Hiring a General Contractor? Ask these 10 Questions First!

Having major work done in your home that disrupts your family’s routine is never fun. However, you can be proactive to insure the best possible experience and deliver the end result you are looking for. Read my cautionary tale and gain tips on hiring your next contractor.

One finished aspect of our bathroom remodel that didn’t come without its own share of troubles

I’m very happy with the way the project turned out, but it came with a lot of headaches and frustration. Below I explain how to avoid these mistakes in your own remodeling adventure.

A little background.

The team started demo on Jan. 8 and told me they would be done by early March at the latest. My project was massive. It included a bathroom remodel, a complete laundry room redo (including bumping out an interior wall), and a mudroom renovation. In addition to those items, I had other tasks done, such as 2 windows replaced, 2 exterior doors installed, some crown molding installed, and a door cut into a wall connecting a bedroom with a bathroom. Even after I was skeptical about their ability to be finished by the first of March due to the size of the project, they were confident it would be done. Ok.

Part of the challenge with our project was that it required extreme organization by a project manager (PM) to keep the project moving and to avoid delays. Unfortunately, our PM wasn’t a very good listener and didn’t take proper notes. Not only were we dissatisfied with the PM’s lack of details, but the workers and the subs were constantly frustrated with the PM too. Thankfully, we were home during our remodel because there were many times I had to correct the workers when tasks weren’t communicated by the PM correctly. In addition, the PM lived 40 minutes away (without traffic), so he rarely came to check on the project, the workers, or clarify the work orders. I had to be the PM of my own job without the ability to schedule workers. The owner was very nice and lived nearby, but when we began to ask questions about the PM’s actions, the owner buried his head in the sand and wouldn’t answer his phone.

ASK the questions. Get the answers in writing.

I asked a TON of questions when interviewing contractors. I came up with the list of questions below AFTER I started noticing problems. I’m pretty sure that if I had asked these additional questions I would have ruled out this contractor entirely.

  1. Do all of the employees work for the contracting company or are they subs? It would be best if they worked for the company — everyone from the general laborers to the plumber to the drywall expert to the electrician. Subs have their own businesses, and the contracting company, in an effort to save as much money as possible, will try to have each sub out to your property only once. This may be fine when you’re doing just a one-room remodel, but if you’re having multiple items in different rooms done or if your project is more complicated it can be a real nightmare. Also, subs with thriving business will take care of their own customers first.
  2. What time to the employees show up and what time do they leave each day? Our workers started at 9, took a 1.5 hour lunch break, and were gone by 3:30. That’s a half a day’s work at best.
  3. Will they be there every day, or will there be significant gaps due to too many other projects going on at the same time? We had large gaps, and I didn’t know who or if anyone was coming to my home on any given day.
  4. How many projects do you have going on at the same time, and how many crews do you have and how many people per crew? Our large project consisted of a crew of only 2 because one worker left the company when our job started. There were also a couple of other large projects going on at the same time as ours and not enough crews to keep up with demand.
  5. What is your preparation and cleanup process? How will they protect your existing floors, walls, furniture, etc? The masking tape that was used on our wood floors for 5 months damaged the finish, and the contractor was reluctant to fix the floors. Proper preparation is imperative! Also, be sure, especially if you are living with the renovation, that the subs clean up at the end of every day, not just at the end of the project.
  6. Do your crews work on the weekends? Ours did not even though we were told they would if they were behind schedule.
  7. What are your payment terms?  Sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’ve laid out 50% on a project up front and you’re halfway into a 10 week project without much to show for it but demolition there’s a possibility the contractor needs to pay his/her people and is ready for the next payment. Consider withholding a significant amount until the project is completely done to your satisfaction.  I mean completely.  Our contractor asked for the rest of his payment and said we could withhold $4,000 until we were satisfied at the end, which was not enough to withhold when there was still so much work to be done.  We stood our ground; only one of our 3 rooms was finished, none of the other jobs were completed, and $4000 was not enough to keep them from walking off the job.  
  8. How often will your project manager and contractor/owner be on the job site? Get it in writing. Ask if they live nearby or on the other side of town. Be sure the project manager is detail-oriented (ask to meet with him/her during the interview and bidding process). They need to be able to think through everything that’s involved in your bathroom remodel, such as moving outlets or new trim that needs to be added/removed because of new cabinets. This is important because it may involve other trades, which could delay the project if it hasn’t been addressed on the schedule. Try to use email as the communication tool to keep track of what was said and what was changed. Text and phone calls are great, but they’re harder to document. Speaking of documentation, keep a spreadsheet of out-of-pocket costs, allowances, bids, etc., as well as a folder of receipts. Your project manager should have a spreadsheet, but don’t rely on him/her to watch after your bids and allowances like you would. Catching errors could be the difference between that fancy tile you saw on the latest home improvement show and a roll of linoleum. Change orders are going to happen on larger projects, so keeping track of your expenses helps keep the budget on track. I also keep a notebook of items to mention to my project manager so that I don’t forget.
  9. Will you be using your own subs or can I bring in my own? If they want you to use their subs for countertops, cabinets, tile, etc. do your own research to be sure that sub is reputable. For example, the countertop company we bought our quartz from was dishonest about the piece of remnant I bought from their back lot; they told the PM it was not a remnant, and they charged me double for it. In addition, they cut the wrong openings for my sinks which caused a delay for the plumbing subcontractor. Delays can translate into additional costs and definitely cause more frustration for subs and homeowners alike. If you can, tell the contractors you want to use your own contacts. The contractor may tell you that they won’t guarantee any work if you go that route, but if you’re not happy with your contractor anyway you probably aren’t going to have them come back and fix something (and since they already have your money after the job is done, there is no incentive for them to return). For example, if anything goes awry with your countertop installation, the sub you picked out will have to answer to you and give you the discount for their error, rather than giving it to the contractor (who may not pass that discount on to you).
  10. Can you provide references of work similar to ours?  When you’re calling references be sure the contractor gives you clients whose situation is similar to yours.  If you work from home and will be there during the construction don’t settle for references of clients who work outside of the home.  There’s a big difference — when you’re home you see and hear the good, the bad, and the ugly, and you are constantly being asked questions and are unavoidably involved in every aspect of the work (this can be good and bad).  If your project is indoors, don’t limit your communication to references who only had exterior work done.  Find someone who has specifically had their bathroom remodeled, for example.

The company I hired did a beautiful job, and no one who sees the finished product knows the struggles I endured to see this project to completion. I thought I had done my due diligence. These questions would’ve been so helpful.


Since I’m already sharing, there are a few other crucial items to have on hand, such as a glass of wine, a bubble bath, chocolate, classical music, or whatever you do to relax because you’re going to need it.

I hope this helps save you from headaches down the road. My mental and physical health suffered as a result of this extremely uncomfortable experience. Next time, I plan to act as my own contractor and sub out the jobs myself so that I’m in more control of the variables, expected and unexpected. Best wishes on your remodel!

Have any home remodeling horror stories of your own you want to share? I’m here for you!

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