As professional home remodelers and builders, the people at our firm field many phone calls from potential clients. One of the first things that many people ask us is when we can set up an in-person meeting. But meeting in person about a remodeling project is a significant time commitment for all involved. These meetings are typically one to three hours, including travel time, and often occur in the middle of a busy weekday. So before setting up that appointment — and committing to what’s involved — it’s best for homeowners to ask a few key questions by phone or email to help ensure that an in-person meeting will be time well spent.
1. Am I in an area where you work?
Some contractors are willing to work across a wide metro area, or may restrict their work based on travel time, a city or even a few zip codes. Others may travel farther for a larger project and limit small projects to just their immediate neighborhood. Keeping to a limited geographic range generally means faster response times, which can be a plus for homeowners, particularly for warranty work. If you’re not in an area they serve, you may want to ask if they can recommend anyone closer to you.
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2. Is my project the kind you do regularly? Start with a general description of what you are planning. For example, “I’d like to remodel my bath, and it may involve a dormer addition.” If a contractor primarily remodels kitchens and baths, then a large addition may not be the kind of project they will be prepared to consider. Some contractors work only on interiors and do not build additions, or work only on single-family homes and are not insured for work on condominiums or townhouses. Many contractors restrict the kind of work they do, either by focusing on residential or commercial projects, or on a particular size or type of project. Make sure your project is something they are interested in working on and are set up to handle well.
3. Can you work with my timeline? There are two key pieces with timing: how soon the contractor can start your project and how quickly plans, permitting and material selections can be completed. If this is your first call, it may be many months before the plans and permits are ready, since you haven’t even interviewed a design professional yet. If you have plans in hand for anything bigger than a bathroom, it is still likely to be a month or two before you’ve selected a contractor, the pricing is complete, a contract is signed and construction begins. This is a good opportunity to talk with the contractor about thoughts on the length of the planning process and to hear about the current work backlog.
4. What services do you offer?
Contractors can focus just on building or offer a range of planning and design services as well. Everything from feasibility studies to preconstruction estimates and complete design, engineering and material selections can be offered through a single company, or not. If you are looking for a particular mix of services, now is the time to figure out if the company can help you with them or if you need to keep looking for a better fit.
5. Who usually handles design and permitting on your projects? This conversation will tell you if you need to hire an architect, if the contractor is willing to work with the architect you’ve already hired, and how the design process works if they handle it in house. Don’t assume anything, as every company does things a little differently.
6. Do you work on a bid basis or a time and materials basis? The words “bid” and “estimate” are often used interchangeably by homeowners but mean very specific things to contractors. A bid is a fixed price for a specific scope of work that usually requires extensive staff time to complete. An estimate can be a loose ballpark or range, a line item of general tasks or a very specific breakdown, with the same amount of staff time spent as a bid but with all costs transparent. Some contractors will work only one way or another, so this is a key issue to clear up early, particularly if you want to use a specific contract method.
7. How does your estimating process work?Every contractor handles estimating differently. Some charge for detailed estimates but provide a range of costs without charge. Some will estimate only with a set of plans or after being hired for the project. Others provide varying levels of information based on how much information they are provided. After hearing about the contractor’s process, you should have a good idea of what to expect, what you might pay and whether a meeting in person will result in pricing you can consider.
8. I think my project is in a range of $X to $Y. Is this realistic?
Discussing budgets can be uncomfortable, but it’s important, particularly if you have a specific amount you don’t want to exceed. Years ago we got a call from someone wanting to gut and remodel two bathrooms with stone, tile and nice finishes. The budget was $5,000, which unfortunately wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of tile. If I had set up a meeting without talking about budget first, we would have both been disappointed when we met and finally talked about it. If you are calling multiple contractors, you will have several opinions about whether your budget is sufficient, and that will help you understand the likely cost and think about adjustments to the scope of work.
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9. Do you allow homeowners to supply some of the materials or do some of the work themselves?
Some contractors prefer this, while others are adamant about buying all the materials that they will install. Having homeowners perform work, particularly when the completion of that work affects the schedule, can be problematic, so many contractors will just say no. Knowing which way the contractor prefers to work will help you understand if he or she will be a good fit given what you have in mind. If you are financing the project with a construction loan, keep in mind that the lender may require that only the contractor perform the work.
Next steps. Depending on your project, this may be a meeting in person, a referral to an architect or a designer, or sending over sketches, plans or photos by email for a first look. If you do set up a meeting, make sure to talk beforehand about the expected agenda, the likely length of the meeting and whether some deliverable — an estimate, for instance — will follow the meeting. Asking the right questions ahead will help set expectations and make sure everyone’s time is well spent. And, most important, it will get you closer to the goal of your remodeled home.
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