Most people know that one of the best ways to qualify a contractor is to request references, but most never actually call. It might be that some think call a reference is a waste of time or possibly that you are imposing on the reference, but it is surprising how willing some folks are to share their experience if you simply ask. It should be noted that not every reference will be as accommodating, but even if you get one willing person, the information you can glean could be critical.

Make sure that before you call the references you are prepared with a list of specific questions. You should make sure that you ask every reference the same questions. This is the most effective way to compare references from multiple contractors.

Feel free to come up with your own specific questions, but here are ten questions you might want to ask.

Question number 1: “If you were to take on another project, would you hire the contractor again?”

This seems like a simple question that might not get you much information, but you have to listen carefully. A good deal of hesitation before their response or some qualified response should give you pause. Also, there might even be some who will honestly tell you that they would not want to work with this Contractor again even if they felt that their project was successful. Make sure to ask follow up questions depending on what they say.

Question number 2: “During your project which person from the Contractor’s Company did you interact with the most?”

The goal of this question is to get a sense of who you will be dealing with during the project. Many times a Contractor has different folks that handle different parts of their business. This is not by itself a concern, but if the reference tells you that they mostly dealt with someone other than the person you have already met, you might want to go back and confirm who that person will be and meet them yourself. A construction project is a long term relationship. If you are not comfortable dealing with a particular person, you should reconsider awarding them the work.

Question number 3: “Would you say that the job site was kept in a neat and safe manner throughout the construction?”

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. This question starts to explore how well the Contractor manages the job site. Keep in mind that you will be living with whatever mess the Contractor leaves behind at the end of each work day. Obviously this is a lesser concern if you are building a new house on a plot far from where you live, but even in such cases, the neatness of the site is closely tied to job site safety and that can represent a risk for the Owner.

Question number 4: “Were there any accidents during your project that caused damage to people or property?”

Similar to question number 3, it is important to know how safety conscious the Contractor is. Asking about accidents is a very specific way to understand how the Contractor manages the job site. If the reference tells you that there was some kind of an “incident”, you need to follow up with, “Tell me how the GC handled the incident?”. Listen carefully. You should hear that he stopped the work, contacted EMS, secured the job site, and implemented some kind of corrective action. Accidents happen, so don’t automatically disqualify someone over this. The way they handle such matters can sometimes be as important as what they did to avoid an accident.

Question number 5: “During your construction project did you have any disputes over invoices? if so how were they resolved? “

The response to this question will give you insight into a couple of things. First it gives you an idea about the contractor’s billing practices and second it tells you how easy the contractor will be to work with. It is common to have differences of opinion when it comes to how much is due on a construction invoice. The reason for this is because a contractor’s invoice should be based on what percentage of work has been completed. No two people (especially an Owner and a Contractor) will ever agree on the percentage of work complete. The Owner usually thinks its much lower and the Contractor usually thinks it’s much higher. So invoice disputes don’t automatically equal “bad contractor”. However, a Contractor should compromise somewhat with the Owner when there is a dispute. Also, the contractor should have all his back-up documentation available so that the two can sit and review what is due. An owner should never feel that they overpaid or were bullied into paying more than they felt was fair. If the Contractor has all of his ducks in a row, they should be able to justify everything on their invoice.

Question number 6: “Was the contractor present during inspections from the building department?”

To me a “No” response here would yield a “NO-GO” decision about hiring this contractor. There is nothing more basic and simple than being there for inspections. This is not the Owner’s responsibility and any contractor that chooses to not be present during an inspection should not be considered.

Question number 7: “Did the contractor provide you with a construction schedule? If so, were you kept up-to-date with schedule changes?”

This is important because without a schedule your project could seem like a never ending saga. Even if you have already requested a schedule from your contractor, knowing whether the contractor makes a practice of providing a schedule for other Clients will give you insight into how well organized and communicative the contractor will be during your project. The second part of this question is also important. Updating schedule changes is critical to managing a construction schedule.  Knowing whether you can count on that for your project will give you peace of mind.

Question number 8: “With respect to changes to the work that affected the cost of the project, would you say you were well aware of the scope and the cost of all changes before the work was done?”

A good contractor should never perform any additional work without making sure that the Owner has agreed to the changes and approved any additional charges. If the reference does not give a definitive “Yes” to this question, beware.

Question number 9: “How would you characterize the contractors response to questions you might have had on change orders?”

All too often, contractors get defensive and uncomfortable anytime they are questioned about change orders. A grounded professional with nothing to hide, will not. You should be able to sit down with your contractor and review every item on a change order. If the reference suggests that the contractor was evasive or failed to clearly communicate about change orders, you should be concerned.

Question number 10: “How did you find this contractor?”

This question is really just to make sure that the reference you called is not a relative or close personal friend of the contractor. If they are in any way related to the contractor (other than professionally) you should consider this to be very weak reference and you should be suspicious of anything they said about the contractor.

Those are some of the questions that I recommend asking references.

Feel free to add to these or ask follow up questions depending on the responses you get. In all, I would say that your time on the phone with each reference should be less than 20 minutes. If you take any more time than that, the reference may start to feel imposed upon. Regardless, make the call, you are bound to get some good information.

Have you made a call to a reference? What key questions did you ask? How useful would you say calling a reference was in your decision making?

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