Choosing a contractor can be a difficult and nerve-wracking decision. I've had the opportunity to work with contractors to build my family's dream home and to later add an addition to our home. We learned some tough lessons during the home build, and later had a very successful experience with the addition. Aside from the basics like getting multiple bids and asking for references, my husband and I learned that the questions we asked at the beginning of the process had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the project.
We ultimately got our dream home and addition through a construction process that was painless to our family of five. We still have a great relationship with our addition builder and would happily recommend him to anyone looking for a great home-building experience.
Here are some of the most important questions that we asked (or wished we had asked) when interviewing contractors.
How many projects do you currently work on? It's important to find out how many projects are currently on a contractor's plate. The developer who built our home was working on several projects at once. We would see a lot of progress on our house for a week, and then the crew would disappear for two to three weeks as they rotated to another project.
Have you done similar work? Remember that one size doesn't fit all. Just because someone is an experienced carpenter doesn't mean he's worked with inlaid hardwood floors or elaborate staircases. Make sure that the contractor you choose has references of projects that have some of the same requirements as your job. We had a site supervisor whose experience was almost entirely in the commercial real estate market.
While he was knowledgeable about commercial code requirements, he wasn't equally familiar with the process of building a single-family home and couldn't prep us for next steps or making decisions.
Do you plan to subcontract the job? Find out if the contractor has a crew that is on payroll or if some work (such as excavation or roofing) will be subcontracted. If he uses different subcontractors, ask if he has worked with them before and, if so, how many times. He might be a great general contractor, but if he is taking a risk with a subcontractor, so are you.
Do you have a process for dealing with change orders? With a project as big as building your dream home, things are going to change during the development, whether it's because you've changed your mind or worked with a designer who has deviated from the blueprint. Find out up front how the builder deals with change, how she will estimate the cost, and other specifics about her process. We got to the point during our build where we felt every change we discussed had the same $2,500 price tag, no matter how big or small.
How will you minimize the inconvenience to me and my family? When we built an addition on the side of our home, the developer did almost all the work without entering our main house. He coordinated the project such that workers didn't have to break through the walls on the lived-in side of the home until the very end. They even entered the addition through windows so our family wouldn't have to deal with foot traffic or dirt tracking throughout our home.
Would you like me to be available as a reference? Setting an expectation up front that you would be willing to be a reference and to allow the builder to show your home to prospective clients can help smooth the road for your project and have your builder focus on keeping you happy.
How will you handle any issues that arise after the initial build? Even after a closing you have time to discover issues with your home and to notify your builder of any that need to be resolved. Unfortunately, we had 99.5 percent of our house complete at closing, but the last .5 percent required us to threaten a lawsuit to get those final minor tasks done. Discuss early on if the builder will do the work or compensate you for finishing it yourself or hiring someone to address the issue.
As we learned with our addition and home build, the difference between a great building experience or a bad one can be addressed by doing some early research and setting clear expectations before the work begins.