Choosing a Contractor

Before you sign on the dotted line, listen in as experts share how they make the best choice.

By Jan Soults Walker

Envisioning some updates around the house, an extensive home remodeling, or even building a new house? A bad contractor could make your life miserable with delays, myriad excuses, and poor (even dangerous) results. Hiring a good contractor to oversee or do some of the work is crucial to ensure your dreams become reality.

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"It really is an important decision," says architect Petra Schwartze of TEA2 Architects in Minneapolis. "You're allowing someone into your home, oftentimes when you're not there. What they build directly affects the health and well-being of your family."

Here are some considerations as you vet prospects.

1. What's the scope of the project?

"Before hiring a general contractor, consider the size of your project and the level of complexity," suggests architect Beth Levine of Beth Levine Architects, Vail, Colorado. "For example, if you plan to add a new area or build a house, the general contractor coordinates the permitting process and the subcontractors. He or she also coordinates the whole process: excavation, foundation, framing, plumbing, electrical, insulation, drywall, trim, and finishes."

Conversely, Levine says, an example of when you won't need a general contractor would be to paint the outside of your house. In this case, you can hire one specific person for one specific task.

Find out if you should DIY or Hire a Pro.

2. Can you trust this person?

Schwartze suggests meeting face-to-face several times with contractors before hiring. "Are they readily available and do they respond within a reasonable timeframe? If not, they are too busy or unreliable, and you should move on," Schwartze says.

3. What are the contractor's qualifications and references?

"There are some non-negotiables when it comes to hiring a contractor," Schwartze says. "You want experience, good client references, license and insurance, and good and immediate communication."

"Also make sure the contractor has done projects similar in scope to yours and similar clients'," Levine says. "Ask the contractor for a list of previous projects as well as owners with recommendations."

4. Could the contractor answer a few questions?

Once you've narrowed the list down, learn the answers to some important questions, Schwartze advises:
  • Are you licensed and insured?
  • What is your current workload and how does my project fit in? 
  • How often will you be communicating with me? What about emergencies and after-hours issues?
  • How do you choose your subcontractors?
  • How often will you be on the project physically? When subcontractors are at my home, who will supervise them if you (the general contractor) aren't there?
  • What will be the start and completion dates of my projects? How are these dates guaranteed and why would they change?
  • Will you be pulling permits? "The answer should be yes," Schwartze says.

5. What will it cost?

"Always ask your contractor for an open-book policy and detailed information regarding the costs of your project," Schwartze says. Ask the following:
  • Is this a guaranteed cost? Schwartze says the answer should be yes, with the possible exception of some allowances for finish materials that have not yet been selected.  If the contractor provides only a lump sum estimate, "Run," she says. "This only sets you up for ambiguity and mistrust."
  • Do you require a down payment? "This is a touchy subject because for many small-time contractors it is perfectly reasonable to ask for a down payment to start the project so that they can get the permits, buy materials, and such," Schwartze explains. "However, you need to balance the amount of the down payment and the overall cost of the project." The down payment should be minimal, and you can agree to make quick payments once work has begun, but never get ahead of what has been built or delivered to the site. Levine suggests asking how often the contractor bills and how much you can retain for payment after the final walk-through and your approval.
  • Do you provide lien waivers? "The answer should always be yes," Schwartze says. Your general contractors should provide you with lien waivers from all subcontractors, relieving you of any further financial responsibility to that worker and ensuring that you won't be billed for something you've already paid for.
  • How do you deal with change orders? "Every project has some unknowns and changes," Schwartze says, adding that any changes in the project cost should be presented as a change order (or cost estimate). "And before the work is done," Schwartze continues, "so that you as the owner have the ability to choose, redirect, and ask for additional information if you are unsure on why the cost is justified."

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