Choosing a contractor: 10 tips

Get help screening prospective contractors.

The responsibility of finding an ethical, reliable, and competent contractor falls on the homeowner or buyer. The best way to insure a successful project and positive experience is to educate oneself on the contractor screening process. Here are our top ten questions for a potential contractor:

  1. Is the contractor licensed?
    Many states, but not all, require contractors to be licensed and or bonded. Contact your state or local licensing agencies to ensure the contractor meets all requirements. We're not talking about a standard business license here; so don't be fooled by someone simply stating that they are licensed. The licensing process tests a contractor's knowledge of construction techniques, his/her general understanding of the International Building Code (IBC), and examines the number and complexity of the projects he has completed. While these requirements do not guarantee how an individual contractor performs, they do ensure that a baseline of experience is present. Ask to see any potential contractor's state-issued license or for their license number. Often you can verify a contractor's license status and review any disciplinary action against them online. If a contractor refuses to provide this information for any reason, our advice is to keep shopping.

  2. Does the contractor carry both General Liability and Workers' Compensation Insurance?
    In order to protect your largest investment, we recommend that any potential contractor be covered by both General Liability and Workers' Compensation insurance. This is not only necessary to protect your home, but also to minimize personal liability should an accident occur on the jobsite. To determine that coverage is current, and adequate for your job, ask for the contractor's insurance agent and call them directly. Only they can guarantee the status of the coverage.

  3. Does the contractor intend to pull a permit?
    Permits are required for nearly every construction and remodeling project. While these permits do come with an expense, they are required for good reason. Permits result in inspections. Inspections ensure that the work being performed is up to current building code and won't result in your home being unexpectedly damaged by preventable accidents (i.e. electrical fires, roof/plumbing leaks, or foundation failures). Any potential contractor advising against permitting your job, if your local municipality requires it, is likely looking to make his job easier at the expense of your piece of mind.

  4. Is the contractor qualified to do YOUR job?
    Your project may be anything from a deck repair to a major structural item such as removing a load-bearing partition or tying an addition onto the home. It is reasonable to expect a contractor to have past experience on a project with a similar scope of work to yours. Examine his portfolio, and check with references, to help determine if this is the case.

  5. Will the contractor provide references or let you inspect a current job?
    Checking references is always a good idea when screening a contractor although it is unlikely that you will be provided with the name of an unsatisfied customer. An often more effective option is to find reviews of the contractor on consumer-powered websites like These sites should provide both positive and negative experiences, if any, of past customers who have dealt with a specific contractor.

  6. Does the contractor's contract detail the ENTIRE scope of work, including all pertinent allowances?
    Every client should be provided a highly detailed contract listing every major step in the process. These contracts are commonly 10-15 pages long, and should be written to ensure your complete understanding of exactly what you are, and are not, paying for. In short, everything should be spelled out. If you don't see an item listed, or would like more clarification, ask for it to be added or changed. A contractor should not object to adding more clarity to a contract as it provides protection for both parties. This is also the time to verify that the allowances provided in the contract appear sufficient for the quality of work desired. Beware of contractors that bid the project low, but end up adding change orders to cover your finish selections.

  7. Does the contractor outline a "reasonable" payment schedule?
    A payment schedule should be established and outlined in the above provided contract. This should summarize the total project price, as well as the deposit amount; draw schedule, and final payment amount. While many jobs often require a substantial down payment to cover permitting, design fees, special order items, etc., the contractor should be able to justify these early expenses. The remaining payment schedule should then be outlined to coordinate with the project schedule. This ensures that draws are paid based on the amount of work completed, not the time a contractor has spent on your job. The payment schedule should also provide an amount deemed the "customer acceptance," or final draw. This should be paid following a walk-thru to ensure that the final product meets the specifications of the contract.

  8. Does the contractor provide lien waivers?
    A contractor should be willing to provide lien waivers for all major suppliers and sub-contractors working on your project indicating they have been paid for the job. These waivers should be provided prior to making the final "customer acceptance" payment. Major waivers to expect include, but are not limited to, foundation work, framing, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, sheetrock, painting and material suppliers.

  9. Does the contractor offer a warranty or guarantee their work?
    Anyone can offer a verbal guarantee on work performed, but when dealing with contractors insist upon a written warranty to be included in the contract. There are several different types of warranties available by both contractors and outside warranty companies. However, these third-party warranties are usually not serviced by your specific contractor and will likely come with an expense. Regardless of who will manage the warranty, make sure that there is a guideline provided specifying what is, and is not, covered as well as the standards used to determine each item's applicability.

  10. Does the contractor offer in-house design services?
    While this may not be a deal-breaker for every project, it is definitely worth consideration. Often homeowners feel more comfortable with one point of contact for the entire project. This also helps reduce any potential miscommunication between the architect's proposed design and the contractor's build. Another benefit to using a design/build firm is their ability to modify or tailor a project during construction without excessive delays due to redesign by an outside source.

    While the above ten questions cannot guarantee that you find the perfect contractor, they should help provide a starting point for the screening process. One additional piece of advice is to trust your instincts regarding each potential contractor. If you don't feel comfortable dealing with him at the contract phase the construction phase could likely be worse. Once you select and hire your contractor, understand that the process of remodeling or building is stressful and has to be a joint effort to be successful. You and your contractor will need to work together in order to make the project proceed as smoothly as possible.

    Shawn H. Hughes
    Specialty Spaces Atlanta

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