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25 Essential Questions to Ask Before Hiring a General Contractor: A Comprehensive Checklist

25 Essential Questions to Ask Before Hiring a General Contractor: A Comprehensive Checklist

If you are running into Costco for a cartful of bargains, shopping for the biggest value at the lowest price is what you are after. Home remodeling is a much different experience. You still want a good value for your money, but is the lowest dollar amount the way to get that? A contractor may come in with the lowest project bid, but what are you getting for that price? Maybe a better question is, what has been left out to get such a low price?

Knowing the right questions to ask early in the process is essential to a project’s success. Home improvement projects impact your finances and quality of life, so getting things right has much higher stakes than buying a box of 47 protein bars.

Homeowners must choose a design-build partner willing to put the time and effort in upfront to get the job done right–on time and on budget. But how do homeowners know how to find a general contractor willing to do this?

To aid you in your search for the right contractor or custom home-building team, we have compiled a comprehensive list of 25 important questions you should ask before signing any contracts.

Table of Contents

Getting Started: How Do You Interview a General Contractor?

Section 1: Reputation & Stability 

Section 2: Requirements for Agreements & Scope of Work

Section 3: Client Experience, Procedures & Service

Download the 25-Question Checklist

Questions Answered, Now What?

Getting Started: How Do You Interview a General Contractor?

Interviewing a home building or remodeling partner should not be a quick phone call. Working with a design-build firm is more than a transaction; it’s a relationship. You will be spending a lot of time with this team, so it’s critical you like and trust them. A high-quality design-build firm will set clear expectations upfront and won’t be afraid to speak the truth about the realities of the home building and remodeling process. 

While you are interviewing a potential contractor, they are also interviewing you. This relationship needs to be the right fit for both parties. A reputable design-build partner will ask many questions to help you uncover and thoroughly understand what is not working in your current home floor plan to successfully address your needs and goals for the new build or home renovation project. 

The more information that's collected upfront, the more successful the rest of the project will be. This eliminates future rework, saving you time and money because the due diligence has been done upfront.

Section 1: Reputation & Stability

Knowing the company's reputation is important when interviewing prospective contractors. The next set of questions goes beyond the design-build firm's marketing materials to get a clearer picture of its track record and reputation.

1. How long have you been in business under the same name? 

Why would you ask this question? Many general contractors will rebrand if they receive bad reviews or acquire a reputation for completing shoddy work. Finding out if the contractor has done this in the past is critical for the success of your project and experience.

At Patrick A. Finn, for example, Patrick chose to name the company after himself to give clients the confidence that we hold ourselves personally accountable. There’s nowhere to hide, and the blame game isn’t a factor because the company is literally named after him.

Watch this video to learn why Patrick Finn named his home building and remodeling company after himself.


2. Have you or any of the business's owners filed for bankruptcy for this or any other company you have owned?

A financially stable design-build partner who has been around for years or even decades will not likely be the least expensive option. They will have enough reserves to be there for the long haul, building or renovating your home, returning for any warranty issues, and still be in business for you well into the future.

If a company is a repeat bankruptcy filer, what happens when your home is half-built, and they file for bankruptcy, even though you’ve already paid them for the work? You do not want to find yourself in that situation.

3. Are you a licensed general contractor for residential construction, and will you provide your contractor’s license number?

Although Illinois doesn't require general contractor licenses, some counties and cities within the state do. A company that doesn’t work under a license is a red flag.

Knowing your general contractor has a license protects you as the homeowner when you go to resell the home and demonstrates their commitment to completing construction projects correctly. Sometimes, homeowner’s insurance will also require proof of insurance before work is done. 

4. Do you maintain liability and workers’ compensation insurance, and will you send proof of insurance? 

Anyone can say they are insured; having proof is key, and ensuring it’s up to date is critical. 

Ensure the general contractor and their subcontractors/trade partners are all covered by liability and workers' compensation. A high-quality design-build general contractor will have a process in place to ensure the subcontractors they work with are updated on their insurance policies. 

  • Liability insurance protects your home and property in case of damage during construction.  
  • Workers' compensation ensures that you, as the homeowner, won’t be sued if an employee is injured on the job.
  • Having both liability and workers’ compensation means your home is protected, and you are protected from lawsuits.

5. Can you provide a list of references, especially from a client with a similar type of project?

Many contractors can provide references for completed projects, but what’s more important is obtaining references to similar past projects. This will allow you to get an understanding of the client experience and the quality of the work. Hearing about similar projects allows you to compare apples to apples.

Even better, ask your potential design-build partner to walk through a previous client's home or a current project to see for yourself what the work and experience are like. 


6. What trade-related groups do you belong to?

There are regional and national trade groups for remodeling industry members. At Patrick A. Finn, we belong to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the Building Industry Association of Greater Chicago (BIAGC), and The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI).

Why is this important? A business must maintain high standards and codes of ethics to be a member in good standing with these groups. When a contractor pays to be part of these groups, it demonstrates they are dedicated to their work as a career, not just a side project.

Membership further demonstrates a commitment to providing the best experience for clients and internal teams through training and certifications. 

7. Do you provide a final lien waiver?

The last thing you want from a remodeling project is a lien on your home for unpaid work. A lien waiver (also called a waiver of lien or a lien release) protects you as the homeowner by ensuring you won’t be sued by subcontractors or material vendors who provided work for your home and were not paid.

The general contractor is responsible for requesting, collecting, and tracking lien waivers from all tradespeople on the job when they are paid. This includes contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, equipment rental companies, and any other potential lien claimant to the project. By signing, potential claimants waive their right to a lien by the amount of money outlined in the waiver.

8. Do you maintain good relationships with local and regional suppliers?

If good relationships are not maintained, a general contractor will not be at the top of anyone’s list to work with. The general contractor's reputation tells you a lot about the company in general.

Having good relationships with local suppliers not only ensures high-quality materials but also a consistent flow of materials due to well-planned lead times. A design-build company that uses local suppliers shows they’re invested in your community. The company is contributing to the local economy and employment. Using local suppliers also streamlines many processes because the building team can go directly to the source if something is needed immediately. 


Section 2: Requirements for Agreements & Scope of Work

This next list of questions will help you understand contractual obligations for both you and the design-build firm. Knowing this information up front will eliminate confusion and provide clear expectations.

9. Will the price you quote me be the price I pay? 

The longer version of this question is, “Will you provide a written fixed-price proposal that includes all project costs, including plans, labor, and all materials necessary to complete the project?”

If a contractor is unwilling to supply this level of detail, you risk scope creep and cost overruns over which you will have very little control. 

Here’s what you should expect from a proposal: a 7-10 page document with each project category titled, followed by a description so you know exactly what you are getting, along with the project's timeline. The last page should include a grand total cost. The proposal will be based on the approved design. If you request any changes to the design, the proposal and pricing should reflect these changes and also be clearly updated.

Pro Tip: Verify that architectural plans are included in the project cost. The advantage of using a design-build firm is that you get all the services under one roof. Just make sure all services are covered within the proposal.

Free estimates might sound great, but could they actually cost you more?  "How Free Home Renovation Estimates Can End Up Costing You More Than You Think" explores the hidden dangers. Read it now and learn how to spot red flags when choosing a general contractor.


10. Will you provide, in writing, approximate start and completion dates for my project?

A high-quality design-build contractor will provide the approximate start date in the proposal, which is contingent on building permit approval. The proposal should include the approximate length of the job. At Patrick A. Finn, when construction begins, a project schedule and timeline are given to the homeowner and regularly updated by the project manager. This is especially important if you plan on living elsewhere during construction. 

Without a structured timeline, projects can extend for long periods of time, causing stress and possibly costing you extra money in rent that you were not planning on using.

Are you thinking about renovating but worried about living through the mess? Our article, "How to Renovate a House While Living in It: Surviving Home Renovations," offers practical tips to help you navigate a smooth renovation – all while staying comfortably at home!


11. Do you provide an easy-to-understand payment schedule based on project benchmarks?

This is referred to as a project payment schedule. Your design-build partner should ask for a deposit upfront to secure a start date and lock in pricing. Then, they will provide a payment schedule. The final payment should be substantial enough to cover contingencies, and a dedicated “punch list” payment helps you ensure all of the little details are wrapped up at the end of the project. 

Common progress payment schedules include:

  • % for the deposit 
  • % for the start of construction 
  • % mechanical trades 
  • % cabinet or trim 
  • % countertop install 
  • Substantial Completion 
  • % for final punch list

12. What percentage do you expect me to pay upfront? 

The deposit should be reasonable. If your contractor asks for a very large percentage (50% or more) on a major project, this is a red flag, and you should look to other design-build firms for guidance.

13. Do you use project management software? 

A good contractor will utilize project management software that features a client portal. This will give you access to:

  • Project timeline with dates
  • A message board where you can communicate with your design-build team contact to share information and ask questions
  • Folder with important paperwork such as invoices, contracts, proposals, and project drawings
  • Lists of all client selections such as fixtures, cabinets, countertops, tile, and other design and material choices
  • An area to share photos, links, and more.
  • A change order section: If you decide on additional work, this information will be added here to clearly document any changes throughout the project.

The client should have lifetime access to their portal, allowing them to access warranty information, details about their specific selections, paint colors, the manufacturer and color of siding, and more.

home addition dinning room with vaulted ceiling in chicago-2-1

Section 3: Client Experience, Procedures & Service

Inquiries regarding client experience, established procedures, and service delivery are crucial during the contractor selection process. This ensures alignment with your expectations for a smooth and positive home renovation journey, resulting in both a successful outcome and a satisfying experience.

14. Do you offer design services?

IMG_3603A major benefit to choosing a design-build firm rather than a general contractor is that all major renovation services are managed with one point of contact under one roof. There can be unexpected challenges when working with an architect-led project and then bringing those plans to a general contractor for construction. A common challenge we see is that an architect may create a design that can be built, but it won’t be feasible to build within your budget.

Additionally, the plans may not conform to your specific town or village’s permitting process and code. A design-build firm will offer architectural, building, and interior design all in one place, making for a streamlined process that understands budget and building code parameters right from the start. 

Learn the difference between design-build and traditional methods by reading this article, “Design-Build Construction vs. Traditional Methods: Know the Key Differences.”


15. Do you use 3D software to help homeowners visualize the project with full-color renderings?

Many people have trouble visualizing what their home will look like solely from a two-dimensional blueprint-style floor plan; another issue clients run into with many architect-led projects. 

3D renderings can help you better understand what the future space will look like from a bird's-eye perspective and a walk-through point of view. From this 3D perspective,  you can experiment with colors, materials, and styles of selections so you are not left guessing what the culmination of all these decisions will look like when finished.

When you partner with a design-build company, your project is streamlined, ensuring a smooth experience from concept to completion. Their methodical processes and expertise guarantee that the 3D renderings created translate seamlessly into reality.

You can also ask your design-build partner to add your current (or future!) furniture into your design layouts to truly see how the space will function after the remodeling work is complete.


A 3D rendering of the Sheridan transitional kitchen remodel remodel completed by Patrick A. Finn.


An 'after' photo of the Sheridan transitional kitchen remodel completed by Patrick A. Finn.


16. Do you employ a dedicated project manager for each home renovation project?

The project manager (PM) will be the builder, designer, and client liaison. They should advocate on behalf of the client and provide extra protection for homeowners. In short, the PM’s responsibility is to guide the homeowner through decisions, navigate surprises, and deliver a project on time, on budget, and exceeding expectations.

17. Does the project manager make regular site visits to supervise the project and maintain quality control standards?

It is important to have the PM on site regularly to ensure the work is done according to plan, properly, and to code. Site visits help the PM avoid potential problems/surprises and present you with resolutions if/when they arise. They also help construction stay on schedule and offer you, as the homeowner, a regular way to check in with the design-build team. This means there is a weekly dedicated meeting time for you to communicate and align with the design-build team easily.

18. What is your clean-up procedure?

A remodeling project will involve some disruption, but that doesn’t mean your home should be left a mess. A good contractor will have their crew leave the job site daily broom-swept and tidy. You should expect a deeper clean before the weekend to clear the construction site of debris and clutter. A final deep clean should be provided after the project is completed.

19. How do you ensure the safety of the construction site and protect the home?

The construction site should have a dedicated point of entry into the home, protected by a lockbox or garage code specifically for the construction crew. Depending on the project, temporary doors may be installed. Additions that are under construction should be secured from the exterior for safety. 

Here are other safety and security features to look for: 

  • Areas exposed to the elements are enclosed with water-repellent tarps. 
  • Exposed floor joists are secured and covered with plywood to protect the crew and homeowners. 
  • Existing flooring is covered with brown paper and masonite to protect the floors from any damage during construction. 
  • Zip walls are installed to seal off construction from the rest of the home, minimizing dust from entering the rest of the home.
An example of how Patrick A. Finn isolates their construction zones within the homes they renovate.

20. How do you vet your trade partners?

A good design-build firm will treat their trade partners like direct employees by completing a full background check, verifying they are licensed, bonded, and insured, and doing their due diligence to ensure they have a good reputation and produce high-quality work.

A well-established contractor will have long-standing relationships with trade partners, so the work is known to be consistent and top quality over time. 

21. Do you conduct weekly project meetings with each client?

Remodeling a home is a major undertaking that involves many moving parts. Communication is key, which is why regular face-to-face time with your project manager is so important. A weekly meeting is an opportunity to learn what has been completed, discuss upcoming work, and have your questions answered.  

A reputable design-build contractor will make it a safe space for you to speak up and discuss any concerns you may have. This prevents undue stress and maintains a strong working relationship throughout the project. 

22. Do you have a strict written policy that prohibits smoking in my home and the use of drugs or alcohol by crews?

A good design-build partner will have a zero-tolerance policy for the use of drugs and alcohol by contractor teams. Smoking should be done away from the home and construction site or in the crew’s vehicle.


Section 4: Follow-Up & Follow Through 

23. Do you provide a comprehensive walk-through with the homeowner at the end of the project? 

A contractor who works off of a ‘punch list’ will ensure all final touches are completed to your satisfaction. This process includes a walkthrough at the end with the project manager to ensure everything was done to your satisfaction. If anything needs to happen or adjustments need to be made, these will go on the punch list, and the contractor won’t be paid their last payment until all items on the punch list are resolved to the client’s satisfaction.

Kretekos Residence 3

24. Do you provide a warranty on installation and workmanship?

A baseline expectation should be a comprehensive 1-year warranty. A reputable design-build contractor often takes care of workmanship issues beyond a year. They should also ensure you receive all warranty documents and information for appliances, fixtures, cabinets, and any other warrantied items installed as part of the project. 

25. Will you provide me with a comprehensive customer satisfaction survey after my project?

Your design-build partner should welcome and provide an opportunity for continual feedback to ensure you and future clients are satisfied with the experience and craftsmanship.

25-questions-to-ask-download-pg-2-thumbDownload the 25-Question Checklist

Ready to take charge of your next home remodeling project? Download our free checklist to use when interviewing potential contractors!

This list of 25 questions will help you choose a reliable, respectful, and predictable contractor. A thorough interview process will lead to finding the perfect fit for your family—a contractor who collaborates to help you achieve your dream project. 

Want to see how we answer these questions?

Send us a message, and we'll provide our responses! 

Questions Answered, Now What?

Every consumer wants to get the best deal. This set of questions will provide you with the information needed to find the right design-build contractor for your home. 

At Patrick A. Finn, we endeavor to live by the standards set by the best answers to the questions posed in this checklist. You can learn more about our process by reading the eBook "Patrick A. Finn's Ultimate Blueprint to Creating Your Dream Home."