Four Questions to Ask Before You Hire a General Contractor

Catie L. Quanrud September 11, 2018 0

My Grandpa Charlie began his career by sweeping the shop floor of at a North Dakotan Chrysler dealership, and ended his professional life as the owner of that dealership, a tire store and an appliance store. In 1974, when The Bismarck Tribune asked Grandpa Charlie to what he attributed his success, he replied,

1971 Vintage Ad Corwin Churchill Appliance Store

1971 Advert from Grandpa Charlie’s Appliance Store, where the employees will “steer ya right and listen to ya if something goes wrong.”

“You’ve gotta care about people.  They’re your business.  You have to give them good service and you have to become involved with them, in and out of the shop.”

Like my grandpa before me, I have experienced the business of construction as a humble peon to the big cheese herself, and like my grandpa, I believe that people make the difference.  One of the most important people in my business is the general contractor, whose job it is to ensure your money is spent wisely, you don’t have to break up arguments between the plumber and electrician, and your project is delivered within a reasonable time frame.  Today I’m going to share the four questions I use to interview general contractors for my clients’ projects, so you too can hire the perfect person for your renovation or new build.

First, let’s dispense with the mistakes many people make when they hire a general contractor.  Following are the most common reasons I’ve been given as to why a poorly chosen contractor was hired:

  • “I had a good gut feeling about them.”
  • “They seemed nice/honest/professional.”
  • “They did the neighbor’s place.”
  • “They gave me the best price.”

These are all important pieces of the puzzle, but in isolation they are not reason enough to engage a contractor.  Take the time to probe deeper on the issues of schedule, supervision, budget and change orders to get a better feel for their strengths and weaknesses.

1) Schedule

Question: What’s our best case and worst case scenario?
Follow Up: Which schedule factors give you the most concern?

Listen for: Do they have a handle on the material lead times?  Are there any decisions within your control that will help move the project along?  Do they seem to estimate optimistically or conservatively?

2) Supervision

Question:  How is your team structured?
Follow Up: Tell me about the people I might be interacting with during the project.

Listen for: How comfortable are they delegating?  How long has their team been with them?  Will there be someone you can call when the contractor is tied up elsewhere?

3) Budget & Estimates

The budget phase happens before all the details of your project have been decided on.  The estimate phase can only occur once you’ve decided on all the specifics.

Budget Question: What does the budget include and exclude?
Follow Up: How much flexibility will I have within that budget when I’m looking at materials?

Estimate Question: If you were me, where’s the first place you’d cut back?
Follow Up: What additional expenses should I anticipate?
More Follow Up: Have you included a contingency for unexpected issues?

4) Change Orders

Question: How do you handle change orders, and what’s the fee or rate for them?

Listen for: Is there formal documentation of the costs, or are change orders handled on the fly and billed afterward?


Tell me about your experiences hiring general contractors in the comments.  What factors led you to hire a particular person?  Would you do anything differently next time?

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