10 Questions To Ask When Selecting A Remodeling Contractor

This article is about what you should expect from a remodeling contractor and how to use their references to discover what you need to know.I told a story in last week’s article about a woman who used a contractor referred by a colleague. The project was a nightmare for her. The first couple of months went fine but then she started having problems. She would come home to find that work hadn’t been done in a way she liked. After awhile she stopped demanding corrections because she was just worn down. She was sick of having the entire house dirty and in disarray. She was constantly tripping over tools and debris. She would expect the crew on a Monday only to have them not show up for a week or more. She would have to call to discover the cause of the delay. The final insult – see last week’s story – was having to pay tens of thousands to fix plumbing, HVAC and design problems.

She thought she had gone through the right due-diligence having walked through projects the contractor had done and getting the referral from someone she knew. So how could she have avoided her nightmare?

I’ve structured the article as a series of questions to ask references and what you should be looking for in each answer. Let’s pretend that the contractor’s name is “Joe the Remodeling Contractor.”

1 Please describe the work that “Joe the Contractor” did for you?
Look for similarity to your job. Do not assume that a contractor that primarily works on commercial work is familiar with residential work. Do not assume that a contractor that primarily lays tile can build decks. Do not assume that a contractor that can budget for a $40,000 job can budget equally well for a $400,000 job.If all the references are for remodeling jobs that are different from the work you’re having done, ask for more appropriate references. If he can’t provide them, he doesn’t have experience doing the work you want done. He might be able to explain why the work he’s done prepares him for the work you want done, but ask and think critically about his argument.
2 Was the contractor or project manager there every morning or afternoon to meet with you about progress and issues? If not, who was? Was it always the same person? Did he or she have authority to direct changes and have the answers to your questions and issues?
Remodeling brings daily surprises, decisions, and changes – always! Surprises come because with remodeling you don’t know what’s going on until you open up walls and floors. Decisions and changes comes because it’s rare that remodeling plans are as detailed as new construction plans. If the contractor isn’t reviewing the issues and upcoming decisions with you, then he’s using his own judgment or his crewmember is making decisions.  They can’t appreciate your preferences unless they ask. And if they’re not asking they’re often making judgments based on materials they have on hand or on efficiency. In listing to the references answers it’s OK if the meetings were by phone as long as the project manager was onsite daily to identify and resolve issues before they became problems.]
3 Tell me about the items that you needed to have the contractor re-do (or wished you had him re-do).
In some ways this is another way of asking Question 2 but it goes more toward how decisions and issues were handled instead of who handled them. With luck, what you’ll hear from the reference is that little re-work was necessary because the contractor took the time to “mock up” or draw out the choices so you could make informed decisions. There is one of the areas where remodeling is different from new construction – a skilled remodeling contractor will help you “see” how something will look before it’s a done deal. It’s time consuming for him to re-do work and frustrating for you.
4 Was there a budget surprise at the end? 
Remember what I said about changes and surprises. The contractor should be keeping you informed of the effect on budget. If work is going over budget in some areas, the contractor should be working with you to adjust in other areas or getting your approval for the increased scope. It’s not OK to get permission for 20 separate items each of which cost under $2000 without also letting the homeowner know that the total increase is $30,000. The contractor can come back and say but you approved all these changes. The process he used still resulted in an unpleasant cost increase. You should also expect a contractor to include at least 15% and probably closer to 20-25% contingency in his budgeting. He might not call it out, but ask what he’s budgeted for contingency. In your own thinking make sure you add the contingency because I guarantee you’ll use it.
5 Did the contractor have a discussion with you at the beginning of the job about the job-site rules? And was it clear that all crew members and subs knew and abided by the same
You should expect to hear the reference say that job site rules were discussed before work began including start and stop times, use of bathroom or other facilities, who has access and how security will be maintained.
6 Please describe how clean the contractor’s crew kept the job site.
You should expect to hear that the crew cleaned up debris, moved it to a pre-approved location, vacuumed at the end of each work day to keep dust at a minimum, used drop cloths and other means to protect your furniture and flooring, used plastic walls and barriers to keep the uninvolved portions of your residence clean and protected. Dust and debris is a given with remodeling but a conscientious remodeling contractor will organize his work to keep dust and debris to a minimum.You should also expect to hear that no one smoked in your home and that crew members removed any food trash and cigarette butts (from the grounds) daily.
7 Did the contractor get permits from the appropriate jurisdictions?
You should confirm that this means that permit were posted in public places, like on the front door or front windows. The contractor in the horror story said that he had gotten permits – but hadn’t. Permit must be posted. Some jurisdictions require a homeowner’s signature on a permit application including Montgomery County, MD where I often work.
8 How quickly was the final punch list completed? What caused any delays?
Every job ends up with a “punch list” of little items to fix or complete. Sometimes the delay is unavoidable such as waiting for glass to be fabricated for a shower. But in other cases,
with demands from other clients, a delay might reflect a contractor’s lack of attention.
9 Did you enjoy working with “Joe the contractor” and his crew?
10 Will you use the contractor again when you have more work to do?
These are different questions but both are important as final measures of success. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the contractor and his crew. Even though the process is
disrupting and demanding, you should enjoy the process and the individuals as much as possible. By the end of the process you should have even more trust and confidence in their skills than at the beginning.
In the case of the horror story that started this article, when the homeowner walked through other projects all she really learned was that job involved a similar style to what she liked. The colleague who used the contractor previously had used him for a tiny job that required almost no disruption or decisions. Had she asked for more references and asked these questions she likely wouldn’t have used him.In this time of economic downturn for the construction industry, more individuals and crews who have experience only in new construction are trying to get into remodeling. Remodeling and new construction are quite different and you should be extra careful in hiring crews that primarily have experience in new construction. In new construction, there isn’t furniture to protect, privacy to worry about or the morning routines and evening of the residents to respect. In new construction, you’re not working around existing components and structures so there are fewer surprises and less need to “mock-up” options or to figure out how to integrate new and old systems.

Finally, I really mean the part about enjoying the process. Pick the right contractor and in addition to fulfilling a dream, you’ll have fun getting there.

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