Selecting a Contractor | Checking References

Bob Borson —  November 1, 2010 — 11 Comments

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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
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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 actually 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.)

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Checking References

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 appplication 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).

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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 contractors work is being done correctly. In addition to verifying that the  contractor plans on using licensed subcontrctors, 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 running 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.

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This is part of a series of posts on selecting a contractor. Each post will address a different aspect or consideration in an effort to help guide you through the process yourself when you do not have an architect to help you along.If you have any questions along the way, please feel free to send them directly to me and I will see if I can’t point you in the right direction.

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  • http://modernsauce.blogspot.com ModernSauce

    I just lurked for awhile to read all the comments! Thanks for the advice and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series – and when I’m choosing my contractor in the near future we’ll see how right you are… ; )

  • http://www.craft1945.blogspot.com Tim Capaldi

    These are really good comments and so far a great guide. Thanks Bob. As a General Contractor these are the exact things we are hoping the client will do. You should ask those tough questions. People need to do their homework. Price is one thing but so is the relationship. Every operation is different and since 1945 bids have certainly been an expense of running our business. It works for us.

    • Anonymous

      Tim,

      I am glad you caught onto the relationship aspect. When I started writing this post, it was going to be a lot more all-encompassing but I started to realize early one that I needed to scale the topic back into segments.

      Once we have identified 2 or 3 possible contractor candidates, we always have the homeowners met everyone. Sometimes there isn’t a good personality fit and despite the contractor being capable and qualified to build the project, if there is a personality conflict, we make a change before having the contractor go to the effort of bidding.

      It’s not always about the lowest price, it about the best price – and there’s more that goes into determining that than the dollars involved.

  • http://SLS-Construction.com SLS Construction

    First – great article Bob, but as a contractor I do have a few concerns with some broad generalizations & a way to ask better questions;

    “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 running their business but don’t abuse it;” Where’s my hammer? First I have to ask, do you as an architect have to compete with others & submit drawings and cost estimates for finishing them all for free / let them shop them around? Besides the abuses, most of us simply don’t bid projects (see below), and if we do – we are charging an appropriate amount for it. As for a contractor “eating the costs,” folks – no one really does that (well that is still in business), we pass them along to our paying customers.

    Apples to Apples – love that one, so how do you compare a Granny Smith to a Washington Delicious?

    I did notice that your reference questions concentrated on paperwork & people on site, but left out how clean was the site, the workmanship, & were questions or concerns addressed promptly? One issue about the questions about people on site – there are natural highs & lows during remodeling and large custom homes. After the drywall phase, everything seems to slow down & it appears that nothing is moving quickly. One could easily think that there are not enough people there, whereas we might be keeping everyone out while the floors are being finished, etc…

    I think a better question would start off – was the project completed properly when scheduled? If yes – then you might ask if there were any punch list items & how they were handled. If no – may I ask why the project ran over, was it weather, change orders, materials arriving that were damaged, or??? You will find out quick enough if they felt like there were not enough people there based on their reply without planting that seed in their mind (an easy out – of course there could be more people there). Once you have the answer to the above, you can ask how well the contractor communicated and handled those issues.

    • Anonymous

      Sean,

      I wondered when I was going to receive a response like yours. I was hoping that the reader could surmise for themselves that this was not a complete checklist for how to select a contractor. Even at 1,152 words, far longer than a most blog entries, there are more things that I didn’t discuss than those I did. My goals for writing this post were to let people understand that they should ask detailed questions if they wanted to get information of any real value. Even in your response, you didn’t eliminate my sample question but rather added more specificity. My sample questions were just that – samples. It was by no means a complete list and I do not want to presume that I know what issues are most important to the person asking them. I would also say that the type of project would affect the sort of questions someone might want or need to ask. The difference between a kitchen or bath remodel versus a Master Bedroom addition would be rather significant … even more so if this was for the construction of a new home. The questions you list are all great questions, maybe a smart idea would be to post an update with a list of every possible question I can think of for every possible situation. (I’m probably not going to do that)

      If you were a contractor who wanted to work on one of my jobs – you would bid it and you would not charge the client for that privilege. If that is something that goes against your business model, that’s fine but it’s not how we or the contractors that we work with operate. That having been said, I don’t waste the contractors time by asking inappropriate or unqualified contractors to go through the effort – and they all know this. I would assume that this is why there is no shortage of contractors at my door who want to bid and build my projects. Yes, everyone does pay for you to price a drawing – it’s called operational overhead and is not a direct charge to any specific client. I know, and I prep my client to expect a construction cost, a project management fee, and a overhead and profit fee – but these are charges that come into play if the project ever gets to see the light of day. I will concede that if you are a contractor who comes into a situation with no drawings and the homeowner is asking for you to go through the process with them to determine what the cost will be for what they have described – you should get paid for that service. But I don’t see that as a competitive bid situation and it would be impossible to get an “apples to apples” comparison between the bids of various contractors.

      My use of the phrase “Apples to Apples” is still appropriate even if I were to write “Granny Smith Apple to Washington Delicious Apple” – they are different but they are both still apples. We are talking about trying to get things close for the point of comparing them – the counter phrase for me is “Apples to Pineapples” – they sound similar but are not even close. This makes me think you are in the mood to be difficult?

      • http://SLS-Construction.com SLS Construction

        Difficult – moi? Nah, you know me better – I think

        As for bidding one of your projects – you are right, with your reputation, etc… I would probably have no problem doing so — Unfortunately, most do not have your reputation which has lead to today’s question that popped up on Leah’s Daily 5 site, an outbreak of Design-Build firms which don’t know when the “Design” part should be handed off, and a lot of professional firms like mine that simply wish customers the best of luck.

        So in short, yes I understand the issues with trying to pack so much info into a blog post & I think your reply easily addressed and clarified the issues I saw and probably more. (As a quick side note – I would say this beats the “designer” flare up that occurred recently)

  • http://twitter.com/ExtremelyAvg Brian Meeks

    This is a really helpful post. Everyone should read it before they start anything major.

  • http://twitter.com/cupboards Nick @ Cupboards

    Thanks for posting this, Bob- and you’re spot on. Most people never pick up the phone to check out a contractor and do at their own risk. Great post!