Save time and effort by ruling out deal breakers with your contractor before an in-person session

Your time is valuable, so before setting up an in-person meeting with a remodeling / constructor pro, be sure they could be a good fit for your project. Here are nine key questions to ask.

1. Am I in an area where you work?

Some contractors work across a wide metro area, while others restrict their work. Some may travel farther for a large project but limit small projects to their immediate neighborhood.When contractors limit their geographic range, it generally means faster response times for homeowners, which can be a plus, particularly for warranty work. 

2. Is my project the kind you do regularly?

Start by giving a general description of what you’re planning. For example, “I’d like to remodel/renovate my bathroom, do a kitchen extension, etc.” If a contractor primarily remodels kitchens and baths, then a large addition may not be the kind of project they will be experienced enough to take on.Some contractors work only on interiors and do not build additions, while others work only on single-family homes and are not insured to work on condominiums or townhouses.Many contractors restrict the kind of work they do, by focusing on either residential or commercial projects, or by limiting themselves to a particular size or type of project. Make sure your project is something they are interested in working on and are set up to handle well.

3. Can you work with my timeline?

There are two key pieces to know about timing: how soon the contractor can start your project, and how quickly the plans, permitting and material selections can be completed. If this is your first call to a pro, it may be months before the plans and permits will be ready since you haven’t interviewed a design professional yet.If you have plans in hand for anything bigger than a bathroom, it will probably be a month or two — or longer — before you have selected a contractor, received pricing, signed a contract and construction can begin. This is a good time to talk with the contractor about the length of the planning process and the firm’s current workload.

4. What services do you offer?

Contractors might focus only on building, or they might offer a range of planning and design services as well. A single company can offer everything from feasibility studies to preconstruction estimates to complete design, engineering and material selections. If you are looking for a particular mix of services, now is the time to figure out if the company can help you or if you need to keep looking to find a better fit.

5. Who usually handles the design on your projects?

This conversation will tell you if you need to hire an architect if the contractor is willing to work with the architect you’ve already hired and how the design process works if they handle it in-house. Don’t assume anything as every company does things a little differently.

6. Do you work on a bid basis or a time and materials basis?

The words “bid” and “estimate” are often used interchangeably by homeowners but mean very specific things to contractors. A bid is a fixed price for a specific scope of work, and it usually requires extensive staff time to complete. An estimate can be a loose ballpark or range, a line item of general tasks or a specific breakdown with all costs transparent. Some contractors will work only one way or another, so this is a key issue to clear up early, particularly if you want to use a specific contract method.

7. How does your estimating process work?

Every contractor handles estimating differently. Some charge for detailed estimates but provide a range of costs without charge. Some will estimate only with a set of plans or after being hired for the project. Others provide varying levels of information based on how much information they are provided.After hearing about the contractor’s process, you should have a good idea of what to expect, what you might pay and whether a meeting in person will result in pricing you can consider.

8. I think my project is in a range of $X to $Y. Is this realistic?

Discussing budgets can be uncomfortable, but it’s important, particularly if you have a specific amount you don’t want to exceed. Years ago we got a call from someone wanting to gut and remodel two bathrooms with stone, tile and nice finishes. The budget was $5,000, which unfortunately wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of tile. If I had set up a meeting without talking about budget first, we would have both been disappointed when we met and finally talked about it. If you are calling multiple contractors, you will have several opinions about whether your budget is sufficient, and that will help you understand the likely cost and think about adjustments to the scope of work.

9. Do you allow homeowners to supply some of the materials or do some of the work themselves?

Some contractors prefer this, while others are adamant about buying all the materials they will install. Having homeowners perform work, particularly when the completion of that work affects the schedule, can be problematic, so many contractors will just say no. Knowing which way the contractor prefers to work will help you understand if the firm will be a good fit given what you have in mind. If you are financing the project with a construction loan, keep in mind that the lender may require that only the contractor perform the work.

Taking the next steps

Depending on your project, this may be a meeting in person, a referral to an architect or a designer, or sending over sketches, plans or photos by email for a first look. If you do set up a meeting, make sure to talk beforehand about the expected agenda, the likely length of the meeting and whether some deliverable — an estimate, for instance — will follow the meeting.