Nothing can be more daunting to homeowners than hiring a contractor for that much needed remodeling job or for building that dream home from scratch. If you can re-hire a contractor you’ve used before or have iron-clad referrals from people you trust, you’re half way through the process. Lots of us aren’t that lucky.

If you find yourself needing to hire a contractor and don’t quite know where to start, here’s a list of 10 must-ask questions for potential hires that can help you avoid stressful delays, unexpected costs and inferior workmanship.

  1. Are you a member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI)? NARI members are committed to providing quality craftsmanship, integrity of service and work that is economically sound. Members agree to a code of ethics that includes compliance with local codes and permits as well as accurate advertising claims.   
  2. How many years have you been in business? Nothing takes the place of a great track record. A contractor who has an established business in your local area is more likely to have easy-to-check references, as well as long-term, established relationships with sub-contractors. A local business is invested in bringing its best work to each project in order for the business to thrive, an obvious plus. Local contractors also have knowledge of the codes and permits required for your type of job.  These can vary significantly from area to area.
  3. Can I see a copy of your contractor’s license? Many states require contractors to be licensed professionals. This helps to assure that standards for safety and workmanship will be met. An unlicensed contractor will not be able to obtain work permits; if a potential contractor indicates that you will need to acquire these, he is most likely either unlicensed or had his license revoked. It also makes sense to check with the Better Business Bureau and your local consumer affairs office for complaints from either past clients or sub-contractors for an extra added layer of protection. 
  4. Can I see a copy of your certification of insurance? Your contractor’s insurance should, at the very least, cover the minimum requirements for worker’s compensation, property damage and personal liability. If your contractor does not carry insurance, you could wind up being responsible for damages or claims made during your job. Make sure to check the insurance company’s name and verify that coverage is in place, current and not expiring shortly.
  5. What’s your bid on my job? Make sure to get an itemized, written bid that lists the cost of materials needed, labor including sub-contractor fees, projected profit margin and other ancillary expenses. A good rule of thumb when considering hires is to throw out the low-ball bid. Any contractor who bids too low may be comfortable supplying you with inferior craftsmanship or unexpected cost spikes midway through the project. Make sure to obtain at least three bids, in order to get a sense of the average costs in your area.
  6. How long is your bid good for? Bids are typically valid for one month’s time, in order to give you, the homeowner, a chance to make a decision comfortably, acquire any loans needed and make preparations pertaining to self and property. Professional contractors understand and expect this. Any contractor who tries to rush you into making a decision or by offering a bid which expires within a few days is desperate to get your work and should be avoided.
  7. Can I get a referral list of past clients? A reputable and competent contractor will be thrilled to supply you with a long list of happy former customers. Try to access those whose jobs took place one to five years ago or longer, in order to determine how the work is holding up. Of course, obtaining referrals from people you know is ideal.   
  8. Who are your typical suppliers? Ask for financial and character references from suppliers such as lumberyards. An established, respected contractor will have a solid reputation with suppliers who have confidence in their work ethic, professionalism and financial stability. Look for long-term relationships whenever possible and ask if your contractor will acquire lien releases from them as well.
  9. Do you typically work on jobs of this type and size? There are apples and then there are oranges. A great and experienced contractor is only as good as their track record on your particular type of renovation or building project. When checking client referrals, look for people whose jobs parallel your own.
  10. Will my job be the only one on your plate or will you be juggling multiple projects? Based on the overall size of the contractor’s business, this should not be a deal-breaker. However, getting a sense of what is on your contractor’s plate at any given time should give you an idea about how much time he will be able to devote to your job and how accessible he will be. Also, ask to meet with the job foreman who will be assigned to your job and to view a work site he is in charge of.
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Once you decide upon your choice of contractor, make sure to obtain an itemized contract that includes your payment schedule and down payment. Remember that communication is the number one key to successful interactions between the two of you. Make sure you choose someone you are comfortable with and who understands and is invested in your vision. Choose wisely, get everything in writing and be an active partner in the process. While building jobs don’t happen overnight, by choosing the right contractor for your job, you will soon enjoy the benefits and joys of living in a home that is comfortably and uniquely your own.

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Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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