11 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Contractor

A general contractor is your partner for the duration of your building project, so you want to choose an ace. Orange County contractor Luke Showalter of Showalter Construction shares what to look for in potential candidates

Joanna Linberg
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Do you regularly work on projects like mine?

Ask about the last five or so projects a potential contractor has completed to get a sense of his or her experience and comfort level with your project, Luke Showalter of Showalter Construction says. Consider the type and size of the projects they list. If you’re gutting your home and the contractor has a history of smaller bathroom remodels, for example, they might not be prepared to manage your project.

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Are you local?

“It’s not feasible for a contractor to bring sub-contractors too far away,” says Showalter, and you don’t want your general contractor working with a new-to-them crew. Plus, “With a long-distance crew, often little things don’t get done at the end because they don’t want to come all that way.” Stick to candidates in your area for the most efficient work and to get more face time with whomever is supervising your job site.

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Are you fully insured, licensed, and bonded in my city and state?

A contractor should have a general liability policy and—if they have employees—a workers comp policy. If he or she doesn’t have direct employees and instead manages sub-contractors, put it in the contract that the contractor will ensure that all subs are licensed, bonded, and insured in the city where the work is being performed. If your project is in a gated community, your HOA may have additional insurance requirements, Showalter says. Ask the contractor if they have enough insurance to meet those requirements. Then, do your homework: Search the Contractors License Board for your state online to make sure the license is in good standing and active. “It’s surprising, but most people don’t do this,” Showalter says.

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Do you have references?

A contractor should provide 3-5 references, but bonus points go to the contractor who customizes his references to your type of project and who includes recent and past clients. Why? “Past clients give perspective on how easy it was to get a hold of the contractor if a maintenance issue came up or if they want to repaint,” Showalter says. “You want to see that a contractor isn’t just finishing the job and moving on.”

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Can I visit a current job site?

If a candidate says no or is hesitant, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, Showalter says (they may have insurance liability issues or the homeowner could say no), but most should be happy to not just let you pop in to a job site, but to give you a tour themselves to answer questions and explain what’s going on. Good signs are a clean job site, safety measures visibly in place, and what Showalter calls “signs of hidden quality” like how neatly bundled the wires are behind the walls, for example.

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How do you use and vet your sub-contractors?

Some contractors have employees that work alongside sub-contractors and some use subs exclusively. Both are fine. In either case, you’re looking for a vetting process that relies on long-term working relationships. It’s worth asking if the general contractor (a.k.a. GC) anticipates needing to hire a new sub for your project (for specialty work, for example), and if so, how they would find and vet that person. Showalter gets referrals from his trusted subs and then checks those suggestions with other people in the biz to make sure they’re reliable and quality.

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How many projects will you have during mine?

“This is pretty important,” Showalter says. “You want to ensure they have enough people to finish your project on time.” The number they give you will vary based on their staff and crew of subs, so another question to ask to see how stretched the staff will be is, How often will you or a superintendent visit my job site? Showalter visits each of his job sites every day (or sends a superintendent) to check progress and get ahead of any slowdowns. Look for a contractor who does the same. It shows you that they’re managing their time and their crew well.

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What is your experience with green building?

If green construction is important to you, ask your contractor about it up front and be specific. If you’re curious about adding solar, ask about projects they’ve done with solar. If recycling or salvaging demo and building materials is important to you, get a clear picture of how they handle it. Just as essential as asking about experience is asking, Do you have any ideas for simple ways to be more green on my budget? A contractor should be able to draw on past experience and knowledge of your local building codes and resources to suggest alternate finishes, for example, per Showalter.

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Who is my main point of contact and what will the project be like day-to-day?

Your GC (or a superintendent) should be your point of contact and should be easy to get a hold of, Showalter says. As you’re vetting candidates, he says to remember you’re seeing each contractor at his or her best while they’re trying to win your business, so if you’re not happy with how quickly you’re getting email responses now, you probably won’t be satisfied later. “A clear, open line of communication is 99 percent of the project,” Showalter says. The GC should clearly lay out their hours of operation, their procedures for keeping the site secure day and night, and when you should avoid coming by with your kids for safety reasons (e.g. the insulation is going in and it’s dusty onsite). Also ask if they have a regular meeting schedule and how they inform you of the timeline for making decisions. A weekly meeting is standard, and you should have plenty of head’s up for choosing that paint color for the living room.

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How do you determine and present your bid? Will it include a breakdown of costs?

New construction is pretty straightforward, Showalter says. The GC reviews the plans and talks to all the involved parties (architects and designers, usually) to determine the project’s scope. But for renovation projects, hire the contractor who walks his subs through your home, Showalter says. If they do that, they’re serious about presenting an accurate bid that takes into account where your sewer runs, if there are any quirks that don’t show up on the plans, etc. Once the bid is in, you’re looking for transparency about how the contractor makes a profit. Charging a percentage of the total cost or a supervision fee are both common, but make sure you know which one your contractor uses and at what amounts. Showalter also suggests asking if you can see the bids by all the sub-contractors so you can tell if a GC comes back with a low profit percentage (say, 10 percent) to get the job, but is padding the sub bids for additional profit.

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What is included in your contract?

The basics are payment schedules, an initial timeframe for completion, what the retention is (the amount of the contractor’s fee you hold onto until you’re completely satisfied that the project is done and it passes a final inspection), and a schedule for lien releases (so vendors can’t come after you for payment if the GC doesn’t pay them). Showalter also suggests using this conversation to clarify who is pulling permits and to put in writing that the contractor will complete your final punch list before your final payment. Obviously, if a contractor doesn’t want a contract, move on.

Luke Showalter is a second-generation Orange Country general contractor whose work includes both residential and commercial projects. Find him on Instagram @showalterconstruction.