There aren’t any real secrets to selecting a residential contractor but knowing what sort of indicators to look for can make a big difference between a good experience and a bad one. You will be able to take advantage of your common sense once you know what questions to ask. I am going to focus on some basic information and assume that the reader is not working with an architect – because if you were, you wouldn’t have to read this article. To get things started, I am going to explain how the process works in my office.
I don’t work with the same 4 contractors on every project. There are approximately 50-60 contractors that are available to work on our projects. Why so many? It’s a matter of finding the right fit and skill set. We generally divide our contractors into the following groups:
- New Construction
- Renovation/ Addition
- Modern style design
- Traditional style design
- A, B, or C level craftsmanship
- Quality versus quantity
Contractors can exist across several of these categories with the exception of quality – that is something that rarely changes over time. Once a contractor does a project and we have internally determined the level quality (A, B or C), it takes something fairly miraculous for that designation to change. This “grade” isn’t something that should get anyone too worked up over, if the work was bad, they wouldn’t work on one of our projects again. Think of the grade more as an indicator of quantity and quality. There are clients who are willing to accept a lesser quality product in an effort to get more product. Really this is about the perception of value so as a result, we need those B and C level contractors – they are vital to aligning the clients budget against their program.
We also consider the temperament and personality of the homeowner and how it will match up with the possible contractor for this is one of the most important considerations. You can see how a list of 50 or 60 contractors, when considered against all the different variables, can be reduced to just a handful very quickly.
(You can find contractors several different ways but I am not going to address that process in this post. Since this is on how to choose your contractor, I am going to address the process starting from the point that you already have between 2 and 4 contractors under consideration.)
This may sound like an obvious step but most people don’t actually do it – and those that to take the time, rarely do it properly. Common sense moment: Why would a contractor ever supply you with a reference that they knew wasn’t going to give you a glowing review of their work? If they did, that would be an indicator that they aren’t very smart. You have to work through the information that they give you methodically. When you call the reference, have your questions prepared ahead of time and drill down and ask very specific questions. If you are asking questions that can be generally answered with either a “yes” or a “no”, you’re probably not asking the right kind of questions.
Examples of “Not Good” Questions:
“Were you happy with the work of Happy Homes Construction (HHC)?”
“Did the project cost what HHC said it would?”
These types of questions a too generic to be of much value – besides, since we can safely assume that this reference likes the contractor, you might actually be speaking to the contractor’s mother-in-law. You must ask specific questions that require specific and detailed answers.
Examples of Good Questions:
“How was the project staffed? Did you feel that HHC adequately staffed the project to complete the work when they promised?”
“In what format did HHC submit their requests for payment?” (was the request coordinated against their original bid and did they match?)
“How did HHC address additional charges?” (Did they provide a cost up front or did they provide a revised bill at the end? Was the charge broken down into individual expenses or was it a single line charge?)
“Did HHC do what they said they were going to do when they said they were going to do it?”
“Was there adequate supervision on the project? How was it handled?”
“Who did they (the homeowner) talk with the most throughout the project?” (i.e. contractor, site superintendent, or the dry wall contractor)
“How often did they submit a pay application and how was the request broken out?” (i.e. percentage of work complete, material costs + labor cost, or period of time-based on expected length of time to complete).
Find out how long the contractor has been in business and how long at their current location. Verify that they plan on using licensed subcontractors and that they will be pulling proper permits. Yes, I know that this will add cost to your project but if you think I am going to recommend that you cut corners in an effort to save 5% of your project costs you are mistaken. While permitting your project will add permit costs and possibly add some days to the overall length of your project, it is generally the law and the permit process ensures that someone who knows what they are looking at is coming by and verifying that the contractor’s work is being done correctly. In addition to verifying that the contractor plans on using licensed subcontractors, verifying that they plan on pulling required permits sets an expectation level from the beginning on what is and isn’t an acceptable. You should expect to ask these question to ensure that you are able to get an apples-to-apples price comparison if you are going to have several contractors bid your project.
** A friendly consideration to homeowners going through the bidding process **
It costs contractors money to bid your project. I don’t think it is unreasonable for you to expect them to absorb that cost as an expense they have run their business but don’t abuse it; I don’t ask any more contractors than is necessary to bid a project. We also provide the contractors several copies of all the drawings to work from at no charge. Also, we also do not ask contractors to bid a project simply to vet out and verify another contractors bid. Abiding by these simple considerations should be common courtesy, not to mention that it is a respectful way to start off your project with you newest best friend – your contractor.
Best of luck.