What to Ask Before You Hire a Home Improvement Pro

Finding the right contractor can be as much a matter of safety as getting your money's worth. Home improvement must be done by the book and follow all code requirements of your city's building department. Asking these 10 questions will help you find the most qualified professional in your area with the right experience and business practices for your needs.

1. Are you licensed?

No matter the scope of your project, most states and municipalities require home improvement contractors to be licensed, so don't consider one who isn't properly licensed. It's a matter of protecting yourself, your family, the contractor and his workers too, by making sure that he has all up-to-date licenses and insurance (see the next question) required by local law.

2. Are you insured?

Certainly one of the deal-breaker questions, given the potentially high liability for home improvement work. Contractors should carry liability and workers' compensation insurance. If he has no insurance, you may be liable for all costs should there be an accident on your property during the work.

3. What kind of work do you do most?

Many contractors often specialize in one area or another. As an example, if your project involves finished spaces, look for someone who specializes in remodels as opposed to new construction. 

4. What special training/experience do you have for this kind of work?

This should be one of your questions if your project calls for specific expertise. 

5. Will you provide references (for past jobs similar to mine)?

References are particularly important for hiring contractors - it's hard to judge the quality of their work when you can't see most of it and don't really know what to look for (see item 10 for tips).

Then start asking around. Talk to family, friends and co-workers about work they had done on their homes. Were they pleased? Was the price affordable? Did the contractor stick to the schedule and the budget? Was he easy to reach and pleasant to work with? What would they have done differently? What did they do that worked well? Use their feedback to compile a list of DOs and DON'Ts.

Search online, as well. What you're looking for are contractors with generally positive reviews from neutral sources, like Yelp! - not just from the contractor's own website. Check how long they've been in business and whether there are any complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

6. What does your estimate include?

In addition to pricing structure, be sure to discuss incidentals. Chances are, you'll be responsible for them. 

(Editor's tip: Remember that the lowest bid isn’t necessarily the most desirable. This is your home, after all, and you want excellent-quality work that will last. Lower than average bids are usually a warning signal. They can mean unreliability, no guarantee of the work, shoddy materials and so on. If you want good work that lasts, be willing to pay for quality.)

7. Do I need a permit? Who will obtain it?

A permit ensures the work will be checked by a city inspector -- an important safeguard for homeowners. It's standard for contractors (not homeowners) to pull permits. Make sure to have those permits in hand before work begins, and keep them in a safe place during and after the job.

8. Who will perform the work?

Don't assume the person you talk to will be the one doing all the work. If you would feel more comfortable about the "boss" being on site for your project, discuss this up front. 

9. What will you guarantee/warranty?

Learn how well a pro stands behind his work. Also be aware that contractors typically assume responsibility for equipment they buy for you through their professional accounts. 

10. May I see a work in progress?

Depending on the nature of your project, it might be helpful to visit a contractor's current job, for a behind-the-scenes look at his work. For example, with an electrician, you're looking for evidence of orderly, methodical installation:

  • neat cable runs near the service panel (breaker box)
  • clear labeling of circuit breakers
  • regular anchoring of cables
  • switch boxes that sit squarely and finish flush to the drywall surface, etc. 

BONUS TIP: Get It in Writing...Once you have chosen the contractor, draw up a contract. The contract should include all details of the work – all materials that are to be used (with specific brand names, product numbers and quantities, if relevant), the project timeline, the payment schedule, any applicable warranties, and cleanup -- and must be signed by both parties.

Like a doctor and auto mechanic, a trusted home improvement professional is a valuable member of a household maintenance team. As you cover your list of questions, listen to how he responds - you want someone who patiently explains what he's doing and why, and who will help you understand the essentials of your project (or as much as you care to know). Ideally, the contractor you hire now will be a good source to call for other projects down the road.

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