1 – Business History
Hiring a contractor, in my experience, is a stressful task and only becomes marginally less so each time I’ve had to do it. But it helps to conduct some research into the business history of your candidates. It doesn’t take much time and will save you the legal trouble down the line. You’ll want to check with your state’s license board to verify that your contractor candidate is indeed licensed. I live in California, so my research will involve a visit to my state’s license board.
My license board provides more information on my contractor that is useful to me. Useful information includes whether the contractor carries worker’s compensation, property damage, and liability insurance. If he or she is a member of a reputable professional association, such as NECA or IBEW, it should be considered a good sign. You should be wary of some red flags, including evidence of having declared bankruptcy, evidence of legal action taken against your contractor, or a failing grade with the Better Business Bureau. A third party like the BBB provides objective, reliable reviews that can be an indicator to either cut loose your contractor or seek further references.
It’s important to confirm whether the contractorhas any recent, relevant experience, so get a list of references who have had projects similar in scope to yours and follow up with them. Don’t be shy about making phone calls and visits. Ask other customers questions about their experiences dealing with the contractor and their satisfaction with the finished product. You can obtain other third-party verifications from state licensing bodies, professional associations, state and local courts, insurance providers, suppliers, Better Business Bureaus and municipal departments.
A search into business history should include whether your prospective contractor has any recent or relevant experience. If he or she hasn’t worked in awhile, it may be due to a slow economy, your contractor’s bids have failed, or he or she may have some work policies that raised some flags for previous homeowners. Be sure to be thorough with your research. If you find a contractor who has worked jobs in similar scope to your project, don’t be scared about reaching out to his reference sheet.
At least five references from his most recent customers should do. Make phone calls, send emails, arrange visits if you can to former clients. Be sure to ask about timeliness and overall satisfaction. The more information you can gather, the better. You should be wary of contractors who are hesitant about handing out references or discussing past projects. This may point to troubled history on his part. If he refuses to provide his licensing and insurance info, run in the other direction. Fast. You don’t want to do business with that kind of contractor.
2 – Suppliers
A contractor who’s been plying his trade locally for five or 10 years has an established network of subcontractors and suppliers in the area and a local reputation to uphold. That makes them a safer bet than a contractor who’s either new to the business or planning to commute to your job from 50 miles away.
Every contractor has a reputation and a set of friends, even in a big town. If his reputation is a good one, people will gladly recommend you to him; if he’s as good as he says, they might ask him to godfather their child. The point is, a man is only as good as the friends he keeps and a contractor’s friends are his suppliers. If the contractor has been well-established in an area, he will have a network of subcontractors and suppliers in his work area that will gladly vouch for him.
If his professional reputation holds, these suppliers will offer testaments to his reliability and quality. One important item to ask for that often gets overlooked is an open account. Much like bars opening tabs for loyal customers, suppliers won’t have open accounts for just anybody. Check to see if his payments have been made on time or if there are any outstanding fines.
3 – Site Supervision
It’s important to ascertain during the course of the interview how the contractor plans on handling site supervision and subcontractors. For starters, a lot of the questions on the last page (such as those concerning licensing, payroll, liability insurance and workers’ comp) are inquiries you’ll need to put to any subcontractors as well — everyone on-site must be fully covered.
When talking to your contractor, raise the issue of site supervision. No matter the scale or scope of your project, any contractor worth his license should be able to provide a plan for organizing his subcontractors and their work. Be sure to ask if each and every one of his subcontractors is licensed and then, interview each and every one of them to be sure. Better to be thorough than sued. This is also beneficial to you if the contractor, for whatever reason doesn’t pay his workers. A laborer’s lien can be placed on your property to enforce payment or compensation to subcontractors and that can become very costly indeed. There are forms called lien waivers that the contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers sign that state they have received payment and waive any future lien rights to the property.
Further key questions center on work-site presence. How much time does the contractor propose to spend on your project each week, and how many other jobs is he or she completing in tandem to yours? Does the contractor plan on doing any of the actual labor, or is he or she mainly performing in a supervisory role? How often will the contractor be on-site, and who’ll be supervising during times when he or she isn’t there? A trustworthy and accountable presence should be on hand at all times.
Some key questions you shouldn’t forget to ask are whether the contractor will solely be working on your project alone or in tandem with other projects. If he will be working at other job sites, will there be a foreman or a like person to supervise during the actual labor? A contractor who insists on personally supervising every one of his projects is a good one, but not so if he is juggling multiple projects. This also ties into the time he will invest on your project. How many hours per week will he spend with you? Is he available in case of emergencies?
4 – The Foreman
I mentioned the foreman in the previous tip and he is, perhaps, the keystone of any construction project. Since many contractors are not actual tradesmen, often boasting little to no experience with actual labor, the job of project supervisor is delegated to his foreman, who is in charge of the construction crew.
The foreman is the person to speak to when the contractor is unavailable and will likely become your best friend during the duration of your project. He or she is working on your project every scheduled day and brings to the table years of experience in a specific field. Most foremen were construction workers who ascended to their position, so you can be sure that they know what they are talking about.
5 – Schedule
When interviewing a contractor, you should ask if he or she can provide a timeline for your proposed project, including fixed start and completion dates. Be sure to have these dates formalized in a written agreement. The timeline should also include a schedule down to the daily level of proposed labor and a list of materials. No project ever runs as smoothly as you would like so be sure to address how changes will affect the work schedule and contract.
During the project (provided you aren’t watching it unfold firsthand), you’ll probably want to check in once in a while to see how everything’s coming along. So it’s a good idea to ask the contractor how he or she plans on keeping you up-to-date and the process for scheduling site visits. Another related concern is determining the best way to stay in contact with the contractor so you can communicate any questions or concerns to him or her.
Before the project has begun, find out how you’ll be kept up-to-date on project proceedings and how you’ll be able to get ahold of your contractor when scheduling visits. A good project is completed with proper and multiple lines of communication as well as documentation that can be used in case your contractor becomes difficult.
If a contractor says, “We should be there in the next day or so,” keep looking. Are you supposed to wait around on a “maybe”? Or if it’s an emergency, you need a quick response, not an appointment a week from Tuesday. That’s why real-live human beings answer our phones 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making intelligent scheduling decisions based on travel radius, availability and urgency.
I cannot stress reliability enough. I’ve been in situations where the contractor failed to show up at the agreed time and date. When I contacted them, I was given excuses or was told he was “on his way” and didn’t show up for another 2 hours. I’m not saying that a contractor should be waiting on you and be subject to your every whim. But you should be able to assume your contractor would respect the time he set up.
On that note, emergency service should warrant a quick response. Not an instant one, but relatively quick and suited to the circumstances. Appointments for a week later in such a situation are no good and you should move on to the next contractor.
6 – Guarantees
No one likes surprises when doing business with another individual or company. That’s why we draw up contracts that bind the involved parties to certain stipulations and can used to hold said parties to terms. This is just a long-winded way of saying that contracts are your only source of guarantees. Even if the contractor, during the course of the work, has a good day and decides to give you a discount, that “good day” discount is no good if it isn’t stipulated in a contract. Don’t sign off on anything without first understanding all terms and conditions. If needed, hire a lawyer.
Get used to creating and keeping a paper trail. Maintain records of all payments, invoices, etc. in case of any disputes that may arise in the course of your project. On the subject of permits, research any and all permits you even think you might need. Then, speak to your contractor and have him, in some shape or form, guarantee he will obtain the necessary permits and adhere to all laws of your city, county, and state. Do your homework. Believe me. You don’t want the kind of headache that accompanies the huge legal mess that awaits you if you don’t get written guarantees.
I wrote this previously, but I will do so again: keep a paper trail. You can’t take your contractor to court on the basis of a “he said, she said” claim.
7 – Estimates
And now we arrive at the estimates, perhaps the most important of all steps. Why? Money, plain and simple. No one works for free and if he does, he’s an intern, a volunteer, or he’s getting duped. And a contractor is none of these things. He, just like anyone else, expects to get paid, and you the homeowner, understand this. But you also don’t want to be duped or played for a fool. You’ll want to request an itemized price estimate from your prospective contractor. Examine each of these items carefully and cross-reference each item with further research that you have so obviously done.
Beware of the low estimates. This may be great news for you, but that usually means the contractor is cutting corners and is giving you low quality work. If the price is high, compare to other estimates from other contractors. If the difference isn’t much, don’t take it into account. If the difference is as wide as the ocean, that’s a red flag.
A schedule should also apply to payment with payments scheduled for work completed or for reaching certain milestones. However, it’s a balancing act. You’ll want to negotiate so you never pay for more than what you’ve gotten; if the work doesn’t make you happy, why should you pay for it?
8 – Routine
I touched upon the importance of communicating with your contractor and this includes asking about their work habits. They’ll be in your home for quite some time and you’ll have to learn to tolerate their little nuances, good or bad. Don’t be afraid to ask about your contractor’s routine. What makes them happy? How do they start their morning and should you be afraid of them in the morning due to surliness or grumpiness? How do they take care of their waste materials? How do organize their work materials and can you expect to have obstructions in your home?
Set a work schedule for yourself and insist on consistent reports from them. You don’t want to have to hunt them down for an update.
9 – Common Sense
Sometimes people forget the obvious things: don’t take candy from a stranger; if it smells bad, it probably tastes bad; a baker’s dozen is thirteen. Also, don’t hand over some cash for work. Cash is untraceable and you can get burned if the work is shoddy or illegal. That’s why you make the checks out to a business, which will assure you that your payment was recorded and you exist in their books.
Contractors aren’t paid under the counter, at least not the honest ones so if one asks you for an individual check made out to him and not the business, he’s probably not paying taxes on that income. If the contractor doesn’t even have a license, you’re in big trouble. If his work is sketchy at best or if he or the workers get injured, you’re liable for damages.