Questions to Always Ask Before Hiring Contractors

12 things to always discuss before hiring contractors, plumbers, electricians, tile installers, or carpenters for any home improvement job

Questions to Always Ask Before Hiring Contractors | 12 things to always discuss before hiring contractors, plumbers, electricians, tile installers, or carpenters for any home improvement job

Consider yourself warned that this post does not have one “pretty” picture in it. Because sometimes in order to get to the pretty, you have to experience quite a bit of the messy chaos that comes with owning a house.

We’ve learned a whole lot about that since moving into this old gem two years ago. It’s exciting; it’s scary; it downright drives us bonkers some days.

Questions to always ask before hiring contractors - A bathroom ripped down to the studs

But I’ve never really shared a really important part of this whole renovation journey: hiring contractors.

In two years, we’ve worked with contractors to get our electrical up to code, demo and renovate the girls’ bathroom, rip out and install a new powder room floor, replace some of our aging pipes, paint and limewash our exterior, update our swimming pool, and we don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

Robert and I have experienced a whole lot when it comes to hiring them: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In hindsight we’ve thought, “If only we knew then what we know now.” (And thankfully, after dealing with a few nightmares, we’ve ended up with a handful of go-to guys we love.)

So if you plan on hiring a plumber, an electrician, a painter, a carpenter, or a general contractor of any kind in the future for whatever home projects you have on your plate, I hope this helps prepare you for what we learned “the hard knock” way.

Questions to always ask before hiring contractors - a bathroom ripped down to the studs

Questions to Always Ask Before Hiring a Contractor

1. Do you have a license?

Not even kidding. Ask this. Because there really are some handy guys out there who operate their businesses without a license, which means you are taking quite a risk and could end up paying more to fix their mistakes. Assume nothing.

2. Can I see your certificate of insurance?

If a contractor isn’t insured, you have a huge liability on your hands. But seeing the actual certificate of insurance also can tell you what sort of work is covered in case something goes awry.

Questions to always ask before hiring contractors - a swimming pool liner replacement

3. Do you have any references? Or a portfolio?

Contractors thrive on word of mouth and reviews, so I like doing my homework to read up on Google/Yelp/HomeAdvisor reviews or talk to friends who have hired them personally. Bonus points if there are photos of their work. But full warning: Don’t hire a contractor simply on the premise that he’s a friend of a friend. Hire them because they’re known for great quality work, not because they’re a nice person. Ask me how I know. 😉

4. What’s the price estimate for the job?

If a contractor can’t give you a solid ballpark price before starting a job, run far, far away. Not counting unexpected surprises beyond their control, of course.

5. How much should be paid up front? What is the payment schedule?

This is one that got us recently that is always good to communicate beforehand. Make sure to discuss when and how much you’ll be paying throughout the course of the job.

Questions to always ask before hiring contractors - a ripped out bathroom floor

6. What is the timeline for completion?

If you don’t have a deadline for a job to be finished, it could drag out much longer than you anticipate. Try to get a deadline in writing as well and include a clause for termination of a contract after a certain amount of time so you don’t end up with a no-show contractor later in the project. Give yourself an “out” that allows you to pay for the percentage of work completed so that you’re not left hanging with a half-finished job for a long period. (Granted, understand that sometimes emergencies arise.)

7. What is the daily work schedule?

This one got us recently too because we assumed a contractor would be working weekdays from 9 to 5 when he really could only work weekends and evenings (bad combo with a baby). Ask in advance what days and times the contractor plans to be working so that you can arrange plans to keep your family out of the way.

8. What is the best way to stay in touch with you?

Have a phone number, email address, and any other means of communication set up so that you know exactly how to stay updated.

Questions to always ask before hiring contractors - limewashing a brick house

9. Will you be using materials to protect work spaces?

Make sure other parts of your house will be protected while they work so you’re not left with damages.

10. Will you be here at all times to oversee the job for your subcontractors?

General contractors often hire out more specific jobs to plumbers, electricians, tile installers, etc. So ask if they will be present to ensure everyone involved is protected and in communication.

11. Will you offer a guarantee on your work? 6 months, a year, a lifetime?

Some contractors won’t do this but it’s a good idea to ask so that if within a few weeks or months paint starts peeling or quality becomes an issue, you can have them fix it without an extra expense.

Questions to always ask before hiring contractors - limewashing a brick house

12. Can we get this in writing?

Ask for invoices and a letter of agreement to outline the work details, the timeline, and the cost so there are no uncertainties. It’ll help protect you for legal purposes too.

Got any others you would add? Or horror stories that taught you some hard lessons about working with contractors?

Those are the big ones for us. Even though we love doing a lot of projects ourselves, we know our limits for when it’s time to call an expert.

And we can honestly say now that we’ve been at this for a while, we’ve come to know some really great guys who are our go-to crew for whatever jobs come along.

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Questions to Always Ask Before Hiring Contractors | 12 things to always discuss before hiring contractors, plumbers, electricians, tile installers, or carpenters for any home improvement job

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  1. I liked that you mentioned it is important to hire a contractor that has an actual certificate of insurance to be protected in case of an accident. My husband and I are thinking about remodeling our backyard, and we are looking for advice. I will let him know about the benefits of hiring a contractor who has the proper insurance to ensure the quality of the job.

  2. Our experience with hiring a contractor was through Home Depot. Now wouldn’t you think that a HUGE nationally known home improvement store chain would hire experienced workers?!?!
    We purchased wall to wall carpeting for our home, ( living room and hallway, only)….and it took these imbeciles 3 tries BEFORE they finally got it right!!
    And each time they messed it up was all right before a major fall holiday, Halloween, Thanksgiving & Christmas…..
    We also purchased new windows through Sears Home Improvement and that too was almost a disaster. They completely forgot to bring our sliding patio door out with them when they arrived the first time and because of that snaffu and having to wait for them to finally get back they were working until almost 11 pm at night! Such incompetence from both companies. I don’t think you can ever expect a guarantee or anything in writing since you don’t know ALL the individuals to cover sheer stupidity or lack of experience.
    Needless to say we won’t be hiring anyone to do anything ever again, unless we know them or can get written testimonials from family or true friends that won’t screw us over!

  3. I wish I would have thought about #12 before my first remodel. I think the hardest part is people feel awkward talking about these things beforehand. Especially when they are not experienced in the process.

  4. Thanks for the advice for hiring contractors. I’m glad you mentioned that you should ask for a price estimate before starting a job. It sounds important for the contractor to look over the place first to get an idea of how much things will cost so they can give an accurate estimate.

  5. Thanks for the info. I generally know a lot about this stuff but a few things here I certainly wasn’t aware of. I greatly appreciate that you posted this now as I am getting ready to do some hiring for electrical and plumbing.

  6. I also found it helpful to put up garbage cans around the construction site. It makes cleanup easier from all the cans and water bottles left behind. I found they normally will deposit them in the can if there are several right there instead of all over the property. Also ask that they police the area at the end of each day. We found this helps with nail collection too so they don’t end up in your car tires!

  7. All good pointers!

    One thing I can add is not to just trust word-of-mouth for a contractor, even if he comes highly recommended by family. Your friends of family might not have the same standards as you do – go and look in their houses at the work that was done.

    We had our window frames painted a couple of years ago and ended up with paint on our curtains and carpets, and my a family member who recommended him did not even realise her curtains were painted too until I asked her…

    Also check their work and make sure you are happy before paying the final amount before they leave.

    Great list!

  8. Have to agree with all of the above but I have another comment meant to help and that would be your city inspectors. I got lucky right off the bat with a guy that walked around and showed me everything he was looking for in a good job and also what to look for with the next part of the job.
    Like most have said, do your homework first! Get an inspector out before you start the job and ask about code! Yes, they will come and visit with you, just ASK. If you have to have drawings/plans made up, make sure the deal is everything passes city code. Also, if a contractor tells you he has to use a particular part that costs an arm and a leg….check on it; chances are it is NOT in the code and there is a different part that will work just as well.
    One thing for sure, buy as much as you can either with your contractor or before. I don’t want to use any plumbers fixture choice and I want to see all the nails, sheeting etc., my contractor is using; an electrician is NOT allowed to use drywall screws in electrical boxes at my house and lastly: I ALWAYS PUT IN WRITING WHAT I WANT TO HAVE DONE AND ANY RULES I MUST HAVE AND THEY GET A COPY THAT IS SIGNED AND DATED. Does this make everything go better? You are still going to have problems…DEAL WITH THEM….it is your hard earned $.

  9. Always plan on having a contingency fund and for the work to take longer than expected, and the older the house, the bigger the fund will be and the longer it will take. If you can, take your time, watch for the deals on materials and plan out the details of what you want to do. Then look for your contractor well ahead of time, preferably in the winter when it is slow, and wait for a good one to become available, if you can.

    I also found out the hard way to do your homework and print out information on proper installation and whatnot. Do a walk-through and leave notes and instructions and drawings if you can’t be on site, and even if you can, it can be helpful. This is especially important if you want to do something that isn’t the modern way, which minimizes labor, but is not always the best or like how it was done on the rest of an old house. Little details make a difference!

    I live in a rural area and there aren’t a lot of big contractors, and my jobs are too small and on too old of a house (1890) for many to even answer phone inquiries, or they don’t show up for appointments. I finally found a old-timer who is very honest and knows what he is doing, and does not advertise. The economic downturn forced a lot of these guys out of business, and a lot of labor these days is short-term and not that skilled, and expensive. The old-time handyman knew how to do a lot of things, and with the young guys, even a good one, you are paying them to learn how to do it, and they don’t have the speed or the mastery of an old-time craftsman. I start with a small job usually with a new guy and work up to bigger ones once I trust them, and act as a gopher and clean up person if I can to keep costs down.

    I want the historic character of the house retained, and so many contractors just want to rip everything out because it is the only thing they know. But on an old house, that isn’t always easier. Just replacing the back door ended up taking a lot of time and head-scratching, and I clearly told him to center it on the existing casing, and he hitched it to the nearest stud, making it all 1.25 inches off center, because that is the way it is done in new construction. It looked terrible, and exposed a raw edge of the aluminum wrap. He also didn’t double the header the way I told him to, and that had to be redone. (Old houses use real 2 x 4s, not the current nominal 2 x 4s, which are 1.5 x 3.5)

    It was too late to tear it all out, so I caulked the heck out of it and painted it and lived with it for a few years. Then when the house got repainted, we replaced damaged siding around the back door and I replaced the entire door surround. A $300 door cost nearly $1000 to install that way, when it should have been maybe $600.

    Have had similar and worse problems with other jobs, even after doing my homework.

    1. Ugh! The whole thing makes my head spin. And yes, totally agree about having a contingency fund and planning it to take longer. I’m a total spreadsheet nerd and plan out every timeline, budget expense, and supply I can think of. There is SO much that goes into it, but the good planning at least helps ease the headaches later. So sorry to hear about your door! They don’t make charmers like that anymore. No technology in the world can compare to the good, old craftsmanship.

  10. In some states you can call the capital to find out if the license is current and if there are complaints against them. I had my roof done and went thru 13! This to find 1 legit person. Also, find out what the lein laws are in your state. In Cali if the crew or suppliers aren’t ‘t paid they can put a mechanics lein on your house! They can cause you to have to sell your house to pay them, SERIOUSLY! Get references and CALL THE PEOPLE! Get a photo copy of the license and his drivers license. You might need to go after him and dmv can give you a leg up.
    Ask for all invoices, make copies. Keep asking the crew if they are getting paid. NEVER GIVE ANYONE CASH!
    Build in penalties, it might help. A lot of these people just go away and change the name and start again tomorrow, leaving your kitchen a mess. Also, ask to copy any permits you need. Find out what you need to get work done, don’t rely on the contractor. Do your due diligence. Every city and county has different requirements!
    Yes, it’s work, and if you don’t want to do your part you WILL LIVE TO REGRET IT! In cali you MUST BY LAW ADD AN AIR GAP IN PUTTING IN A DISHWASHER! Not so in Oregon! Washinton is a mixed bag but they are heading towards air gaps. That is that little silver upright piece on your sink. It stops pressure from pulling sewrer water back into the dishwasher!
    Good luck, you will need it!

    1. Holy smokes! That’s crazy! Cali is definitely much more strict about a lot of those things than here in South Carolina, from what I understand.

  11. This was a great article and a much needed one. I literally had a painter from hell that I ended up throwing out of my house. It’s very hard to find someone who wants to work for a decent wage and does a good job.

    1. That’s awful! I really wonder sometimes if it’s because of the big push for sending graduating high schoolers to college when really there is SUCH a need for people in trade jobs. It’s so hard to even get a contractor to call you back in our area, and we’re almost to the point that we’d rather get a contracting license ourselves.

  12. Oh, I could write a book:

    The guy who had a “license”, (I did check it out and he did), but I did not realize it did not include demolition. There are different types of licenses, and it varies by state. After he gutted our ONE bathroom, and still did not have the town permit required, we sent him down to the building inspector in town. The inspector called us to come in. As we did, the contractor was leaving. He went back to our house and started packing up to leave town quick. Not only did he not have the right license, he was using a different name, and on and on. We had to go back to our house and catch him before he left, fire him, and try to get this job done, now with new contractors, or on our own. We did a combo of both. It was a disaster. My husband had to take two weeks of vacation on the spot to get this done before the snow came.

    Then there is the bait and switch where they send a nice looking, polite, “politically correct” person to bid the job, but the crew they send do not speak English and that makes you wonder if they are legally allowed to be up on your roof, not to mention…how do you communicate with them?! That was interesting when one of the workers cut his foot up on our roof and needed to go to the hospital.

    Oh, no wonder, my husband wants to do all the projects ourselves…but it’s not always feasible.
    Your advice is all excellent! I would add the part about WHO will be doing the work: are they licensed, trained, speak English, etc. It doesn’t matter to me what ethnicity they are but they should be licensed, insured, and able to communicate with you.

    I notice in your picture of the three guys painting your chimney that there is no drop cloth!!! Little things like that are so important. Unfortunately, they don’t tend to care about your property. I always tried to supply drinks for them, and snacks, not just to be hospitable…but I thought it might help them see me as more than just a homeowner.

    Best wishes on your future projects!
    New Hampshire

    1. Oh my gosh! That’s a nightmare! Yes, totally agree about checking who will be doing the work. With having little ones around, I’m always leery of the types of people in our house. I offer drinks and snacks to them too for that reason. So sorry you had such a bad experience! We’ve had some rough ones but definitely not like that! Wow!

  13. Workers come and go. Just because you had a good experience with said company doesn’t mean those same workers will still be there.

    1. Yep! Very true. We try to stick with hiring individuals rather than larger companies for that reason too.

  14. I personally have not hired a contractor (my projects thus far have been DIY), but I have heard that you should request lien waivers for large (above $500) material purchases as proof that your contractor paid in full for the materials and a vendor won’t be putting a lien on your house if the contractor did not fully pay for all materials.

  15. The big one I always ask now is what finishing work will be left when you’re done. This is because we were left with a huge yard mess after we put on an addition and with a need to patch our driveway after we put in a retaining wall. There will always be something you have to do after. I also ask what needs to be ordered or picked out by me and what is the budget. For the addition, which was done by a very good contractor btw, he gave us very little notice to pick out each thing, so we weren’t able to special order much. And we ended up with a cash invoice to cover the difference between estimated fixture costs and what we spent. Cash we weren’t expecting to lay out. And that was with a reputable guy! And I would also advise not getting personal or chummy. It is MUCH harder to correct someone’s work if there are personal feelings involved. This is one I struggle with still. If you joke around or talk about family, it’s harder to say something isn’t right.

    1. I always get too chummy with the people coming into my home. I need so much work done, I’ll take all of these suggestions to heart and be super professional when hiring. Thanks so much!!!

    2. Yes! All of those are great points! I totally get where you’re coming from about getting personal. It’s hard to talk business while staying friendly.

  16. We recently had our house power-washed for the first time. We never hire anyone. I didn’t want my husband on the ladder anymore doing the peaks. I asked the owner would my plants be okay. Sure he said, water them before I come & after I leave. My gardenia bush is now dead, had it for about 20 years!?

    1. Winni–don’t give up on your gardenia bush!!! It may be that the contractor meant for you to wash off your plants, not just water them. They use a bleach formula, usually–and that will certainly kill any foliage–any leaves–that were not rinsed off. I recommend watering it once a week or so, and waiting for the new growth to come back. Don’t cut back any branches yet either!! Give the poor thing a little while to rest from the shock and to regrow its new leaves. Please let us know how it is!

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