Questions to Ask Your Old-House Contractor

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Remember your last job interview? You probably spent it sweating through your business suit while your prospective boss lobbed question after question at you. If you're looking to hire a contractor, get ready to relive that experience—only this time, you'll be the one firing off the questions. That can be just as nerve-wracking, of course, especially if you're not prepared. That's where this list comes in—we've assembled a few basic questions that will provide a solid backbone for any contractor interview. But don't forget to add anything else you might be wondering about—the best time to ask those burning questions is now, not six months later when your house is buried under a fine layer of construction dust.

Are you licensed and insured? Think of this as the green-light question—if a contractor can't provide proof that he's licensed to work in your state and carries liability insurance, there's no need to go any further. (Note: Some states only require licensing for specific types of contractors, like plumbing or electrical, and not for general residential contractors. Check your state's requirements here.)

How much experience do you have with older structures? You want a contractor who's as committed to preservation as you are, one who understands the value of performing quality work, rather than just taking the cheapest and quickest route to get the job done. Asking about specific challenges on previous projects can provide illuminating clues—if he mentions, for instance, that he stripped out original plaster and replaced it with drywall rather than repairing it, that's a major red flag.

How many projects are you working on right now? If your contractor is bogged down with work, your project may not move along as quickly as you'd like. Follow this question up by asking for an estimated timeframe for your project, keeping in mind that unexpected challenges can often cause projects to exceed this estimate, particularly in old houses.

Will you be using subcontractors? Many general contractors rely on subcontractors to complete specialty tasks like plumbing or roofing. Depending on the scope of your project, a contractor may need to bring in several subcontractors to carry out the work. Asking about subcontractors upfront is important, as you'll need to get a lien waiver from each of them (and from the general contractor) so you won't be responsible for payments should the contractor skip out on the job. Also ask how long the contractor has been using his subs, as a good working relationship can help projects progress more smoothly.

Will the project require building permits? Chances are, if the project is large enough to warrant you calling in a contractor, it will need some sort of permit. If so, your general contractor should handle securing these permits—be wary of those who ask you to get permits yourself.

How will you handle payments? Contractors are typically paid on a draw schedule, meaning that they'll get small payments as work is completed throughout the project. Any other type of payment scheme (for example, a contractor who asks for the money up front) likely spells trouble.

How will you keep me updated on progress? Ideally, your contractor should give you updates at least once a week, either in person if you're living in the house while the work is going on, or via phone or e-mail if you're off-site.

Can you put me in touch with previous clients? Nothing speaks for a contractor's ability like his body of work. A quality contractor will always be happy to provide you with the names of satisfied customers. Once you've narrowed down the field to a couple of contractors you like, invest some time in vetting these references—asking detailed questions about what the contractor was like to work with and how he handled unexpected challenges, and even visiting their homes if you can to get a firsthand glimpse of the work.