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Home Renovation: Finding a General Contractor

When I was talking to family and friends about their renovation experiences, the biggest pain point they described was finding the right general contractor. This person will serve as the project manager on your renovation, including securing the necessary materials and hiring subcontractors to do certain types of work throughout the project. 

But since most people find their general contractor by word of mouth, it can be difficult to know if you’ve hired the right person until work is well underway. Here’s how we approached this critical decision. 

Finding a General Contractor 

Our top priority in hiring a GC was whether they could finish the work within the timeline specified. We began asking GCs how many projects they take on at any given time. Several people we talked to said they juggle 10 or more jobs at the same time, which makes delays more likely, especially if the same subcontractors work on multiple projects. We chose a GC who limits her slate to two projects at a time. 

Next, we knew we wanted to work with someone who could guide us through the renovation process and help us learn along the way. When our friend and realtor introduced us to the contractor we ended up working with, we got along with her immediately. She was a woman in our age group who lived in our neighborhood and was eager to provide design advice. 

When our GC walked us through her estimate, we were initially a little shocked. Like many GCs, she detailed the estimated costs of materials and labor, then added a fee on top of those costs for her work. She explained to us that this is a transparent pricing model because the homeowner can see exactly what they are paying for, whereas other GCs may wrap their fee into labor costs, so the homeowner only sees a single line item.

When we tried to negotiate, our GC didn’t budge. But we were pleasantly surprised to learn that she has relationships with lots of materials providers, so those discounts will help offset her fee.

Questions to Ask a General Contractor

Before hiring a GC, I’d recommend walking through the following questions:

  • What is the timeline for completion? Whatever their answer, double it to be safe.
  • How many jobs do you work on at any given time?
  • What is their payment schedule? You shouldn’t have to pay for the work up front. We started with a retainer when we signed the contract, and the retainer will be credited at the end of the project.
  • How well do they know the jurisdiction where you live? How many permits have they obtained in that city or county in the last two years? If you live in a city or county that has cumbersome permit requirements, it’s important to work with a GC who knows those processes well. The GC should be familiar with how best to present everything to get it approved. Also, confirm that the GC will be the one obtaining the permits and scheduling inspections.
  • Do they have a list of references you can speak with? We spoke to all 3 references our GC provided and it was very helpful.
  • Do they have recent jobs that you can go see, to assess quality of finishes and see whether their style is a match?
  • What steps will they take to protect the property? Our GC plans to put up a locked fence, lock our garage, and put up security and motion sensor lights. We will move out of our home while the renovation takes place. 
  • Are they licensed? 
  • What insurance do they carry?
  • How will the project be supervised?
  • How are additional charges dealt with? 

Preparing for a Long Timeline

We started our renovation process in January. At this point, we’ve secured our general contractor. Our construction loan has been approved and our final plans have been submitted to the city. 

Once we receive municipal approval, we can begin demolition. Construction will take several months, and the timeline could vary a great deal depending on permitting issues and the availability of materials and subcontractors. 

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