Top Tips on Hiring the Perfect General Contractor for Your Next Project

Matt Marandola
Written by Matt Marandola
Updated August 16, 2022
Contractor laying new wood flooring
Photo: Keep It 100 / DigitalVision / Getty Images

You and your contractor are a match made in home improvement heaven—if you know the right questions to ask

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Think of your general contractor like the conductor of an orchestra—everyone has their part to play, but they need a leader to keep the group in tune and bring it all together. Your contractor is responsible for making sure your home improvement project goes smoothly, wraps up on time, and follows codes and best practices. It’s also kind of wonderful if they’re nice to work with. So it’s easy to see why finding and hiring the best contractor is key to your project’s success—and to your healthy blood pressure levels throughout the process. 

How to Find a General Contractor

Arguably the hardest part of hiring a general contractor is figuring out where you can even find out. While standing out on the road with a megaphone or buying a billboard isn’t cost effective, there are plenty of easy and convenient ways to find a wide variety of general contractors in your area paired with reviews.

Search Engines

One of the easiest ways is to use a search engine or service directory website to locate a general contractor. This simply requires you putting into a seach box that you’re looking for a general contractor in your specific zip code. You’ll then receive a long list of qualified professionals in your areas paired with reviews, phone numbers, and how to obtain quotes.

Word of Mouth

You may also want to hit up your neighbor who just remodeled their bathroom. Not only will they point you in the direction of a general contractor near you, but you can get a first-hand reference to the company as well as see their handy work on their project.

Social media is another great way to have recommendations sent your way. Even if someone doesn’t necessarily have any work done on their home by a general contractor, they may have someone they know or have seen work done and can easily link you the page.

Before Hiring Your Contractor: Laying the Foundation for a Great Experience

Since hiring the right contractor is so important to your home renovation project, you’ll want to be, well, prepared. That involves planning what you need, researching contractors and their past projects, and checking their credentials to ensure your chosen contractor has all the proper legal documents, is insured, and is licensed to work. 

But finding your perfect pro doesn’t have to be a headache. Just use our handy list of the top five tips to consider when hiring a contractor.

1. Want Accurate Quotes? First, Paint a Clear Picture

Before interviewing pros, it’s a great idea to sketch out your own vision for the project in as much detail as you can. Here are some prompts for the most important questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the top three priorities for this project? (Budget, craftsmanship, materials, timing, a specific room renovation, etc.)

  • Which rooms, elements, or spaces will need work?

  • Are there some adjectives you’d use to describe how you want your home to look or feel when the project is finished?

  • What services will you need to take care of these improvements? (Plumbing, electrical, paving, roofing, painting, for example)

  • What budget or range are you comfortable with for this project?

  • If you had to put something on the back burner for now, what would it be?

  • What qualities are most important to you in a contractor?

You can even clip out magazine photos or note websites that inspire you—it all helps. Once you’ve clarified your plan, it’ll be so much easier to share it. You can organize your thoughts by space or room, or by the type of work your contractor will need to complete (electrical, plumbing, tiling, and ship-lapping, for example). 

A good contractor will ask smart questions and then present you with a beautifully detailed quote and scope of work that you can refine together. Taking that time to craft a clear project picture helps you and them. 

2. Comparing Contractors: Get Several Quotes for the Work 

Reach out to multiple contractors and get at least three written quotes before moving forward with your decision. Speaking with a number of contractors will give you a variety of opinions and options, plus a clearer picture of the overall scope of work and costs. Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, though, as a quote may appear lower or higher based on the type of materials quoted or the individual elements or labor included. Watch out for any quotes that appear to be too low. While a wallet-friendly estimate may line up with your budget, you may not be getting the type of quality work you want, and that can cost more later in repairs or do-overs.

“If your home project is complex, don’t just choose the first pro to give you an estimate. You’ll be working closely with your pro throughout the project, so it’s important that you find someone who you’re comfortable with. Talk to several pros to ensure you have the best fit possible,” says Bailey Carson, home care expert at Angi.

3. Check Qualifications and References

Renovated home
Photo: rawpixel.com / Adobe Stock

Our advice: don’t skip this step. You should request several references from any contractors you are seriously considering—preferably previous customers from within the last six months to one year, and ideally, at least one whose project involved a similar scope of work. 

Reputable, well-established contractors should welcome this request. And once you have contacts for the references, do take the time to call or email them. Ask if the job concluded on time and at the agreed-upon price and if the contractor was easy to reach and deal with. 

Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s anything they wish they had known or done differently. Most people will be frank, and you can benefit from their experience. As an extra smart pre-hiring check, you can also contact the Better Business Bureau for information regarding complaints filed against the contractors you’re serious about hiring.

4. Ask Your General Contractor These Key Questions 

If you want to choose the perfect contractor for your project, you’ll need to ask the right questions. Their answers will tell you about how they do business and help you establish trust and confidence. We recommend asking every single one of these questions to any contractor you might hire: 

  • Do you carry general liability insurance?

  • Do you carry workers’ compensation insurance?

  • Will you provide me with written lien waivers? (A lien waiver is a form of receipt for payment of services and materials. It ensures that subcontractors and suppliers have received payments and that your property won’t face liens.)

  • Will you be responsible for all the required building permits?

  • How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year?

  • Can I speak to some former clients as a reference?

  • How do you handle changes in the scope of work?

  • Are you licensed by the Contractors State License Board?

  • Does your work come with a warranty?

  • What’s the timeline for this project?

All these questions are important, but probably none is more important than verifying their insurance coverage before you hire them.

Tips and Tricks for When You’ve Selected a General Contractor

Once you’ve selected the general contractor you’re going to trust your home to, it’s time to do your part on this project. While a general contractor generally handles most of the planning and hiring of subcontractors, you still have responsibilities you need to attend to.

1. Ask for a Background Check and Run License Checks

Give yourself some peace by running background checks on your pros and checking their license to ensure it’s up to date and valid. Though it’s important to let your general contractor know these checks will be performed, as you want to foster a healthy partnership throughout this project.

2. Great Projects Are Paved With Written Agreements

You’re almost ready to kick off your project, and you’re probably really excited. But no matter what, please avoid creating a purely verbal agreement with any contractor. There’s just no better way to say it: Get. Everything. In. Writing. That means get it in writing before the work begins,so that the scope of work and payment arrangements are clear. 

And you know what? It may cost extra, but it’s never a bad idea to have an attorney review the contract, just to make sure you’re protected. The bigger and more complex the project, the more at stake (budget, time, mental health!), so the more important an attorney becomes.

The building blocks of a solid project contract are:

  • A step-by-step overview of the work needed to complete the project along with the cost. 

  • A well-organized project timeline and the estimated time to finish.

  • payment deadlines so you know when to pay for each step of the project.

  • specific materials your contractor plans to use (types of wood, stone, metal, etc.). 

  • Warranties and possible permit fees. (This will depend on the permits needed in your city or county. Information about the permits required in your area can be found by contacting your local government, and many have online resources to make it easier.)

  • Disclosure statements so that you’re aware of lien releases.

Depending on any included details and clauses, you and your contractor can modify the contract. But remember—if you do make any changes, everyone needs to agree in writing before moving forward. 

Also, don’t be surprised along the way. Things often come up once the actual work begins. What if, for example, your team knocks down a wall and finds a surprise pipe that needs to be moved?  Make sure your contract outlines a change order process so that you can update the scope of work as needed. We’ll say it once more: Get it all in writing.

3. Keep Records on Your Project as It Goes

Your general contractor will likely have a wide variety of subcontractors on the project site. It’s best to have the general contractor to give you a daily list of items that were completed. You may want to keep your own list as well and even talk to some of the subcontractors to ensure everyone is on the same page.

4. Look for Red Flags and Prepare to Troubleshoot

Problems arise on project sites, no matter how much preparation you do. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore obvious red flags like trash covering the site or why your electricity is now on the fritz. If something seems out of place, immediately bring it up to the general contractor to address the issue at hand. Sometimes, things may go awry somewhere else in the house or on the site that a general contractor and the subcontractors don’t notice, even when doing their due diligence.

A few red flags you should be on the lookout for include:

  • Messy job site

  • You notice people not wearing proper PPE

  • They’re rushing the job

  • There’s damage to the home that no one has alerted you to

The Big Reveal: What to Do After Your General Contractor Has Finished Your Project

Great news. Your project is complete! But before you throw that dinner party in your amazing new open-concept kitchen, meet with your contractor for a final walk-through. During this stage, you’ll be able to inspect the renovation together and ask any questions you may have about the finished project.

If you’re delighted with the work, you’ll probably hug your contractor, do a happy dance, or at least shake hands. But then you’ll likely need to sign something to wrap up the project. Often it’s called an affidavit, which is just a fancy word for a legal document that confirms the project’s really done and done.

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