contractor be on-site to supervise the team?

Hiring Your Contractor Tips

A contractor giving direction to a worker
Photo: kali9 / E+ / Getty Images

Once you’ve picked your top contractor, it’s time to get down to business and do your due diligence.

Ask for a Some Background Information

Start by checking a couple of references from your contractor. Ask the contractor’s references about the team’s professionalism, the work timeline, and how the work held up. 

If your state or city requires contractors to be licensed, then it’s usually easy to check their status. Take the time to verify because unlicensed contractors can cost you. If you go to the website of your state or city’s contractor license board and enter the contractor’s license number, you’ll usually see their license status, the status of their bond, and who their insurance company is. You can also check organizations like The Construction Association for member registration.

You might also want to ask for the full names of anyone who will have your keys or access to the place you live.

Get a Contract and Arrange Payments With Your Contractor

Your contractor likely has a standard contract and other documents they use, but don’t be afraid to make changes. Some points to note include:

  • Who is responsible for obtaining permits?

  • How long will the work take?

  • What guarantees or warranties are offered?

  • Will the contractor haul away old materials and appliances?

  • When are payments due, and what is the percentage for each installment? Consider withholding the final payment until you are completely satisfied with the work.

Keep Records of Your Construction Project

Depending on the size and scope of your project, construction permits might be required. Hang on to copies in case you need them in the future. You’ll also want to tuck away any warranty information for new appliances in a safe place. And it’s never a bad idea to note the manufacturer and style of any flooring, cabinetry, paint, tile, or other finishes. Fingers crossed, there are no mishaps, but it's helpful just in case.

Look for Contractor Red Flags and Prepare to Troubleshoot

You should be aware of these contractor warning signs when going through the hiring process:

  • Little or no evidence of experience

  • A significantly lower bid than the competition

  • High-pressure sales tactics

  • Demands for a large deposit up-front

  • Poor communication skills

Once they’re on the job, make sure the contractor communicates with you regularly and is on-site. If you can’t get a hold of your contractor for several days and they aren’t at your place when you swing by to check-in, consider that a red flag.

After Your Contractor Has Finished

Once the work is done and you’re happy with the final product, make your final payment and recommend your contractor to those in need.

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