by Kerrie Kelly, ASID
A generation ago, most people made their own improvements around the house. DIY wasn't a trend-it was simply the way we lived. Most homeowners had a garage stocked with power saws, hand tools, and everything they needed to repair any issue that arose.
However, with the hectic pace of life today, there's less time to devote to renovating our homes. As a result, using a contractor (that would be DIFM, or Do-It-For-Me) has become a more common option for home improvement.
Embarking on a remodel or building a home, however, means you're committing to a fairly long-term relationship with people who have a lot of power over the quality of your day-to-day life. In order to make sure that the inevitable break up is amicable, we've got 10 questions you should ask your contractor before your project begins.
1. Is all your paperwork up to date?
License? Check. Insurance? Check. Requirements for a license vary from state to state and even city to city. Hiring a licensed contractor means you're hiring an individual that complies with local regulations and standards. Liability insurance may not be required in your state, but if the contractor is working in your home, it's best to make sure they have it. Ask for proof of insurance before any contracts are signed.
2. Will you provide references?
Seeing is believing. Ask the contractor for a list of references where he or she has completed similar projects. Visit these homes and ask the former customers if they are happy with the end product and how they liked working with the contractor. If your contractor works with subcontractors, make sure that they can also provide references.
3. Who is your crew?
Just as you want to be sure the subcontractors have references and proper licensing, you want to know how long your contractor has worked with them. Who, specifically, will be in your home? How often? Who's in charge when the main contractor is not there? For a major project, these people may be part of your daily life for weeks or even months. Make sure you know as much about your new roommates as possible before they move in.
4. What does the contract cover?
If it isn't in the contract, don't assume it will happen. From finish work to cleaning up every day, make sure that the contract accounts for your needs, not only in terms of the work being done, but how, when and where, as well as any other expectations you may have about life during a remodel. If you are experienced with hand and power tools, there may be projects that you can do to help cut costs, if needed. Be sure to clearly outline those items beforehand. A well-written contract is necessary to guarantee the scope of work is performed as you envisioned and that you are protected in case of dissatisfaction.
5. How do you expect payment?
For contractors, projects can range from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands. Make sure you know up front what their expectations are. Are the discounts they may get from suppliers passed on? Is a payment schedule an option? Checks? Credit cards?
6. What is your management style?
A contractor is a project manager, controlling moving parts, from supplies to personnel to billing and collections. You need to know how your contractor works. Ask specific questions: What is your strategy for keeping costs down? Where do you get most of your materials? And don't forget this one: How do you manage deadlines?
7. What is the schedule?
You've heard the horror stories. They are often exaggerated and there are lots of great contractors out there, but setting specific expectations is key. Ask what happens when deadlines are missed. Under which circumstances can you expect to be compensated when the contractor does not keep his or her commitment to the calendar? Under what circumstances will you just have to swallow it? If possible, it's also nice to know which days will have the most amount of noise-whether that's hammers during demo or power tools and saws during framing-versus which days will be quieter when the painter is on site.
8. What will you do to keep my home and property safe?
Many remodels require parts of your home to be exposed for periods of time. If doors or walls are removed, how will your contractor keep your possessions safe? If anything is stolen or damaged, who is responsible?
9. What are you worried about?
Get a better sense of your contractor's candor as well as his or her experience by asking what he or she is worried about with your project. This is also a great way to know which aspects of construction you should really tune in for and which periods during the project your calendar may need to be more flexible.
10. How will we communicate?
Just as it is in any other long-term relationship, communication is key. Is your contractor a texter or emailer, or do they prefer the phone? When decisions are required, what will that process look like, if a change has to be made? What is the protocol for an emergency? Finally, you should discuss your mutual boundaries for communication after hours.
Of course, for the DIY-at-heart, it may be difficult to bite your tongue when you see a contractor-even one you trust-doing something you feel you could do yourself, perhaps 'better' or a little bit differently. If you'd like to use your own tools and help with the process (and perhaps save some money doing so), make sure to talk this out with your contractor before they ever begin. Clearly delineate who will build what at each step in the renovation.
We've all had different experiences with contractors. What other questions are you sure to ask?
Kerrie Kelly is an award-winning California-based interior designer who writes on remodeling and décor for The Home Depot. Kerrie's contractor checklist seeks to guide homeowners for jobs they might need outside help with. To view Home Depot's selection of hand tools for those DIY projects you just want to do on your own, just visit the company's website.