14 Questions to Ask Your Contractor

For anyone who has been in the business more than five minutes — and that should be all of you — it becomes clear that there are levels of involvement in the real estate industry. There are, of course, your buyers and sellers, and then there are your real estate professionals who help broker those one-to-one deals. There are levels of commercial real estate agents and finally those who buy and sell their own properties as investors or speculators, often overseeing the construction or renovation of properties themselves.

It’s this last group that we’re talking about here today. Working with contractors can be one of the most stressful — and rewarding — parts of our business. A bad one can make your life a walking nightmare, while the right contractor can make your life infinitely easier and more profitable.

But how to know the difference? Start with the following checklist of questions and resources, and we guarantee your list will be narrowed quickly. After that, trust your recommendations and your gut. It’s gotten you this far.

  1. How long have you been in this business? It may seem like a no brainer, but opening the conversation about your contractor’s experience can give you all sorts of insight into his or her track record. Experience matters in this business.
  2. Would you mind starting on a smaller project? If you’re on the fence but leaning toward the contractor, we suggest giving him or her a smaller project to complete before you ask them to build that new master wing.
  3. Can I see your certificates? This should include everything — licensure, insurance, you name it. If he or she can’t produce those documents at short notice, it’s time to move on.
  4. Have you worked in this county/city/neighborhood before? Not only can code requirements vary from county to county and city to city, but even different neighborhoods have different rules for what can and can’t be done construction-wise. Live in a historic neighborhood? There may be some squawking about that new carport. Make sure your contractor knows how to navigate that.
  5. What are the terms of payment? It’s not the best practice to pay for a job upfront, so make sure the terms are hammered out before you start, and you aren’t surprised by a request for giant check the day construction starts.
  6. What hours do you typically work? This matters especially in neighborhoods, where those living nearby — or even you, if it’s your house — may be inconvenienced by odd-hours hammering and sawing. Make sure the contractor’s hours are appropriate, and that the crew is actually working during them.
  7. What’s your storage plan? Theft at construction sites is not uncommon. Expensive equipment can disappear if left out overnight. Make sure the contractor knows that you expect tools to be locked up or taken home overnight, and help accommodate those requests with a locked room or even a temporary storage shed, if necessary.
  8. What are your warranty terms? Most contractors offer a warranty, in addition to any warranties on materials used. Make sure you get that in writing, and copies of material warranties, before construction begins.
  9. Do you use subcontractors? Most general contractors won’t have a pro plumber on his or her staff, so others will be brought in to take care of specialty pieces of the project. Make sure you know who those are and the budgetary expectations that go along with that so you’re not facing an additional bill from another contractor.
  10. Can I see your references? It’s possible you’ve already gotten good word-of-mouth before you even interview the contractor, but it never hurts to see a list from the contractor. Make some calls and drive by the projects unannounced while they’re working — how the crew is going about its business — are they hard at work or lollygagging? — can give you great insight.
  11. Have you had any disciplinary action filed in the past? This is a tough question, and not one to ask flippantly or unkindly. You’re just trying to find facts. Another route would be to consult your state’s courts archive for lawsuits filed against the company or individual contractor.
  12. How do you communicate with your customers? Setting a reasonable expectation of how often you should be hearing from the contractor will keep you from freaking out if you go a couple of days without an e-mail.
  13. How many projects do you have going right now? No one wants to play second-fiddle, much less fifth or sixth fiddle. If you feel like you’re not going to be a priority, it might pay to find someone who will make you feel like one.
  14. How do we settle disputes? Making sure you know how to properly address problems or concerns is one of the most important steps. You want to make sure you’re following procedures, especially if you think the contractor is not. If nothing else it will make for peace of mind during the stressful process, knowing you have an agreed-to avenue if there is a dispute.
  15. Do you have any questions for ME? Turnabout, as they say, is fair play.