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12 Interview Questions to Ask a General Contractor

If you are planning renovation or construction project, you may need to start lining up a general contractor several months prior to the start. Finding the right contractor for your project type, schedule, budget, and style can be a little like dating - take your time to find a match that works or everyone will be unhappy.

A general contractor is typically hired to oversee a renovation or construction project. Traditionally general contractors have workers on their staff to handle demolition, carpentry, and other basics. For everything else they hire various subcontractors, or "subs". Because the general contractor is the single person with the most direct impact on the construction process, your decision on who to hire becomes very important in the ultimate success of the project.

The following list covers 12 critical areas to address before signing a contract:

  1. Make sure the contractor has the appropriate business and professional licenses and is insured. Your homeowner’s insurance probably doesn’t cover construction work or liability for workers in your house. You may request a copy of the contractor’s insurance certificate listing the specific coverages for your project. A contractor should carry liability insurance, worker's compensation insurance, and vehicle insurance.
  2. Lead Safety. If you live in a house built before 1978, workers are required to have passed a lead paint safety course. In addition, renovation firms must be registered with the state. Keep your family safe from lead paint hazards and always verify that people performing work on your home meet the state's requirements.
  3. Get all the contact information you can. Write down the contractor's business address, cell phone, telephone, fax, e-mail address, business license number, and truck license plate. If something goes wrong during the project, you need to be able to make contact. Before signing a contract, look up the business at the Better Business Bureau web site. Prior complaints lodged with the BBB should not necessarily exclude a potential contractor, but may lead you to ask some specific questions and/or write some additional language into a contract.
  4. Ask the contractor to describe similar projects he/she has worked on. Get two or three recent references and call them. Don’t trust photos the contractor brings as your only source of information.
  5. Make the contractor aware of any individual requirements and issues with your project. Ask if the contractor can work within whatever guidelines you set.
  6. Ask about project management. Who will be working on the job? Will there be a supervisor, superintendent or lead carpenter on site or will it be managed from a different location? If it's a small company, will the owner be working on site?
  7. Inquire about timing. How much lead-time does the contractor need to schedule your project once the contract is signed? How long does the contractor anticipate the project taking? Discuss incentives to finish early and penalties for missing deadlines.
  8. Ask about the contractor’s bidding process. What will be included in the bid? What is specifically excluded? Do they need a full set of renovation design drawings?
  9. Was the contractor on time to the meeting? Did he or she call to let you know about any delays?
  10. Ask about the contractor’s business. How many projects are completed in a year? Does the contractor have an office and shop? How long has the contractor been in business? How many employees are there?
  11. How are complaints or differences of opinion typically resolved? Does the contractor have an established punchlist system? Does the contractor warranty his or her work? Is there an arbitration clause in the contract?
  12. Ask about payment. How much money does the contractor require up front? What is the payment schedule? If you are getting a loan for the project, can the contractor agree to the lender’s terms and the required draw schedule?

It is standard practice to bid a project out to more than one contractor. If you have a set of the drawings, each potential contractor should review the drawings before walking through the project with you. The contractor may want to have his or her proposed subs walk through at the same time. This walkthrough is your opportunity to assess the contractor’s experience, work ethic, and personal demeanor.

As you sit down with the contractors' bids, make sure that you are comparing equivalent scopes of work. Don't be afraid to call and ask for clarifications or additional detail. Particularly if you will be living in the house during construction, your contractor may begin to feel less like a business associate and more like a part of the family!

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RenovateQC promotes neighborhood revitalization and restoration of historic building stock in the Quad Cities area of western Illinois and eastern Iowa by informing, educating, inspiring, and supporting property owners with appropriate maintenance and rehabilitation techniques.

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