How to Interview a Home Remodeling Contractor

As we near the end of our series on “19 Secrets to Smart Home Remodeling”, I think its time we discuss one of the most important aspects of choosing the right contractor – the interview. This is where you will see how well you get along with the contractor and get the opportunity to gauge how professional he is. In this issue, I am going to cover some questions you should ask and what you should expect from a good contractor.

It is important to note that just because a contractor is good, it does not mean that you should work with him or that you will jell. On top of professionalism and experience, it is perhaps just as important for you to feel comfortable and trust your contractor. Keep this in mind during the interview process.

The Telephone Interview

Most people do not like interviewing contractors because they do not have confidence in their ability to discern if a builder is honest. If you have done your homework with thoroughness and patience, you have spared yourself that anxiety because you already know your candidates are qualified, honest and reliable.

If you have been following along with this series, you should feel confident about your list because you have already pre-qualified the names on it. If you don’t feel confident, you need to ask yourself why. Then you need to call back homeowners and get the answers you need.

When you move into the second phase and begin contractor interviews, your task will be to locate a contractor you can work with, one whose interest in your project impresses you, and one who listens carefully to what you say. The goal of this quest is to find compatibility with a builder whom you will be able to work with successfully for the one, two, six, or 12 months a project typically takes.

Once you are ready to begin the interviewing process, call the contractors in the order you have rated them. Be prepared to describe your project and state when you would like to begin construction. To give you a peek at how prospective contractors may handle your call, let me tell you how I deal with initial conversations.

When I, as a professional builder, speak with a prospective client, I attempt to gauge their seriousness by asking specific questions about their design ideas and budget. If they are planning an addition for instance, I ask if they know how large they want the addition to be and what rooms will be included. I want them to describe to me what they want in as much detail as they can. I also ask if they’ve thought about what grade of finish material they would like. For example, will kitchen countertops be Formica, Corian or polished granite? Will bathroom fixtures be brass or chrome? Will the new rooms be hardwood floors or carpeted?

I also ask if they have a preliminary budget for their project. Their response lets me know whether or not they understand the true cost of custom remodeling.

Good contractors are very busy, frequently working six days per week. They also have a well-deserved reputation for not returning phone calls, so you may have to be patient as you attempt to set up your first meetings. If someone you like does not return your first call, give him or her a second chance. If they do not return that call, then cross them off your list. Just as you want to avoid fly-by-nights, you also want to avoid someone who is too popular. If a builder does not have time to return your call now, you can imagine how stressful that could be after work on your house begins.

When you call the contractors on your list, have three to five preliminary questions ready to ask each. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have you completed a job similar to this before?
  • If you have, may I see it?
  • Do you have a list of references that I can contact?
  • When will you be able to start the job?
  • When could we meet in person to further discuss this (only if you are encouraged by the answers they give)?

There is no set script for these calls. In fact, in the course of some conversations a builder may offer everything contained above and more. Be aware of how easily the conversation progresses. When you hang up, make a few notes on the conversations. What were your impressions of the builder? Did he listen well? Did he answer your questions thoroughly?

Your First Meeting with a Contractor

In this new relationship, common courtesy is a must and good builders understand this. If a contractor fails to show up for your first meeting and does not call to reschedule, cross him off your list.

Also, let me state definitively that all principal parties should be present at this initial and all subsequent meetings. This includes the contractor and BOTH spouses, if applicable. Given the number of interviews you (and your spouse) will have, plus the number of subsequent design and planning meetings you will have once you settle on a builder, this may seem unreasonable. But it is absolutely essential for all parties to participate fully in this process and for everyone to operate with equal information.

Listed below are some questions you should ask during your first meeting.

Business Identity

  • How long has the firm been in business?
  • What is their permanent business address? Some professional contractors will invite you to visit their office. This is a great opportunity to see how they do business. Are they organized? What procedures do they have for producing your project?
  • Is the prospect licensed to work in your area?
  • What year was the business initially licensed?

Business Practices

  • What will the payment or draw schedule look like?
  • How does the company sure warranty service complaints are effectively handled?
  • How does the company maintain good customer relationships throughout the construction and warranty period?
  • In case of any accident, is the company insured against workman’s compensation claims, property damage or personal liability?

Building Practices

  • Who will be assigned as the project or site supervisor?
  • Who will be your contact if that person is not available?
  • Will there be a supervisor on the site full time?
  • Will they be providing a written construction schedule?
  • What is the company’s routine regarding regular meetings with the homeowners during construction?
  • Who will attend those meetings? Will the builder personally attend every meeting?
  • Can I expect to see workers at the site every day?
  • Does the builder plan to stay personally involved in the project at all points?
  • May I have the names and numbers of give homeowners you have completed projects for?
  • May I visit a site where work is in progress? Note: a visit to a site in progress can reveal much about a company’s ability to manage a large project. Notice how organized it looks. Is it messy and chaotic or does it seem well-organized with workers moving like they know what they are doing?

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. In fact, it should help you generate other, more personal questions.

As with homeowner interviews, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to ask any questions you may have. Nothing is off limits concerning your project or the company you are interviewing. Asking good, detailed questions is the heart of your due diligence. If you do not question thoroughly, you are giving up your responsibility in this process and possibly compromising the quality of your project, and maybe the value of your home.