You’ve got your spreadsheet and done your homework. An architect reviewed it and you adjusted your numbers accordingly. You’re on a first-name basis with the folks who work on the help desk at the home improvement store. Now, it’s time to talk with contractors and get bids.

Just like choosing a real estate agent, doctor, or lawyer, you are hiring a professional to help you accomplish something. Get referrals from friends, family, and coworkers to find contractors whose work is well-regarded and make appointments to meet with them. Here are five must-ask questions before choosing a contractor plus two tips for making it as smooth a process as possible.

Question 1: Will you itemize your bid

You will be talking to a number of different contractors, and an itemized bid will help you compare the various bids. It will also help you determine if a credit is due at some point during the project. This could occur if a task is eliminated or some other change happens. An itemized bid will also reveal budget mistakes (yours or theirs) and some of those hidden costs.

If the contractor refuses? Thank them for their time, and move on to the next person on your list.

Question 2: Is your bid an estimate or a fixed price?

This question will be pretty pivotal to your overall budget. If the bid is an estimate, it is possible that the overall price of the work could end up being much higher. As for a fixed price.

If the contractor responds that there are too many unknowns with your particular project, try to find ways to eliminate those unknowns. Open up a wall or check out a crawl space. This may feel risky, but think of it as eliminating some of those dreaded unforeseen costs.

If you can’t find a feasible way to eliminate those unknowns, take a deep breath and try not to fret.  Ask the contractor to limit the bid details to what he or she expects to do. If additional work is needed, a change order (a kind of mini-bid for new work) will be submitted.

Question 3: How long have you been doing business in this town?

Just like real estate agents, the answer to this question speaks to their experience and knowledge of the community. In the case of a contractor, five to ten years is an ideal answer. It means that they have an established network of subcontractors and suppliers in the area. It also means they have a solid reputation. If you are considering a new contractor, find out what previous experience they have with your kind of project and ask to speak with a previous employer.

Question 4: Who are your main suppliers?

This question is another kind of reference question. A contractor is networked with their suppliers, i.e. lumber yards, tile shops, appliance dealers, home improvement stores, etc. Find out who those suppliers are and get their contact information. Ask them about the contractor’s professional reputation. Is she reliable about paying her bills? Is he someone you should hire? Is she timely? What do you like best about working with this person?

Question 5: Can I meet your job foreman? Can you take me to a project he or she is running?

Contractors often spend their time organizing and digging up new work. The job foreman is the person who will be working on your project every day. Meeting them and checking out their work firsthand then is an important part of the decision-making process. If you like your contractor and can communicate well with them, but the job foreman is a different story, then it is time to carefully consider your choice.

Tip 1: Be very specific about what you want and communicate it very clearly to the contractor.

This information is what your estimate will be based on and the eventual cost of your project. If you are vague about the materials you want used or any other aspect of the work, the contractor will make his or her best guess. That best guess will be based on what they think you want, which may result in a higher estimate than you like. To be clear, that higher estimate will not be because the contractor is aiming to gouge you or take advantage of you. They are generalizing and working at what they believe is normal for the average client. If their average client is in a different spending bracket than you are, the estimate will reflect that. Use that awesome spreadsheet and let your contractor know what you have in mind for the best results.

Tip 2: Be very clear about your financial limits.

A contractor wants a happy customer and a successful project just as much as you do. Clear communication will make all the difference. Your contractor is a professional, and as such should have at their means the contacts and tools to make your project a reality while respecting your financial limits. However, it is your job to remind them early and often of your limits and resist the urge to splurge or do any of those “While-you’re-at-its.” Yours isn’t the only job they are working on or thinking about, so respect their busy time and expertise by being clear and pleasant about what you believe the scope of the work can be.

Tip 3: Make sure your personalities mesh.

Most remodel projects last anywhere from two to three months and cost thousands of dollars. You and your contractor will be meeting and talking regularly during this time, and it is important that you are comfortable working together. You don’t have to be best friends, but you should be able to have a good working relationship.

Tip 4: Get everything in writing.

Part of clear communication is making sure everything is laid out in writing. This is for your protection as well as that of the contractor. If the scope of the project is unclear in any way, that could spell trouble. Of course, there will be unexpected occurrences, but having as much as possible in writing from the outset will help eliminate some of that and let you both focus on the work at hand.

Tip 5: Define the scope of clean-up.

Not everyone has the same idea of what it means to clean-up at the end of a project or even a day of work. Talk with your contractor about their standard clean-up practices and be clear if you have different expectations. This will help avoid scratched furniture, scuffed walls, and debris strewn floors and lawns. Find out about dumpsters, the cost of them, and who is in charge of getting it hauled away.

A Few Places to Look for Contractors in Columbus

Angie’s List – Remodeling Contractors in Columbus, Ohio

National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) – Columbus Chapter

SavKon – A women and veteran-owned construction company