Last week, we offered some ideas to get you started on the path to hiring a great contractor. This week, let’s focus on the second part of that process. After you’ve sought out recommendations from friends, researched potential contractors, and compiled a list of contractors that have a great reputation by word of mouth and on paper, it’s time to start getting to know each option for yourself.

Interviewing Potential Contractors: First Round

Before you jump into scheduling interviews, consider reaching out via email or phone to pose some preliminary questions that might rule out a contractor on your short list. This Old House general contractor, Tom Silva, suggests seeking answers to the following questions to help you whittle your list down before face-to-face interviews:

  • Do they take on projects of your size?
    • The answer to this question will definitely make or break whether this contractor stays on your list.
  • Are they willing to provide financial references, from suppliers or banks?
    • Established and responsible business owners should be able to demonstrate these qualities to you with financial references. Banks check your credit score to find out how reliable you It’s only fair that you gather as much info as you can on how reliable a potential contractor will be. If there is any hesitating to provide references, seriously rethink the option.
  • Can they give you a list of previous clients?
    • Again, just as you provide references to demonstrate your reliability as a potential employee, so too should your potential contractors. Any contractor unwilling to provide client references may have a questionable background or may simply be very new to the field. As we discussed last week, the Better Business Bureau can help you get a fuller picture.
  • How many other projects would they have going at the same time?
    • Depending on the type of renovation or repair you’re looking to have done, the answer to this question could matter a lot or hardly at all. If your only bathroom is being remodeled, you’re probably going to want it to move along swiftly. If you’re completing an addition that won’t need to be finished for another year, you may not need to prioritize a company that takes on fewer projects at one time. Assess how important this is to you before the initial email/phone call.
  • How long have they worked with their subcontractors?
    • Relationships matter, and the relationship your potential contractors have with their subcontractors really Subcontractors will be involved in the home improvement project for its duration, so you want to feel assured that any potential contractor has a long-standing relationship with them. This increases the odds that issues which can crop up along the way will be handled swiftly and professionally,  and that communication between all parties will be smooth and predictable.

Interviewing Potential Contractors: Second Round

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to at least three contractors, it’s time to start interviewing and gathering estimates. Before you begin, try to gain as clear a sense as you can of what you want done to your home, suggests Teresa Mears at U.S. News and World Report: “You’ll get a more accurate estimate if you can be very specific in what you want done and the materials you would like to use to make it happen.”

Mears also suggests obtaining a written estimate (often understood as a more formal proposal and referred to as a bid) from at least three contractors, and making sure that your estimates all account for similar tasks and materials so that you can compare with ease.

Personality is also important, so weigh the feel you get from each interview. But remember that it’s only one piece of the puzzle–just because a contractor can deliver a great pitch doesn’t mean that he or she can deliver a great product. What’s really important is whether you feel confident that you can easily voice your questions and concerns, so if you notice that a potential contractor seems to talk over you, misunderstand you, or dismiss your questions or ideas during the interview stage, don’t write it off as someone who is just busy or too much of an expert to respond to everyday questions. You need a contractor who listens and is responsive to your home improvement needs and wants.

In addition to the above concerns, be sure to prepare and ask pointed questions specific to your home improvement project before interviews. Take notes as you go, and consider asking these questions in addition to those you’ve brainstormed:

  • What is your process for handling complaints?
  • What portion of cleanup is covered by the estimate? What is the process for resolving potential damage to the home over the course of the project?
  • What permits will you need for the work, and how will the process of obtaining permits be handled?
  • How many other home improvement projects similar to this one have you completed recently?
  • What is your availability? How soon can I expect the project to begin?

Once you’ve completed the interview process, be sure to double back and check off anything you might have missed from our first round of tips. And be sure to do all the legwork of calling financial and client references–tedious as it may feel, it’s important. You can even request to speak with current clients or visit job sites.

Finally, when comparing estimates, do not necessarily opt for the cheapest. Take all of the factors into consideration, and use your judgment to make the best choice for your home improvement needs and budget.