“I knew I wanted to be in construction from the day my Dad taught me how to swing a hammer. It has always been a passion. Over my 25 plus years in the construction industry I have experienced the many pitfalls of this business, as a builder and through the eyes of the owner. My goal at the beginning of my career was to learn the trade and be the very best craftsman that I could be. To this day I am continually striving to learn and improve our company to be the best that we can be. I came across this article some years back and I found it to be educational and inspiring to me. It is my hope that clients will take something from the article and help make their project a very pleasant experience to be enjoyed for many years to come. Construction should be a very rewarding and exciting endeavor and my goal is to help everyone feel the same enjoyment and pleasure that it has brought to me.”
How to Find the Contractor
You Really Want!!
A Contractor Selection Guidebook
It's a bold title, and it's meant to get your attention. There are a lot of fly by night contractors around. I’m sure you've heard the stories. But at the same time, there are also some very good contractors in business with an ongoing commitment to quality construction and good customer service with a commitment to their community. You just have to know how to find them.
The purpose of this guidebook is to start your process of selecting a contractor that will give you what you both want and need.
Finding a Contractor You Can Trust
Virtually all homeowners approach the contractor selection process with anxiety and dread. Some feel prospective contractors won’t be completely honest about cost and fear being tempted by appealing promises or low-ball estimates. The abundance and variety of construction horror stories leads others to believe there are only unqualified contractors out there ready to take advantage of the unsuspecting. Then others despair because they’ve heard of a homeowner who did shop carefully, hired a “very reputable” contractor and still had a bad experience. Its little wonder most home owners feel unsure where to begin and what questions to ask.
Feeling confident you’ll choose well is very difficult. If we add the haunting thought that your “dream home” and thousands of dollars are at stake to this mix of doubt and dread, the burden’s enough to keep many from ever starting.
I encourage you to step beyond this bind. During the selection process your fears don’t have to rule you because it’s possible to find not just a good, but an excellent builder. By following this plan, you’ll learn how to spot good contractors, build a list of qualified candidates, and test them so you choose the contractor best suited for your job. You’ll find the selection process is not only manageable, but also informative and rewarding. As a bonus, it can aid in the development and refinement of your dream home’s design.
Below is a summary of the simple steps you’ll need to take to find the right contractor. As you look over this list you may think “this looks too easy and obvious to be of any use.” On one level you are correct. When you think about it, the plan IS obvious and very straightforward. But as you read on, you’ll see that I equip you with two powerful tools that make you master of the process.
LOCATING SATISFIED HOME OWNERS AND FINDING HAPPY/SATISFIED CONSTRUCTION VETERANS
If you are planning a custom renovation, begin your search for competent, reliable and honest contractors in your own neighborhood. Take a drive to discover where construction is underway and begin collecting names. Most contractors will post signs promoting their services in front of homes where they are working. Also look for other clues like tradesmen’s vans or trucks or construction dumpsters. Whether you see a sign identifying the contractor or not, knock on the door and speak with the homeowner.
Better contractors understand that if they do a good job, they’re usually guaranteed more work in that neighborhood. There is no better source of leads than a happy homeowner, so the better contractors will work hard to leave a legacy of satisfied customers.
Another source of leads is friends or colleagues at work or school, clubs, professional organizations, or charity or service organizations you belong to. BE BOLD!! The more people you ask, the more names you’ll be able to gather.
You’ll find your next step, contacting these homeowners, to be very engaging. Anyone who has recently completed a custom renovation wants to talk about it. These folks are overflowing with information from this once-in-a-lifetime experience and are full of stories they want to share. Your visit with them will be well worth the time.
And not only are their memories of the stories, characters, and events fresh, but of their emotional rollercoaster as well. Your connection with these homeowners will be valuable both for the information they provide and the perspective they bring. They’ll want to share their highs and lows with you because they’ve been there and they know how you’re feeling at this point in the process.
There are other sources, but they aren’t as dependable. For instance, you can use the phone book. But, are you willing to spend thousands of dollars based on a random lead you get from the Yellow Pages?
CONTACTING HOME OWNERS
Most construction veterans, whether their experiences were good or bad, are very happy to share what they learned. They’ll not only give you the name of their contractor and a view of the finished product, but also share their design ideas and what they learned during the process.
Most veterans I interview feel their experience qualifies them as experts. They really understand the process and, given a second chance, would always do some things differently. They feel they have a great deal to share with “the uninitiated” about how it really went, what to expect, and how to cope with delays, changes, breakdowns, and the general upsets that accompany such an undertaking.
Don’t hesitate. Your request is quite reasonable: you want a bit of their time, a peek into their home and their opinion of their contractor. Call them now!
Now that you’ve contacted a few homeowners and they’ve invited you over, make the most of your opportunity. Be sure to address the following four areas:
At the end of this section, I provide a list of detailed questions to guide you.
Six to twelve months after a job has been completed is an excellent time to interview homeowners. During that interval their contractor will have responded to some warranty item claims. (Note: the industry standard is a one-year warranty on all labor and materials installed by a contractor not covered by a manufacturer’s warranty.) Because better contractors address warranty claims quickly and thoroughly, such claims are a very good test of their reliability and professionalism.
You’ll find that visiting custom renovations is an excellent source of design ideas. Ask the homeowners how they arrived at their particular choices. This information will both help focus your own ideas and develop your understanding of the design process.
In your walk-through tours of these different homes, you’ll begin to appreciate the different levels of attention to detail and quality of finish. You’ll begin to discern a good drywall job: smooth, blemish-free walls and ceilings with invisible seams. You’ll begin to recognize quality interior trim work where the joints are tightly fitted--in contrast to poorer jobs with gaps and misalignments. You’ll begin to appreciate that better builders stay on top of all details all the way through to the end of the project.
HERE IS A LIST OF ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR YOUR VISITS
The more you learn, the greater your comfort. The greater your comfort, the greater command you’ll have over the selection process.
Come prepared with a camera, pen and paper or a tape recorder. Be sure to ask for permission to take notes or photos. You’ll want records of what you learn as you begin to compile a list of possible builders.
THE INTRODUCTORY CALL, YOUR FIRST CONTACT WITH PROSPECTIVE CONTRACTORS
Most people don’t like interviewing contractors because they don’t have confidence in their ability to discern if a builder is honest. If you’ve done your homework with thoroughness and patience, you’ve spared yourself that anxiety because you already know your candidates are qualified, honest and reliable.
At this point, you should feel confident about your list because you’ve already prequalified the names on it. If you don’t feel confident, you need to ask yourself why. Then you need to call back homeowners and get the answers you need.
When you move into the second phase and begin contractor interviews, your task will be to locate a contractor you can work with, one whose interest in your project impresses you, one who listens carefully to what you say. The goal of this quest is to find compatibility with a builder whom you’ll be able to work with successfully for the six to twelve months a project typically takes.
Once you’re ready to begin the interviewing process, call the contractors in the order you’ve rated them. Be prepared to describe your project and state when you’d like to begin construction.
To give you a peek at how prospective contractors may handle your call, let me tell you how I deal with initial conversations. When I, as a professional builder, speak with a prospective client, I attempt to gauge their seriousness by asking specific questions about their design ideas and budget. If they’re planning an addition for instance, I ask if they know how large they want the addition to be and what rooms will be included. I want them to describe to me what they want in as much detail as they can. I also ask if they’ve thought about what grade of finish materials they’d like. For example, will kitchen counter tops be Formica(, Corian(, or polished granite? Will bathroom fixtures be brass or chrome? Will the new rooms be hardwood floors or carpeted?
I also ask if they have a preliminary budget for their project. Their response lets me know whether or not they understand the true cost of custom remodeling.
Good contractors are very busy, frequently working six days per week. They also have a well-deserved reputation for not returning phone calls, so you may have to be patient as you attempt to set up your first meetings. If someone you like doesn’t return your first call, give him or her a second chance. If they don’t return that call, cross them off your list. Just as you want to avoid fly-by-nights, you also want to avoid someone who is too popular. If a builder doesn’t have time to return your call now, you can imagine how stressful that could be after work on your house begins.
When you call the contractors on your list, have three to five preliminary questions ready to ask each. Here are some suggestions:
There is no set script for these calls. In fact, in the course of some conversations a builder may offer everything contained above and more. Be aware of how easily the conversation progresses. When you hang up, make a few notes on the conversations. What were your impressions of the builder? Did he listen well? Did he answer your questions thoroughly?
YOUR FIRST MEETING WITH PRESELECTED BUILDERS
In this new relationship, common courtesy is a must and good builders understand this. If a contractor fails to show up for your first meeting and does not call to reschedule, cross him off your list.
Also let me state definitively that all principal parties should be present at this initial and all subsequent meetings. This includes the contractor and BOTH spouses, if applicable. Given the number of interviews you (and your spouse) will have, plus the number of subsequent design and planning meetings you’ll have once you settle on a builder, this may seem unreasonable. But it’s absolutely essential for all parties to participate fully in this process and for everyone to operate with equal information.
Listed here are questions you should ask during your first meeting.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive. In fact, it should help you generate other, more personal questions.
As with homeowner interviews, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to ask any questions you may have. Nothing is off limits concerning your project or the company you’re interviewing. Asking good, detailed questions is the heart of your due diligence. If you don’t question thoroughly, you’re giving up your responsibility in this process and possibly compromising the quality of your project.
GOOD BUILDERS VERSUS GOOD SELF-PROMOTERS - BEWARE THE DOG AND PONY SHOW
Beware of any company attempting to dazzle you with a polished dog and pony presentation. John and Donna, a young couple in Northern Virginia, had such an experience as they struggled through the selection process. For their first visit with this particular company, the builder suggested he come to their home. When he arrived, he had an architect in tow. The builder began asking John and Donna good questions about what they were looking for in their addition. Meanwhile the architect was quietly taking measurements. Soon the builder was telling John and Donna about his company; he presented a slick multicolor folder with glossy inserts extolling the virtues of his company. Within a couple of hours, the builder and architect left, promising to get back in touch with them.
Two weeks later the builder phoned, saying, "We've prepared a presentation and would like you to come to our office." John and Donna arrived as scheduled, were ushered into a conference room, seated in plush chairs and asked what they'd like to drink. After they were made cozy, the architect and builder appeared, ready to present a slide show and elaborate drawings of a wonderful addition. It incorporated some of the ideas John and Donna discussed with the builder, plus many more they hadn't.
They left the contractor's office excited and wide eyed. They took home preliminary drawings and were reviewing them at the kitchen table when they realized no one ever mentioned price. The next morning John phoned, and the builder said the job would cost about $265,000, a figure literally twice their budget.
They were stunned. When John called the builder back again to say, "We really don't want to do this. It's more than we can afford," he felt cheap. Then John became angry. He had been manipulated. He had been treated to a show designed to get his expectations and hopes up, only to discover it was far more than he and his wife could afford.
Later, after John and Donna got the renovation they wanted for a price they could afford, they realized they avoided a nightmare experience. This is not a process you want to go through.
HOW TO NARROW THE FIELD: TRUST BUT VERIFY
You should suggest second meetings with your preferred candidates to discuss your project in greater detail. Second meetings provide an important chance to ask those questions you overlooked in your first meeting, plus the key questions that will enable you to identify the builder you'll move forward with.
As you're planning these second meetings, I recommend employing former President Ronald Reagan's philosophy of "trust but verify." Trust the representations your favorites make, but verify them. Your due diligence may protect you from confusing an itinerant contractor with an established professional.
Below I outline steps to objectively verify your candidates' business representations. Among them are several items you should address during your second meetings if you didn't during your first.
Number one, they should be licensed, bonded, or registered. Call the Building Department in your local jurisdiction to find out the exact city and county requirements and verify the appropriate licensing of your candidates.
Second, obtain proof of insurance. The contractor should supply you with a Certificate of Insurance indicating it has a sufficient general liability and workmen's compensation insurance. Additionally, the contractor should have coverage against theft of any materials delivered to the job site but not yet installed.
Number three, confirm the builder's business address. He may have an office, but it's also common for builders to work out of their homes. Ask for a visit just to confirm your candidate isn't working out of the back of a truck or a post office box. What you're trying to determine here is your candidate's permanence.
Number four, ask the contractor for a list of the suppliers and subcontractors he works with regularly. Contact a sample from this list to confirm the contractor manages his business responsibly, paying subs and suppliers on time, and that he has a good reputation in the building community. This line of inquiry is particularly important because it may prevent you from having a construction lien placed on your property by an unpaid subcontractor or supplier.
Number five; call the Better Business Bureau and your local consumer affairs office to check the company for consumer complaints. Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) are non-profit organizations supported primarily by local businesses, which encourage honest advertising and selling practices and keep records of consumer complaints. Check your candidates' records, but remember that just as there are unreliable contractors, there are also unreasonable homeowners. Even a good contractor can receive a complaint. If a favorite has a complaint, ask for information about its resolution. If he addressed it quickly and to the client's satisfaction, that's a sign of professionalism.
MAKING YOUR CHOICE!
After you've held your second meetings and narrowed your candidate list to one name, you've reached the moment of decision. It’s time to choose your contractor!
If you're confident your contractor meets these two principal selection criteria:
1) he's committed to fulfilling your desires and 2) the homeowners he's worked for in the past testify he provided excellent value and delivered quality work, then you're ready to move ahead. Work with him to create a design and specifications for your project.
This step represents a significant commitment for both of you. But let me make one point crystal clear: Until you sign a construction contract with either a design/build firm or construction company, you have not made a legal construction commitment. Architects and design/build firms have design fees for the preparation of construction documents, so for now that's the limit of your obligation.
The builder doesn't earn his money until you sign a contract for construction and construction starts. Unless he continues to effectively cooperate with you on the design, unless he provides a contract price that you can afford, and unless he provides the peace of mind and security you require, there will be no building. You should expect no less from your contractor.
Your first priority is to create a team with whom you'll build your dream home. If your team isn't working, you'll recognize it early on. The main signs of this will involve a lack of progress on your design.
From the beginning of the design process a good contractor will provide "price checks" and "value engineering" to help you stay within your preliminary design budget. Failure to provide these suggests a builder may not be interested in keeping you within budget. You should never feel pressure from your builder to expand your budget. Rather, he should work to keep construction costs down.
Your communication with both builder and architect should be clear and easy, just as when you're talking with a good friend. They should also show a general attentiveness and attention to detail. Design revisions should contain the exact changes you asked for, and the revisions should come back to you within a time frame the builder agrees to. You now have the information you need, and the steps to follow to chose an excellent contractor. The process is a simple one. Ask questions. Keep asking questions until you’re satisfied you have what you want. The process could take a week or it could take six months. Don’t rush the process. Make sure your get answers to all your questions. Your decision will then be an easy one.