9 Questions to Ask Before Hiring A Contractor to Avoid Regret
Here's what you need to know before signing on the dotted line....
Building or undertaking a major renovation is a huge investment, and after years in the field as both an interior designer and a project manager, and working on my own home renovations, I have learned the hard way that all contractors are not created equal.
I have been fortunate to work with many amazing and skilled contractors, and I have also been not so fortunate and been swindled against my better judgment. To help you feel confident in the selection and engagement of your next contractor, I have assembled the 9 most important questions to ask prior to signing a contract, so you can feel confident in your selection.
No 1: Are they licensed & insured?
The majority of people never think of asking this question, but I can ensure you that it's essential to know before you get too far into the discussion.
Once you ask, you will be surprised to find out that there are a lot of contractors that are not licensed and insured. And while hiring an unlicensed and uninsured contractor may save you money upfront, the risk you bear as the client should something go wrong is MUCH greater.
Let me put it this way.... would you drive your car without getting insurance? No, because if you should get in an accident, you as the individual are 100% liable to cover all costs of damages to yourself and the other people. And car insurance is a small investment! Why would you risk the hard-earned money you have saved to create your dream vision on an unlicensed and uninsured contractor? That is the equivalent of driving around without insurance.
With an investment as significant as a new build or renovation, it's imperative to not only gather as much information as possible on your prospective contractor but ensure this is the very first question you ask.
No 2: Have you worked on projects of similar size, scope, and budget before?
It's important to understand the qualifications of your contractor and his team. The more robust the project, the more robust contractor you are going to want to engage. Does this mean you will have to pay more? Probably....
But, if you owned a Ferrari would you take it to get serviced at your local Toyota? Not likely. Different levels of skilled labourers work for different levels of construction complexity. Make sure you match the complexity of your project to the size and skillset of your contractor and his team.
Always follow up this question by asking for examples of past projects to be submitted that are similar to your project. These don't need to be apples to apples, but the complexity of the projects being provided as proof of the skillset should be similar.
No 3: What contract type will we be using, and how will project costs be estimated, tracked, and billed?
The type of contract that is used needs to be an agreement between the contractor and yourself. Too often a time and materials contract is engaged, to the preference of the contractor, which only creates a sliding scale for your final budget. Nothing is definitive and holding to a number is very difficult.
While there are benefits to this type of contract in smaller project scopes, for larger projects where there is a detailed package that states what needs to get done and how, there is no reason why a concrete figure cannot be provided.
Instead, discuss alternate contract types with your contractor prior to engaging. The two most common are lump sum and cost-plus. Check out the 5 types of construction contracts you need to know for a quick and dirty overview of each one and the pros and cons of each.
I always recommend going with a professional designated contract. In Canada, we use the CCDC contracts: https://www.ccdc.org/documents/. If you choose to use a contract that you draft yourself, or that the contractor has drafted, be sure to have it reviewed by a lawyer to ensure the necessary clauses and terms are included that clearly illustrate responsibility and fault. It's important to be sure the contract can be upheld in court.
No 4: What is their role on the project and who will be the main point of contact?
While every contractor operates differently, asking your contractor what their role will be on the project clarifies any misconceptions and provides greater insight into how daily management will be handled. They might be boots on the ground and everything in between, or they might be higher-level management and focusing on hitting critical timelines, meeting budget requirements, and overseeing the project as a whole.
Either way, it is important to understand their role in your project, and also equally important to understand once the project starts, who your main point of contact will be.
If the main point of contact is not the contractor you are speaking with, make sure to have a meeting with that person as well, prior to engaging the construction team. Construction is rarely a quick process. It is imperative to ensure you get along and communicate with the main person who will be joining you on this journey.
No 5: Who will be the site supervisor and what % of time will they be allocated to your project?
Depending on the size of your project, you may or may not have a site supervisor who is 100% allocated to your team. In situations where the site super (also generally the primary point of contact) is being shared between a few projects, it is important to understand where your project lies in their realm of focus and priority. If you don't ask, you risk being placed on the backburner and your timeline will get extended drastically.
By asking you are also clarifying if someone is going to be on-site managing and overseeing the sub-trades every day, or if they will be popping in and out on a regular basis. This question also manages your expectations, so if they are absent for a few days you already have that understanding and agreement as to when they will be present on site.
Typically, when someone is on-site every day, the project timeline is more likely to stay on schedule. So if your site supervisor is not on site 100% of the time, be sure to understand when they will be and how the timeline will be managed and kept on schedule.
No 6: How will communication be handled and adhered to on the project?
Communication goes above emails and includes how all communication will be transferred and handled between all necessary parties. When asking this question, be sure to touch on emails, phone calls, text messages, the preferred form of communication, meeting requirements, frequency and minutes, how documents will be shared and updated, and provision of hard copies of documents on-site in a designated area.
At the core, it is about outlining your expectations and understanding what the contractor is comfortable and capable of committing to, as well as their standard form of practice. Seasoned contractors and construction teams have a well-oiled communication process for keeping sub-trades and yourself up to date on changes and critical bits of information.
New contractors or smaller teams might not have a detailed system in place, so be sure to outline what your expectations and requirements are so everything is understood between both parties.
No 7: What is their typical timeline and budget for a project of similar size?
If you are being told something that sounds epically amazing, chances are it is too good to be true and you are in the midst of being swindled.
Part of this comes down to doing some research yourself by asking around to friends and family who have gone through a home renovation or new build similar to yours, on what a project of your size might cost and how long it might take. Then, hold that information in hand while you ask a few contractors.
If your prospective contractor has worked on projects of similar size and scope, they will have a good idea off the top of their head on budget and timeline. No one likes to be held fast to a number that is discussed in conversation, so keep this in mind when you are meeting with contractors.
Timeline and budget are subject to change once they have reviewed your project in a bit more detail, and discussed items with their sub-trades. But always remember, if the numbers being given are way off from the research you have done, and values being provided by other contractors, something is fishy.
No 8: How will project changes and extras be managed and tracked?
No matter how good your project documentation package is, there will always be site conditions that cause changes to the original plan, and inevitably extras will be requested as the project unfolds.
This goes hand in hand with the contract type that is selected and the legal type of contract that is used. CCDC documents clearly outline how changes will be managed and handled. If you choose to use your own contract, how changes and extras will be managed and tracked needs to be clearly understood between yourself and the contractor. At the very least, these items should be discussed:
sign off requirements
any changes that occur need to note the additional cost and the change in timeline/ duration if applicable
% of markup by the contractor to the supply cost (they don't charge you what they pay, so what % extra are you being charged)
any changes or additions become part of the original contract and budget agreement once signed off
additional costs are similar to invoice submissions throughout the progress of the project. They are not due upfront, but payable based on progress
a tracking file needs to be developed documenting the changes/ additions that are in consideration, which ones have been approved, and which ones were not accepted and not moving forward--- this should be provided with each change order submission to help keep everyone on the same page
No 9: Referrals from clients, vendors, and subcontractors
Asking for referrals from your general contractor is key to making a final decision. This helps you get a good idea of how they have worked in the past, what their communication is really like, and how they treat and work with their clients. Ask the contractor for the contact information of at a minimum of 3 past clients they have worked with.
Ask lots of questions to these past clients. A few of my favourites:
what was their role on the project?
what was their attitude and communication style like during the project?
how did the overall project turn out?
have there been any problems with the quality of work after completion?
how easy was it to get the contractor back to deal with any issues or defeciencies after the project was complete?
was the project on budget?
did the project finish on time?
how was the overall renovation experience for you?
Really listen between the lines to see what they are really saying and feeling.
Keep in mind, however, that we are all human, and humans make mistakes. Some people don't mesh well together and that has no reflection on the caliber of their work. It is not necessarily a good reason why not to hire someone, but it should be kept in mind.
If you follow through these 9 questions the next time you are looking to start a home renovation or home remodeling project, you will be sure to line up with the right contractor --- one that not only fits your budget, but communicates well, and makes you feel at ease.