5 Questions New Homeowners Should Ask to Minimize Contractor Spending

Don't blindly accept a quote from the lowest-priced home repair company. Here are the key questions to ask a contractor to save you money in the long run.

Congratulations, homebuyer! It's taken you months—or perhaps years—to close on your home. You beat out competitors for the corner lot with a manageable mortgage. You know the custom color you'll paint the den, and you've budgeted for new furniture. You even know the perfect spot for the charcoal grill.

What your rose-colored glasses might not be able to foresee, however, is your sump pump backing up, your dishwasher leaking, or a storm leaving you with water dripping from the ceiling all the way down to that fabulous dining room pendant lamp.

couple meeting with contractor in designed kitchen
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When disaster strikes, you might have the urge to lower repair costs by asking around for a cheap contractor. We've been where you are, and we wish we hadn't done exactly what you're thinking of doing. Rather than blindly accepting a quote from the lowest-priced contractor, ask the repair company these five key questions to avoid being penny-wise and pound foolish.

How long have you been in business?

The answer is both an indication of the quality of work a skilled craftsman will deliver and the likelihood that they will still be in business 5 or 10 years from now when your repair needs maintenance. Warranties, guarantees, and gentlemen's handshakes go out the window if your contractor of choice has gone belly-up.

Homeowners should be particularly careful about the long-term staying power of a contractor behind big-ticket repairs, such as overhauling an HVAC system. Jobs of this size are never a one-shot deal. To make sure your initial outlay keeps adding value, consider the company that's most likely to still have its doors open by the time you need a replacement part or routine patchwork. That day will come sooner than you think.

How long will it take to pull a permit?

If your contractor looks at you like a deer in headlights when you ask this question, the company isn't for you. Even if the answer is, "you don't need one," your trusted vendor should already know the rules in your municipality and should clearly explain the permit process to you. There are major costs to getting this wrong; each city and county have different regulations, but many large-scale heating, electrical, and plumbing jobs do require a permit—and those permits have to be requested by the party doing the work, not the homeowner. This includes fixes to a septic system or sidewalk, which could require city paperwork too.

When in doubt, call your hometown's building department to stay in the know. Of course, if you do need a permit, your contractor should be able to explain the timeline and the costs, as well as any inspections needed to finalize the job. Remember: Space upgrades, such as finishing a basement, might increase your square footage, your home value, and your tax bill. So don't think about cutting corners and skipping the permit. Just imagine the low-ball offers you could get later on when trying to sell this home to someone who doubts the repairs are up to code. Pay now or pay later.

How many people will staff this job?

This tricky query sets an ideal baseline so you can eyeball when the project is going off the rails. If a structural repair company promises five guys but only two show up, this is going to take a month of Sundays. You can decide to cancel the job for breach of contract or negotiate an adjusted price for the extended delay.

Let's say the headcount is as promised; if a bonded and insured contractor says they're working alone and it'll take a week to complete, you can safely assume that you won't need to move into your in-laws' basement. But if the general contractor says this is a 15-person job, you'll know your house is no longer your own. Loud and unexpected interruptions can cost you time off work and derail Zoom school. So get ahead of any hefty expenditures, such as lost wages, unanticipated hotel stays, or membership dues at a co-working space. Negotiate a schedule that minimizes disruptions and displacements to you and your family.

How many and what grade of items are included in the quote?

Ask what kind of materials—light fixtures, galvanized roof sheets, boxes of laminate flooring, square feet of carpet, gallons of paint—are included in the quote and which will cost extra. You'd hate to find out that you paid marble prices for ceramic tile countertops, wouldn't you? Not that there's anything wrong with tile countertops—if that's what you want and what you paid for.

A contractor can add insult to injury by inflating material costs or quoting fewer quantities than truly needed to get the job done. These unanticipated add-ons add up quickly. Offer to order high-value items directly from the store and supervise your inventory so nothing goes missing. Make sure that whatever you choose is durable and won't need to be replaced at the first sign of wear. After all, you get what you pay for.

How many Better Business Bureau complaints have you had?

Remember: Reviews can be bought and recommendations can be biased. Better Business Bureau complaints are the gold standard in consumer protection. A contractor that is worth your hard-earned money should have a clean record. Now, this doesn't mean that you should only hire a contractor if they have never had a complaint. Even the most reputable establishments make mistakes. If the company has been in business for a few generations, you can bet they have earned an unhappy customer or two. But how they resolved those concerns is a priceless show of integrity.

A search on the Better Business Bureau website will tell you if the service provider is accredited and if they've had a complaint in the last three years; the resolution will be visible, making it easy to assess how this company troubleshoots unexpected criticism. Of course, not every company is listed, but if your favorite builder has a D+ rating, don't proceed. Instead, trust an honest broker who values their work as much as you value your home.

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