Hiring a Contractor

Finding a good general contractor can be intimidating. There are a lot of horror stories out there, and you don't want to be one of them. Understanding these six points will greatly improve your chances of finding the right person to work on your house


What is a contractor?
In the construction industry at least, a person who hires others is called a contractor. On large jobs involving many construction skills, a single general contractor is usually hired, who in turn hires subcontractors. He or she will oversee and coordinate all of the work, pay the subcontractors, or subs (tradespeople hired by the contractor to perform specialized tasks), purchase the materials and take on the responsibility for completing the entire job. Contractors can often buy materials at a better price than homeowners and, because subcontractors get most of their work from general contractors, a general contractor usually has more success scheduling subs than a homeowner would.

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The initial call
As a homeowner, you can hire tradespeople directly, saving the markup that a contractor charges for his services. But, if you're planning an extensive project, such as building or remodeling a house, you'll probably want a general contractor. Call several and pre-qualify them on the phone by asking the following four questions:

  • Can they handle your job and time frame?
  • Can they provide references of satisfied customers?
  • Do they have plenty of experience with jobs like yours?

If they answer "yes" to all of the above, request a meeting and ask them to bring along names and phone numbers of satisfied customers and, if possible, photographs of successful work.

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Interviewing a contractor
When each general contractor arrives, look for clues to his or her professionalism. Are they wearing a uniform or dressed appropriately for their trade? Is their truck well maintained?

During the meeting:

  • Discuss all of the work you intend to have done.
  • Review any plans or drawings you have.
  • Ask for suggestions about changes that might save you money.
  • Ask the contractor how many jobs he or she may have ongoing at a given time, in order to get an idea of how much direct supervision your job will receive.

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When bids come in
Be sure to ask:

  • How long will the bids be valid? They should be good for at least 30 days.
  • How will changes or additions to the plans be handled?
  • Will the contractor obtain all necessary permits and handle related paperwork?
  • How will workers protect your home and valuables and minimize disruption during construction? For example, will they be using the family bathroom? What will be the extent of debris cleanup at the end of each day and how will debris be removed? What hours will they typically work? Will the contractor be on site most of the time?
  • Who are three or four former customers you can call for recommendations? See How to find good help or useful questions to ask.

Give each of your general contractor candidates:

  • Identical sets of plans or written project specifications that spell out the work you want done, the materials you want used and the standards of workmanship you expect.
  • The date you would like all plans and bids returned.

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Making the final selection
Don't jump on the lowest bid. If one bid is substantially lower than the others, the candidate may be inexperienced or intends to cut corners. Probe to find out why that bid is low (a common cause is vague specifications).

Beyond the bids, there are still several important considerations that can make or break your project:

  • What is the chemistry between you (and your spouse) and the contractor. It's crucial that you hire as a general contractor someone who will listen to what you say and with whom you can work out problems. If, during the selection process, misunderstandings repeatedly crop up between you and a contractor candidate, you're probably better off hiring someone else.
  • Again, be sure the contractor you choose is insured for worker's compensation, property damage and public liability.

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Should you buy the materials?
Generally, it's not a good strategy to supply ordinary building materials for a home repair or improvement project. Few professionals, if any, will guarantee the performance of materials they didn't obtain themselves. Most tradespeople and contractors can buy building materials at a discount and may pass some of their savings along to you, but you should expect a reasonable markup for their expenses.

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