How to Hire a Qualified Contractor and Avoid a Renovation Disaster!
You can always find someone willing to tell you about their renovation disaster. How bad the contractor was. The sub-contractor leaving the job to grab a cup of coffee, only to return two or three weeks later.
Worse yet, the story about the house being completely torn apart and the contractor disappearing with all the money! OY!!!!
If you’re reading this, you may be planning a kitchen or bathroom renovation. Perhaps you own an older home and you want to correct the series of indignities it has suffered over the years and you need to find a qualified contractor. And perhaps you’re a little nervous, possibly terrified(?) at the prospect of finding and working with a contractor!
It doesn’t have to be that way, and in today’s post, I’ll help calm your nerves.
Along with an interior designer and/or an architect, the other key member of your project team is the contractor. Based on the drawings and specifications (the Design Intent) prepared by your design team, the contractor’s staff and sub- contractors will be responsible for the actual construction of the project (The Means and Methods).
Before I proceed further, it is necessary to include a qualification. There are two schools of thought on when a contractor should be hired. The first school of thought is to hire the contractor as the design is being developed, so that the contractor can assist in evaluating the design relative to cost and schedule as you are developing the design with your designer and/or architect. This typically leads to what is called a Negotiated Construction Cost or Negotiated Price with that contractor. Second is when you Competitively Bid your project. In this scenario, several contractors are asked to submit a firm construction cost based on a set of carefully prepared construction documents and specifications. (Each has its pros and cons and is worthy of a separate blog post.)
In either case, the following 5 resources are places where you can find general contractors.
1. Ask your designer or architect if they can recommend several contractors to interview.
2. HOUZZ has become a resource for many homeowners to find general contractors (Make sure to review the homeowner’s testimonials about that general contractor before proceeding.)
3. Your local Builders and Remodelers Association is another great source. The Boston Builders and Remodelers Association’s website can be found here.
4. If you have an historic property or older home, you might want to contact your Local Institute of Classical Architecture and Arts chapter. Highly qualified contractors are members of these chapters. If you’re not sure how to contact your local chapter, look on the national website, where the various chapters – with contact information- are provided. ICA&A’s national website can be found here. The New England Chapter’s website can be found here.
5. Talk with your friends, neighbors and business associates. If you can find a friend whose project was similar in scope to what yours will be, ask them if they were happy with their contractor and would they hire them again.
As you begin assembling names, look at each contractor’s website and portfolio. What does the level of quality look like? Look at their Facebook, Houzz and LinkedIn pages. Often you can begin to develop a sense of the “personality” of the contractor, in addition to reading their reviews and testimomials.., all of which begin to give you a sense of who they are and whether or not you would enjoy working with them.
Next, let’s assume you’ve found three contractors who appeal to you. It is good business practice to invite them to visit and walk the project site with you and your designer and/or architect. To the extent that you have drawings and specifications available, share them with the contractor. That way the contractor has an opportunity to see the existing conditions and compare them to your intended design.
During the walk thru, your responsibility is to communicate clearly and succinctly to the contractor your expectations about the investment you’re prepared to make, your schedule and the level of quality you desire, so realistic expectations can be set.
We asked one of Boston’s best contractors, Woodmeister Master Builders, what topics/questions they would advise a family to ask during an interview and walk thru as they consider hiring a qualified contractor.
They said in order to find a qualified contractor, the real questions to ask during an interview are about how they handle the Construction Process. That process has 4 key components, all of which substantially affect the Quality/Schedule and investment you will need to make to execute on your project.
- Communication: How does the general contractor organize their projects? Who is the *voice of the project* – the project manager, the one person whom everything is run through before final sign off? Consider meeting/interviewing the site supervisor, (not necessarily the project manager) if you are seriously considering the general contractor. The client needs to decide and communicate how much they want to be involved and the level of information/communication they expect.
- Transparency: What is the general contractor’s billing process? Is it open book at any time, itemized and with all corresponding paperwork/documentation available for review – by anyone, at any time? Is billing at cost plus versus a fixed fee? How do they handle change orders? Who signs off on change orders? Does all work stop before a change order is signed and paid for?
- Reputation: What is the reputation of the general contractor? Is it their warranty? If you speak with a referral, would a past client be willing to hire them again? Do they feel they got value?
- Process: How do they collaborate with the rest of the team? What and how do they set expectations? Truth in estimating. (How do they qualify their costs?) Would they question the architect/designer for clarifications? How do they work with project costs – reactive, proactive, collaborative? Can they explain the risks of working from schematics? Do you get the sense they are team player who will look out for the good of the project and client or that they will take charge at the expense of others?
What will happen as you talk with each contractor is that three topics will emerge that influence the construction of any project.
- Quality: This usually involves the quality of materials and level of finish for your project that you desire. For example, would you be ok with a faucet set from Home Depot or would you prefer the uniqueness of one secured through a local luxury kitchen and bath center or design center? If you are looking at pictures from Architectural Digest, assume very high quality.
- Investment: Some people may call this Price or Budget, but in our experience, we look at this as an investment, an investment in your home’s potential value and, more importantly, your family’s sense of well being and comfort. Regardless of income, however, everyone has a dollar cost in mind they do not want to exceed and it is your responsibility to communicate this as clearly and honestly as you can, up front.And, if you don’t know, ask for ranges, from low to high. It is the responsibility of your designer and contractor to help you make smart, informed decisions and to help you find solutions that deliver what you desire, within the overall dollar amount you are prepared to invest.
- Schedule: What is important to understand as you discuss scheduling with your general contractor is that the faster you want your project done, the fewer options you have – and these are usually limited to *in stock* items. If you want the flexibility of choice and customized options that will be exclusive to your home, plan for a longer schedule.
In our experience, the Rule of Thumb is that when you pick two of the three construction influencers, you will know what to expect from the third.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s assume you want “the best”. In our experience, “the best” goes hand in hand with long lead items that are not stocked locally and/or are made to order. By default, your Investment goes up and you can no longer expect a Schedule with a fast completion date.
Conversely, if managing your Investment (Budget) is your top priority, you are going to have to give on Quality and Customization – custom cabinetry and lighting are two examples that come to mind. Think: in stock products and materials.
Regardless of your priorities, a qualified contractor will embrace your vision and work collaboratively with you in order to bring your vision to reality.
Lastly you should have a sense after asking and receiving answers to these questions, you will want to ask yourself, ” Do I like this person?” Do I feel I can trust them?” “Would be happy working with them for the duration of the project?”
For those designers you interview where you can answer the above three questions affirmatively, the next step? Ask them for a proposal!
If Sally and I can help you with any aspect of the design of your home in 2017, including kitchens, bathrooms and whole house renovations, please don’t hesitate to contact us via the contact form on our new website, here:
Or, if you’re not sure if you need to hire an interior designer, please, give me a call. I’d be happy to chat.
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