Home & Style

9 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Contractor

You should know what kind of warranty you'll get, how many subcontractors they'll use, and what happens if they die before the job is complete (seriously).

1. What’s the size of your average job? If you’re contemplating a $100,000 addition, you could run into problems hiring a firm that typically handles $20,000 projects. On the flip side, if yours is a contractor’s smallest job, it may fall through the cracks. You also want a firm that does a lot of your kind of project—say, kitchens or bathrooms.

2. Do you use subcontractors? Chances are your contractor will sub out all or part of your work, particularly electrical and plumbing. If a firm uses subs, make sure the contractor has worked with them before. And ask for an affidavit or release of liens from the contractor ensuring that all subs have been paid—because an unpaid sub can place a lien on your property.

3. Do you run background checks on employees? Whether a contractor uses full-time staff or subcontractors, these people will be in your home. Try to get a sense of how long the contractor has employed the workers who will be on your job.

4. Who will be overseeing my job? Some firms send salespeople to get you to sign on the dotted line—then you never see them again. Ask to meet the person who will be supervising your crew—you want someone you’re comfortable with, whose philosophy about how to approach the work matches yours. Be wary if there won’t be a designated superintendent, or else your project could slide.

5. What kind of warranty will I get? When comparing bids, ask how long the work is guaranteed.

6. Did you get paid to make this referral? Perhaps the most important thing to do before hiring a remodeler is to check at least three references, ideally for work done in the past year. Susan C. Jones, branch chief of consumer affairs for Fairfax County’s Department of Cable and Consumer Services, warns that some people are paid to be references, and you’d want to know that. Ask previous clients if the contractor met their expectations, if they’d do anything differently, and, if problems arose, how the contractor handled them. Ask to go by and see the actual work. Beware a contractor who suggests you just drive by a job and not “bother” previous clients. Another reason to see the work: Those portfolio photos you see on a contractor’s Web site could be fake.

7. Will you be pulling the permits? It’s a warning sign if a contractor insists that you pull any permits, says Debbie Farson, owner of HomeWise Referrals. They may not be licensed—a requirement to pull permits—or may not want responsibility for the project. If you pull the permits, you assume the role of general contractor.

8. What problems came up on previous jobs and how did you handle them? Issues arise in every project, says interior designer Barbara Hawthorn. The key is how a contractor addresses them. Says Hawthorn: “Anyone’s who been in business for ten years or more and says nothing has ever come up—he’s lying.”

9. What happens if you die during the project? That question may seem morbid, but if a project is substantial and you’re considering a contractor with a small or one-person operation, it pays to ask. “That was the most difficult question I was ever asked,” says Jeffrey Robins of Jeffco, a remodeling and custom-home firm. “But it’s a great question.”

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos