What questions should you ask a contractor before inviting him into your home?

While product selection is important, your choice of a contractor will ultimately determine the success and enjoyment of your project. While many homeowners spend time doing product research, very few spend time researching the company they are considering to do work on their home. There are a number of basic things that you need to clarify before you invite a contractor into your home. If you don’t get acceptable answer to these basic questions, don’t go any further. If you are seriously considering a specific contractor to do your work, make sure to ask for and get written verification before your sign any contract. Remember, once there is a problem, it’s too late to find out what you were told is not quite right. These questions will provide you with essential information in your decision making.

Basic Contractor Question # 1 – Are you a licensed contractor?

Make sure your contractor is properly licensed. Anyone can say they are licensed. Make the contractor prove it by either showing you the license or giving you a copy of it. Remember to check the expiration date. In most states, being licensed is the law. If a contractor can not produce a valid license, don’t hire him. You are only asking for trouble.

Ask how long they have been in business. Ask them to provide you with the name of their accountant and/or banker. You want to ensure the contractor is financially sound and won’t be declaring bankruptcy in the middle of your project.

Basic Contractor Question # 2 – Does the contractor carry general liability insurance?

Make sure your contractor carries general liability insurance. This type of insurance protects your property in case of damage caused by the contractor and/or his employees. The insurance company will pay for the cost of replacing and/or repairing any damage that occurs. At a minimum, it is suggested that a contractor have one million dollars of liability insurance.

If a company uses subcontractors, be sure that every one of them who will be working on your property has their own liability insurance. If any one working on your home is an employee of the company they need to be covered by Workman’s Compensation Insurance.

Remember, anyone can say they are insured. Make the contractor prove it by having their insurance company fax or mail you a certificate of insurance with you named as the certificate holder. Any reputable company will be more than willing to provide this to you. Be aware that if the contractor does not have liability insurance, you may be responsible for any damages they cause to your property. Unfortunately, most homeowner’s insurance policies exclude damage caused by a contractor. Your insurance company places the burden on you to make sure that the contractor and subcontractors you engage are properly insured.

Basic Contractor Question # 3 – Does the contractor carry Workman’s’ Compensation Insurance?

It is critical for you to be sure that your contractor carries Workman’s Compensation insurance. It protects you from liability if a worker is hurt while on your property. Be aware that if the contractor doesn’t carry workers’ compensation coverage, you may be liable for any injuries suffered by the contractor or any of his employees on your property. Remember to ask for written verification to prove that every person who will be on your property is either an independent contractor with their own liability insurance or an employee covered by the company’s Workman’s Compensation insurance.

As with liability issues, most homeowner’s insurance policies exclude coverage of injuries suffered by a contractor or any of his employees while working on your property. Your insurance company places the burden on you to make sure that the contractor and subcontractors you engage are properly insured. If someone gets hurt, you may be responsible for paying for their medical and related expenses out of your own pocket!

Basic Contractor Question # 4 – Does the contractor provide a written lien waiver?

Your contractor should provide you with a written lien waiver at the end of the job. Employees, subcontractors, and suppliers have the right in most jurisdictions to file mechanics liens against your property if they are not paid by the contractor. Even though you may have paid your contractor for those materials or work, if he doesn’t meet his financial obligations, the workmen or suppliers can look to you for payment. Make sure and get copies of lien waivers to prove that you are protected from having to pay for the job twice.

Basic Contractor Question # 5 – Does the contractor guarantee his work?

You would expect that the person working on your home would guarantee the work. Don’t assume that the work is covered. Make sure the contractor can prove it with a written guarantee or warranty covering his work. Don’t assume that just because you have a warranty from the window or door manufacturer, that installation is covered also. Read the small print and get verification of how long the work is covered. Some contractors only guarantee their work only one year from date of completion. Don’t assume, ask for the contractor to prove it in writing.

Basic Contractor Question # 6 – Will the contractor provide written references?

A good contractor will be happy to provide you with references. Always check references, even with the big box stores. You should look for a well-established contractor who can give you several client references from the last 6 months to 4 or 5 years. Ask how much of a contractor’s business comes from repeat and referral business. For most companies that figure is between 15% and 25%.  When it is significantly larger, it usually indicates that his clients are pleased with the work they’ve received and tell their family and friends.

Basic Contractor Question # 7 – How many similar projects has the contractor completed in the last year?

This will help you to determine the contractor’s familiarity with your type of project. Obviously, if your are looking at doing a specific project, such as windows and doors, you want to be sure that you hire a professional who does this day in and day out, not just someone who does them occasionally.

Basic Contractor Question # 8 – How does the contractor handle job debris?

Nothing can be more frustrating than a contractor that has no respect for your property. A good contractor will take appropriate measures to protect your home and property. Depending upon the work being done, such as windows, it may be necessary for your contractor to protect both the interior and exterior of your home. Ask the contractor about the steps he takes to protect your furnishings and carpet on the interior of your home and the landscaping and structures on the exterior.

Make sure that the final price includes removal of all job debris from your property and full clean up. A clean work site is fundamental to a smooth remodeling project. Your contractor should clean up any debris at the end of each day, keep his tools neatly stowed, and neatly stack any excess materials.

Basic Contractor Question # 9 – How does the contractor handle service claims?

Also find out how the service claims are handled and who is the contact in case you need to report a service. A good contractor should have a written policy and a well thought out system to quickly and efficiently satisfy customer’s claims. Your job should be backed with a written warranty! Many contractors may tell you that their job comes with a “Lifetime Guarantee”. But be careful! What they really mean is the manufacturer will guarantee the product against manufacturing defects for life. This is not the same thing as a written labor warranty!

A labor warranty insures that any defect in workmanship is repaired or replaced by the contractor, at no expense to you! Many contractors and retailers will not provide you with a written labor warranty because they use a variety of subcontractors who may do slipshod work at low prices.

It is important to determine in advance who is responsible to take care of any service work. In many cases, sometimes unbeknownst to you, you may actually have three different companies involved in your job; the company you bought from, the company who made the product, and the subcontractor who installed it. If you have a problem, who will help you? With three different companies involved there is a high probability that they will end up pointing fingers at one another, leaving you frustrated. Contracting with a company who has their own employees doing the work is a plus. It is even better if you can find a company, who does all four phases of the project; consulting, manufacturing, installation and guaranteeing the results.

Basic Contractor Question # 10 – Does the contractor have a physical address, such as an office or a showroom?

Many contractors work out of their homes or cars. You need to do the homework to find out if that person has an actual place of business. A person coming to your home is someone you have never seen before whose statements are based on whether you believe them or not. Many hope that you will never bother to check their credentials and in reality do not have offices or showrooms they claim as existing. The representatives giving you a presentation may be working for a few companies at the same time or could be even a good old con artist. The safe way to avoid getting ripped off is to visit the place of business and observe how the show room or the office is run and how you are treated as a customer. Where is the guarantee that the company he or she represents even exists? Take the time to visit the place of business. It may tell you a lot about whether you actually want to do business with this company.