Knowing the right questions and paperwork to have on hand when interviewing potential general contractors for your project will help you determine who is the right fit
At Sweeten, we know a LOT about general contractors—since 2011, we’ve curated a network of talented craftsmen who care about their work and their client happiness. One frequent question from homeowners involves what questions to ask and materials to have available at the site visit in order to assess if a pro will be a good fit and secure the most precise estimate possible for the project.
We recommend reviewing four expert profiles that Sweeten matches you with, having at least three phone calls and site visits with the matches, and requesting three estimates so you can make an informed decision. A phone call to discuss the project before the site visit may save you valuable time; if there’s no chemistry over the phone will there be in person?
One of the first steps in renovating, site visits—lasting 60-90 minutes on average—give you a chance to interview experts who will help you get the job done. But more importantly, it’s all about whether there’s chemistry with the contractor. While Sweeten simplifies the search by personally matching vetted and licensed professionals to your project, you’ll still want to make an informed decision by having an in-person meeting. As you begin to schedule visits and solicit bids, here are a few ways you can prepare for a successful meeting with potential general contractors. Click here for more on how to work with a contractor.
Preparing the details
To prepare for your site visit, keep the following on hand for easy reference:
Anticipated start date: Include information about any flexibility, as well as variables that might affect/change the date.
Renovation goals: Be prepared to discuss your “must-haves” and wishlist (“nice-to-haves”) items, and indicate that bids should include ways to cut out items from the latter category that may exceed the budget. Miranda Stefan, an account manager at Sweeten, says, “Be specific about how you plan to use the new space, and how the old space falls short. If you need more storage, be specific about what you want to store there. Sharing this information with your contractor will help him or her create tailored solutions for you. If you are unsure of your end goals, let the contractor know. This will establish that you are looking for guidance, and the contractor can advise accordingly or suggest a designer or other expert to work in tandem with you.”
Budget: Reiterate your budget so that the contractor can keep it in mind while discussing options—this will affect whether s/he suggests custom or stock cabinets, for example. You can also specify a labor versus material budget. “If you plan to apply for a loan to finance your project, mention this upfront since it’ll add time to your project. At the end of your meeting, ask when you can expect an estimate,” advises Miranda.
Inspiration photos: One of the best ways for a contractor to get a sense of your vision is to provide examples of other work that you like. You can do this via a Pinterest page, photos on your phone, or magazines tearsheets.
Plans and sketches: If you have these, provide them. Even if it’s a rough sketch you did by hand on scrap paper, it can help the contractor understand your vision. If you did them in SketchUp or had an architect draw renderings already, have them ready.
Division of labor: Who will do what? If you plan to source the materials yourself, make that clear so that the expert does not include those estimates in his/her bid. If you need a designer, an expediter, a project manager, or custom millwork, discuss who will be responsible for securing those services and whether they will be included. If you don’t yet know, make a point to discuss these options with the contractor.
House rules and alteration agreement: If you live in a condo or a co-op building, ask your management company for these documents, and review them with or prior to meeting the contractor. Restrictions on working hours and building requirements can often affect the budget. Some co-op boards will not work with specific insurance carriers, so check with your board and confirm with the contractor prior to the site visit, so that you are assured that your selected contractor can work in your building.
Additional questions to ask
Keep in mind that many factors go into a smooth working relationship. Understanding as much as you can about the contractor’s experience, and how s/he works, is crucial. Try to have all decision makers present during the site visit. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page. The following are examples of questions that may help you get a better sense of how suitable the contractor is for the job:
*How often will they be on site? Who will oversee the work on a daily basis?
*Does the contractor take clients shopping for materials or provide shopping resources?
*How often do they meet with clients to discuss the project’s progress?
*How do they approach problems during an emergency? If a pipe should burst, what is the protocol?
*What is the best way to reach him/her?
*Ask for an estimate. The length of time to receive it depends on the size of the scope. An estimate for a one-room project that’s straightforward should take one week, while a gut renovation of a townhouse may take a month.
*Ask for references or read contractors’ reviews on our site. For bigger projects, a contractor may take you on a walk-through of a project they completed for a past client.
Communication is key
Once you are assured that all the contractors you’ll be meeting with have been thoroughly vetted and are properly licensed—Sweeten is a matchmaking service that already does this for you. And like all great matches, there is a lot that can’t be determined on paper! Face-to-face meetings are not only an opportunity for the contractors to get a sense of the scope of your project and the actual site conditions but also for you to get to know them.
The two of you will be working closely together for the duration of the project, so it’s important that you feel comfortable expressing your honest opinions, and feel that the contractor understands where you are coming from and the vision you want to execute. Having a contractor who’s had similar experiences in handling the scope you are presenting is more important than whether they’ve done work in your neighborhood. We’ve heard time and again that a “gut feeling” led to successful working relationships—and thus renovations. Think about your site visit as a chance to interview an individual who will become a key part of your life for the next few weeks to months. You will rely on them to make decisions when you’re not available, but also to know when a discussion is necessary before taking action. S/he will be working on your home—one of the most important emotional and financial investments you’ve probably ever made! So consider these questions as you’re getting to know the contractor during the site visit:
*Does this person communicate clearly and effectively?
*Does s/he have a clear understanding of what I need, and can s/he provide it?
*Do I feel supported in my decision-making?
*Does it seem like the contractor will be responsive and organized throughout the process?
Setting the tone
Be welcoming! It’s always nice to be offered a drink and a chance to sit down to debrief. If you have the time to go over the full scope of the work and ask for the contractor’s feedback on your ideas, this will create a firm foundation for working together.
Invite your Sweeten representative. S/he is here to help you navigate potentially tricky or confusing situations, and keep the meeting on track. If you’d like your Sweeten rep to join, feel free to reach out, and they will make their best effort to be there.
If you are using Sweeten for your renovation, feel free to reach out and see if your account manager can join one of your site visits, or check in after you’ve interviewed your potential candidates on how to evaluate the visits and estimates. S/he is here to help you navigate the process, from start to finish.
If you go into the site visit prepared, you’ll be able to evaluate each professional not only on their expertise but his/her ability to work well with you as a partner, a crucial element to completing a successful renovation.
Many thanks to Account Manager Miranda Stefan for her input!
Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.