The Definitive Guide to Hiring a General Contractor
Your family has been discussing the need for a new deck for several years now. You've bounced around every possible need it should accommodate. You've drawn out sketch after sketch after sketch and generated dumpsters worth of crumpled up notebook paper.
You may have even shared the idea with friends or coworkers to get as much feedback as possible. Your buddy's, cousin's, wife's father's good friend from the Army who built his own deck in 1976 has even chimed in on what kind of wood you should use to construct it.
Finally, you've settled on the exact deck that will suit your family and home.
And then the hesitation strikes...
You don't want those years of planning to go to waste, let alone the huge investment you're about to make. What if it doesn't come out exactly the way you'd hoped? You've already handed over the check and the contractors have left the "job site".
But this isn't just a job to you! It's a dream your family has been anticipating for years.
You dread the inevitable buyer's remorse.
The last thing you want is to look at your brand-new deck and cringe at a stark reminder of that hard-earned money you flushed down the toilet.
At Phoenix Home Services, we believe that's an absolutely ridiculous experience that no homeowner should ever have to go through. Further, we know for a fact that it's an outcome that can easily be avoided.
So, we're going to show you how. Without further ado, we present to you:
The 24 most critical questions you absolutely have to ask before you even think about hiring a contractor:
1. How long have you been in business?
One of the most important questions that should come to mind before hiring a contractor is how long they've been in business. We should all be familiar with the old adage, "practice makes perfect" and it is no different in the construction business. Generally speaking, the longer a company has been in business, the more practice they have. Even if they've gone through several different construction crews, there's a good chance that something has kept them in business as long as they claim.
However, that shouldn't stop you from inquiring about the tenure of their crew. Contractors that have been in business for ten to 30 years tend to have at least a few members of their crew that have been around for almost the same length of time.
When you ask this question, you should put a big, fat check-mark next to the contractors that have been around for ten or more years and have tenured foremen and project managers.
2. Are you licensed?
This should be a no-brainer, but it's absolutely worth mentioning. While a contractor does not legally have to be licensed to perform work on your home, you should be extremely cautious if hiring a contractor that is not licensed.
Always ask about the type of license your contractor has as this indicates a number of things that will help you make a well-informed decision.
In Virginia, trades like electrical or plumbing require special licenses. So, you should ensure your contractor has licensed tradesmen if your project involves any work like this. Additionally, there are three classes of contractor's licenses that you should understand. They are defined as follows:
Class A Contractor
Class A licenses are the most advanced you can receive in Virginia and have several strict requirements both to acquire and maintain the license. The contractor must:
- Have at least five years of experience.
- Pass the Virginia, General, and Advanced examinations.
- Maintain a net worth of at least $45,000.
The license comes with no limitations; allowing a contractor to execute projects valued over $120,000 and to report earnings over $750,000 in a single year.
Class B Contractor
The Class B license is slightly less difficult than the Class A, but comes with a few limitations. In order to obtain and maintain this license a contractor must:
- Have at least three years of experience.
- Pass the Virginia and General portions of the contractor examination.
- Maintain a net worth of at least $15,000.
The limitations imposed on Class B licenses enable a contractor to only take on projects that are valued between $10,000 and $120,000 and their annual earnings must be between $150,000 and $750,000.
Class C Contractor
Class C licenses are the easiest to obtain, but come with the most strict limitations. To become a Class C contractor it is only required that a contractor have two years of experience. There is no required examination or minimum net worth.
Generally this limits a contractor to only take on projects valued between $1,000 and $10,000, unless their total annual earnings do not surpass $150,000.
3. Can you provide references?
Hiring a contractor should not be a taken lightly. This isn't the same as hiring someone to power-wash your siding or clean your gutters.
You are hiring a team of professionals to complete a project and you should take the same care and consideration that a major organization would take before hiring a new employee.
A team of experienced, professional contractors should be able to provide you with references at a moment's notice. They should have an army of past clients that are ready and willing to put in a good word for them. Even if you don't have the time to verify all of their references (though you absolutely should), it can be comforting just to know your new-hire is confident and ready to share their references with you.
4. Are you insured?
What happens if a contractor injures themselves while working on your project? What about if a rogue circular-saw goes rampaging across your deck? How would you handle the damage caused if an excavator bursts a pipe in your backyard?
These are all questions you shouldn't have to worry about once you've signed over a check. Ensuring (pun incoming) that your contractor is well insured is the only question you should ask.
A licensed contractor should be able to provide you with a certificate of insurance that verifies they cover liability and workman's compensation.
5. How much experience do you have with projects like ours?
Earlier, we mentioned that you should ask how long your contractor has been in business. However, experience varies from contractor to contractor. 30 years of experience means very little for your new deck if the contractor has only built two decks in those 30 years.
Be sure to ask how many projects like yours the contractor has completed.
A team with years of experience that has confidence in their ability to complete your project should not only be able to provide you with references, but they should also have a portfolio they can share with you that clearly illustrates the quality of their work.
6. Will you provide 3D designs of our project?
One of the most difficult aspects of a home improvement project is making sure that you and the contractor have precisely the same vision of what the final work should look like.
Decades ago, this problem was solved by providing detailed sketches of a project. However, in today's day and age, a quality contractor should employ a 3D designer that can produce an accurate rendition of your project.
You should ask to see a few things regarding this design:
- Multiple angles; you want to see at least the left, right, birds-eye, and close-ups of your project.
- Floor-plan; this should show you accurate dimensions of the project.
- Full-color; while textures and color can be difficult to accurately depict in a 3D rendering, you still want to avoid black and white renderings.
If a contractor can't provide these things, you run the risk of spending tons of money on a project that misses the mark.
7. Do you provide itemized proposals?
Just as we mentioned above, being on the same page with your contractor is imperative and this extends beyond just the execution of the project.
You should always request an itemized proposal from your contractor. Not only does this serve as a checklist of items that need to be completed for your project, it also helps to keep your contractor honest. Itemized proposals give you the necessary detail to ensure the contractor isn't trying to sneak in a little bit of extra profit.
Additionally, if anything goes wrong with your project, it makes it far easier to assess and prove where the mistakes happened.
8. What is the possible variance in the proposed price?
Frequently, it can be very difficult, even for skilled professionals with decades of experience to price a project with extreme precision.
Numerous variables can impact the proposed price such as:
- Fluctuations in material cost.
- Unforeseen environmental circumstances.
- County or city ordinances.
- HOA requirements.
While you should be prepared for this in advance of hiring a contractor, it is essential that you ask this question. For starters, it gives you a good idea of how to manage your budget for the project. Further, it encourages the contractor to put thought into these variances and price your project with as much precision as possible.
A contractor that expects no variance in the proposed price is most-likely just trying to sell you as quickly as possible or lacks the experience necessary to complete your project.
9. Do you have any concerns about our project?
Home improvement is an art-form. It is not a precise science that can be completed the same way every time. Every project is absolutely unique for countless reasons. Some of these were mentioned above, but there are always aspects of a project that a contractor should be concerned about.
A lack of concern is a clear sign of naivety.
Your contractor should be able to express their potential concerns with you as well as a plan of action should these concerns become a reality.
10. How are permits, HOA, & inspection handled?
Most home improvement projects in Virginia (and across the nation) are subject to approval by your city or county and possibly your homeowner's association (HOA).
Approval is required before beginning a project in the form of a construction permit and a possible HOA approval and it is required after completion of a project in the form of a home inspection.
For the typical homeowner, these approvals are a completely foreign process that varies dramatically from county to county. It is not a process a homeowner should have to go through for several reasons:
- They often require a fair amount of construction knowledge to relay to the county officials.
- The timing of these approvals can have a significant impact on getting your project started.
- Getting these approvals can be both tiresome and time-consuming.
For these reasons and many others, your contractor should be responsible for getting these approvals. Not only are they better equipped to do so, but they can properly coordinate these approvals in-line with the project timeline.
11. How long will our project take from start to finish?
This is another no-brainer and probably one of the first questions that naturally pops into your mind when you decide to get your project started. Despite the years of planning you've probably done, once you sign over that check, it's essential to know how long your project will take.
But you shouldn't just get a completion date. You should have a detailed schedule:
- When will the permits & HOA approval be acquired?
- When will the project start?
- If you're having projects done in different areas of your home, when will each one be completed?
- When will the entire project be completed?
- How long will it take to cleanup after the project?
- When will the final inspection be completed?
These are all milestones you should be aware of when hiring your contractor.
12. What is needed from me throughout construction?
How involved do you want to be throughout the construction process?
A premium contractor should offer complete, hands-free, full-service project management for you.
However, there may be some aspects of the process that require your involvement. Whether you're undecided on a particular material and need to decide after a particular aspect of the project has been completed or you're going to be responsible for pulling permits or moving furniture, you need to know these things in advance.
There is nothing worse than having a crew on-site at your home that needs to halt construction because the project manager can't reach you or doesn't know what to do about the car blocking the driveway that needs to be used to haul materials into your backyard.
13. What is the payment schedule?
Knowing how and when you'll be paying your contractor is an essential piece of knowledge you should have before any work is started on your project.
First of all, you should never pay the full amount up-front. Incentive makes everyone's work better and a contractor should feel the need to reach certain milestones before they get to tap your bank account.
You should always ask when you'll make the first and final payments. If there are any progression payments that need to be made along the way, you'll want to know what specific milestone must be reached before you make that payment.
14. What if there are changes to the project?
So, your contractor's crew is chugging along and has the substructure of your new deck installed when suddenly, you change your mind.
Despite all of the planning, discussion, and the highly-detailed 3D rendering you were provided before your project was started, the deck just seems to look a little smaller in person and you decide you want to extend it by three feet.
How will your contractor handle this?
Will it even be possible once they've reached that point in construction?
What kind of cost will be associated with this?
No matter how certain you are of the game-plan you and your contractor have come up with, these are all questions you should thoroughly discuss before signing a contract.
15. What can you tell me about the materials that will be used?
No matter how skilled a contractor is, absolutely every home improvement project is only as good as the materials used to construct it and knowing where a contractor gets their materials from can illuminate a lot of things.
Your itemized proposal should give you a lot of this information, but you should discuss this with your contractor before-hand. It may impact a number of things including:
- The final price of the project.
- The difficulty to install.
- The durability and integrity of the final work.
- Any potential maintenance concerns.
While not all materials will be appropriate for a particular project, your contractor should be confident in the materials used and they should be able to thoroughly educate you about them.
16. Do you sub-contract?
Sub-contracting can have a very negative connotation in the construction industry. Especially with residential improvements, you should hope for a contractor that has their own dedicated crew to work on your project.
However, many contractors do sub-contract for certain parts of a project and you should not necessarily avoid these contractors altogether.
If it will be necessary for your contractor to sub-contract a part of the project, you should ask as much as you can about the sub-contractor (including many of the questions on this list) and you should ask about the length of the relationship between the contractor and sub-contractor.
17. Who will be the project manager?
Every home improvement project should have a project manager. This is the individual responsible for managing the crew that will be installing your project.
While your contractor should be confident in the crew they're sending to your property and don't necessarily need to have a project manager on-site every day, you should still ask about this individual. If possible, meet with them to discuss any concerns you may have. Ensure that they're familiar with the type of project being installed and that they are on the same page.
This is the best person to ask about day-to-day procedures and how potential concerns will be handled.
On that note, be sure to ask:
18. Can you describe what a typical day will be like once we start?
The purpose of this list is not only to ensure that your project is completed exactly the way you envisioned, but to ensure that the process is as painless as possible.
Part of this entails knowing exactly how your project will be executed. The last thing you want is to have a construction crew arrive at your home without understanding exactly what their process will be like.
You should always illicit as much detail as possible about the day-to-day operation of the construction crew. The project manager should be able to provide you immense detail here, giving you a clear picture of what to expect when your project begins.
Some questions to keep in mind here:
- How many people will be working on my property?
- What time will the crew begin and end their day?
- What kind of noise should we expect during construction?
- Where will construction vehicles be parked?
- How will materials be transported to the work-site?
Be sure to also consider any other variables that may apply to your particular project or your circumstances, such as your own work-schedule, your neighbors, or any other tricky obstacles that may be present on your property.
19. How will our property be protected during construction?
We already discussed liability insurance, but that should be considered a last-resort.
First and foremost, you will want to discuss with your contractor how your personal property will be protected during the construction of your project.
If you have a garden outside, you don't want it trampled during the process. If you're having work done inside, you want to ensure your appliances and furniture won't be destroyed by dust or paint.
A good contractor should have a game-plan for this and you should be given a thorough response when you ask this question.
20. Where will tools & materials be stored?
Most home improvement projects will take more than a day to complete and a construction crew will not arrive on your property empty-handed.
You'll want to be sure you know how and where the construction equipment and the materials necessary for your project will be stored throughout the process. While it's easy to assume this will be handled by the contractor without issue, you will want to make sure your contractor has a plan for this, especially if you have limited space on your property or if they will need to store materials in a driveway that you use frequently.
21. How can we keep in touch throughout construction?
This one is way easier to overlook than one might think.
While you may have communicated thoroughly with the contractor before the project began, it might not be immediately apparent who you should talk to should you have questions or when a problem arises.
Always be sure to get the contact information of your designer and project manager. Make sure you know what times they can be reached and what type of response time you can expect.
A good project manager should be able to return your call right away as long as there is a crew on your property.
22. How is debris cleanup handled?
Home improvement produces a lot of debris. Wood chips or blocks, broken stone, screws, nails, and all sorts of other rubbish that will need to be removed from your property.
This is especially important if you have an HOA as many agreements have hidden fines for construction debris.
Debris cleanup is not something you should be responsible for. Be sure to ask your contractor about this so you can start enjoying your newly installed project right away without having to worry about cleaning up after the crew has already left.
23. Will our project be guaranteed?
Many homeowners forget to ask this imperative question about their project before they sign a contract, but ensuring that your project is guaranteed by some sort of warranty is an absolute must.
Even the best contractor can't always predict the way concrete may settle, much less the homeowner.
Should something go awry after your project is installed, you want to be sure your hard-earned money didn't just go to waste.
Any premium contractor should offer some sort of warranty that covers problems that may arise from installation. This should cover things like re-pointing brick, repairing cracks in stone, or replacing splintering wood. Though replacing an entire project is rarely covered by a warranty, you should get as much detail as possible about your contractor's warranty and what kind of potential problems it will cover.
24. How is arbitration handled?
Finally, this should be a last-resort and hopefully something you will never have to deal with. If you ask the previous 23 questions before choosing a contractor to perform any work on your home, this is probably something you don't even need to concern yourself with.
However, it's still an essential question to ask. Homeowners and contractors will not always agree on everything and their is always the possibility that disagreements will need to be mediated by a third-party.
Before this happens, you will want to ensure that you and your contractor at least agree upon how arbitration will be handled. If your contractor can't answer this question, you should be very wary of their credibility.
Home improvement can be an intimidating task to undertake, but it should be a rewarding one. Hiring the right contractor can really make or break a project and you should try to cover as much detail as possible with your contractor before you begin.
At Phoenix Home Services, we aim to address all 24 of these points with as much care as possible, but you should expect this of any contractor you hire. While there are contractors of all different classes (remember the A, B, & C licenses we mentioned in #2), no contractor should overlook anything mentioned in these 24 questions.
Some of these questions don't necessarily have a right answer, so you should use your judgement to determine if the contractor's response is something that you and your family will be comfortable with. If you're getting proposals from several different contractors before making your decision, be sure to compare the responses of each contractor and weigh the pros and cons.
Ultimately, you want to be as well-informed about the contractor and their process as possible. They should be efficient, organized, experienced, and customer service oriented. They should also be willing and able to provide documented proof for any claims they make regarding things like licensing, insurance, or references.
Avoid contractors that can't back-up their claims, but also ones that respond to all of these questions with what they think you want to hear. Every project should raise some concerns for a contractor and you have to ensure they have a solid plan of action to handle any issues that may arise.
Do not be afraid to ask these questions. Experienced contractors will always be happy to answer if they truly value your business and want to earn the invaluable word-of-mouth referrals that keep most contractors in business.