5 tough questions for your old house contractor

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Construction, Home Improvement Tips

I have dealt with a number of contractors over the years. Some of them were handymen who were retired from their full-time construction jobs and simply looking for a little work to fill their days. Some were contractors with vast teams of people, handling jobs in two or three different states. All were very experienced, had good reputations and wanted to do the job the right way. But sometimes, their version of “the right way” wasn’t even in the same ballpark as mine.

New York Farmhouse before renovation. Image credit: Country Living

Asking the questions that matter most

No matter how good the contractor is, remember that it is your house and your money–you are the one who has to pay for the work and then live with it when it’s done. So asking the tough questions of even the most seasoned contractor is absolutely necessary.

What are those questions? They go beyond the basics and get to the heart of whether the contractor can handle historic homes.

  1. Tell me about your subcontractors. Your contractor might be well-versed in the challenges of an old house, but what about those he hires? Your work might actually be carried out by subcontractors under the supervision of their boss, so they should have ample experience with old houses, too. You might also want to ask about what kind of latitude they have in their work — you don’t want them to make changes to the plans that you and the contractor have agreed upon.
  2. What’s your experience with older homes? If the contractor says he has a certain number of years of experience, ask for more specific points. Is there any particular historical project he or his team have worked on? Is there any particular building in the area he can point to as an example? Where did he learn to work on older homes? Does he live in an older home himself? These questions can shed light on how familiar he is with building techniques in older homes,
  3. Give me an example of a challenge you faced with an older home. Pay close attention to what that example tells you. For instance, a contractor who encouraged replacement windows over working on the old windows might have had good reason, but you need to ask further questions to make sure. If it seems the contractor is one to cut corners or try to talk a homeowner into something, that’s a big red flag.
  4. How many projects are you handling? How busy the contractor is makes a difference in your timeline. Many home improvement projects go over schedule, and that is especially true with older homes. If the contractor has numerous projects lined up, it might take a while to get to yours. If your home is one of several having work done at the same time, there might be times when your house falls to the bottom of the to-do list. If there are several projects going on at once, get assurances that there is enough manpower in the company to handle it all.
  5. Can I see an example of your work? A reputable contractor should have a short list of clients you can talk to, or several buildings he can point to that are representative of his company’s work. Check out the references and make sure that his reputation is really up to par before you sign on the dotted line.

These five questions can give you peace of mind at best, and at worst, they can send you on the hunt for another contractor whose work meshes with your style and hopes for the structure.

New York farmhouse after renovation. Image credit: Country Living