The must-ask questions when hiring a contractor

Melissa Erickson More Content Now

Fall is a great time to do some remodeling, whether that means a full kitchen upgrade or redoing a powder room.

Before putting your home and money into someone else’s hands, there are some must-ask questions that you need to have answered.

“Doing your research before you hire a contractor isn’t the most fun thing in the world to do, but skipping it is an invitation to disaster,” said Cheryl Reed, spokeswoman for Angie’s List, a service that provides members with reviews of local contractors, plumbers, handymen and more.

Here are Reed’s suggestions for what you need to know before hiring a contractor:

• Clearly define your project: Before you begin talking with contractors, read remodeling magazines and search the Internet for information on designs and materials. Even rough ideas on paper give a potential contractor a better sense of what you hope to accomplish and what is required to make it happen.

• Ask around: Ask neighbors and friends about good local contractors, but don’t hire based on only one conversation.

• Check references: Get names of previous customers and find out if they were pleased with the work and the timeline of the project, and if they’d hire the contractor again. Get the names of subcontractors and ask if they work with the contractor often and if he or she pays on time. If your prospective contractor balks at providing references, find another one. Check with trade associations to learn how your contractor stacks up among his or her peers.

• Get estimates: Get at least three written estimates. Documentation is often the best ammunition you have if things go wrong.

• Contact: Be cautious of contractors who give you a post office box with no street address, or use only an answering service. Never hire someone who comes unsolicited to your door and can’t provide you proof of qualifications – especially if he or she pressures you to hire fast and pay cash up front.

• Licensure: Some states or cities have no licensing requirements for contractors, which can make it difficult for homeowners to check up on contractors before they hire. Don’t rely on the contractor’s word to know whether his or her license is valid. Verify with appropriate agencies.

• Insurance and bonding: Check the status of the contractor’s bonding and liability insurance coverage, too. A good contractor will come prepared with proof that he or she is covered.

• Budget and payment: The typical pre-payment is between 10 and 15 percent of the total value of the project. Set aside at least 10 percent more to cover any unexpected issues or additional plans that develop as the project progresses. Pay with a credit card, if possible, so you have recourse in case something goes wrong. Set up a payment schedule that’s tied to the progress of the work. Don’t make your final payment before the work is complete to your satisfaction.

• The contract: Don’t assume a standard contract covers all your needs. Know the details of the contract, as well as how any change orders will be handled. Your contract should include a lien waiver, covering payments to all subcontractors who worked on the project. Never sign a blank contract.

• Punch list: This is how the contractor will deal with the list of small items remaining to be completed at the end of the job. A good rule of thumb is to determine the cost of those items, double it, then withhold that amount from the final payment until the list is complete.

• Prepare your family for the stress: This is one of the most overlooked, but critical considerations. How will the project change your routine, especially if it’s a kitchen or bath? Where will materials be stored? What are the working hours for the crew?