6 Questions You Should Always Ask Before Hiring a General Contractor

Never hire a builder or contractor without first asking these essential questions.
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Hiring a general contractor (GC) may not be as exciting as picking an architect, but it’s definitely as important. After all, this is the person who will determine whether you’re sleeping in a beautiful new bedroom or a motel when your projected move-in date rolls around. Do research on reputable local contractors, then ask these questions to make sure you hire the best one. 

How much will it cost? 

Comparing bids is essential, but it’s not always a simple process. Trey Berre learned that lesson when he and his wife remodeled their Chicago home. They received three bids with a $125,000 gap between the highest and lowest. When Trey started digging into the details, he was surprised to find many line items didn’t match up between bids or were vague. After asking a lot of questions—How much of this cost is labor? How much is materials?—he felt confident choosing the middle bid. "No one should be afraid to ask the very difficult questions and get to a level of granularity that they feel comfortable with on the numbers," he advises.  

For the renovation of their midcentury ranch house in Chicago, Trey Berre and his wife, Maria Ponce Berre, compared bids from three contractors, ultimately hiring ABO Construction. The total budget for the project climbed to $174 per square foot after it was discovered that the roof had suffered rain damage and needed to be replaced for $40,000. 

What other projects are you working on? 

The number of projects a contractor is juggling can impact two key factors: how long your project will take and how often they show up on  site. Completion dates are famously unpredictable, and while a smaller number of projects won’t guarantee your project will be finished on time, it can increase your chances. It also offers peace of mind. "You don’t expect a contractor to put every nail in the house, but it’s nice to know they’re checking in on it and know what’s going on," says Tyler Lemkin, owner of a Neutra house in Los Angeles. Lawyer Paul Andersson, who recently remodeled an apartment in New York, says completion time should be included in the contract. He suggests linking the payment to percentages of completion in order to provide incentives to stay on schedule, and withholding final payment until all inspections are finished.  

Tyler Lemkin turned to contractor Roderick McGrew for help refurbishing his dated Richard Neutra house in the Crestwood Hills area of Los Angeles. One of McGrew’s tasks was ripping up the pink carpeting—which had been added by a previous owner—and installing new wood floors.

How hands-on are you? 

Depending on the scale of your project and the contractor’s other commitments, they may do nearly all the physical work themselves, or none of it. For Fire Island resident Michael Silber, finding a contractor with top-notch carpentry skills was a priority when remodeling his  bungalow. "The quality of subcontractors [can] be inconsistent, and this allowed me to have greater comfort that the carpentry would be of the character and quality of the original home," he says. If your GC will be relying heavily on subcontractors, make sure to ask who they are and whether they have worked with them before. If you visit one of your GC’s previous projects or call their referrals to evaluate the quality of their work (always a wise idea), ask whether the same subcontractors will be working on your project.  

Michael Silber’s beach bungalow on New York’s Fire Island was built in 1939 by master carpenter Mike Coffey. When Silber added an upper level to the house in 2015, he sought tradespeople who could match Coffey’s skill, choosing RJS Custom Carpentry.  

What do you like and dislike about my project? 

Finding someone who buys into your vision is crucial. As California homeowner Steve Cegelski says, "Don’t let the contractor tell you what to do. It’s your house. You build it how you want." But others point out that the GC may have good ideas of their own. For instance, Michael Silber’s contractor convinced him to build a new guesthouse instead of repurposing a small outbuilding. The result, he says, was more beautiful and practical than the original plan. Santa Barbara resident Bret Stone concurs. His GC’s practical experience translated into strategic, cost-effective solutions that his architect and engineer hadn’t thought of. "Having the builder involved [early] can save you tons of money," he says.  

For Bret and Dani Stone’s house in Santa Barbara, California, Barber Builders erected a concrete-and-steel ground level capable of supporting a second story made mostly of shipping containers. While the project as a whole took 19 months, the containers were craned into place in a single day in 2016.

What elements of the project can I take on myself? 

If you’d like to handle some aspects of the project yourself in order to save money or control the details more fully, talking to potential contractors about this early on will help you assess their attitude toward collaboration and understand how it will impact costs and timelines. However, potential DIYers should think carefully about the tradeoffs involved. Even something as seemingly simple as choosing light fixtures can be very time consuming and complex. If something goes wrong, the contractor may be less willing to step in to clean up the mess than if they’d been in charge from the start.  

While getting budget estimates from contractors is crucial, it’s also important to remember that the final cost for a project may fluctuate due to unforeseen developments or changing needs. For lawyer Paul Andersson, the cost of renovating his tiny New York apartment rose from $150,000 to $250,000 during the process, mostly due to the addition of a pivoting wall system. 

Can I see your license? 

Perhaps you feel embarrassed to bring up topics like licenses, liability insurance, and warranties. Don’t be. These technicalities have important legal implications, and any good contractor will be happy to provide documentation. One homeowner we spoke with learned this the hard way. He chose his GC based on a recommendation and trusted her when she said she was in the process of updating her license. Their relationship was so good that he even defended her when a supplier pointed out that her license in fact was not current. Only when the contractor disappeared without finishing the punch list did he realize his error. His contractor’s lack of a license meant the entire project had been done illegally and rendered him ineligible for a state fund meant to help homeowners whose contractors are MIA. The lesson? Make sure you have enough information to independently verify that the GC’s license is current and will remain so throughout the project before hiring them. 

Related Reading: 

How to Work With a Contractor to Create Your Dream Home

How to Work With an Architect