How To: Hire a General Contractor

Take the time to get estimates and check references before you hire a general contractor.

How to Hire a General Contractor

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The routine for hiring a general contractor is not radically different from that of hiring a designer. You want to hire someone with proven skills, somebody you can work with, and someone with a sound business sense for schedules and managing personnel. If your architect is supervising your construction, he handles the hiring of the general contractor for you.

If you are on your own and you don’t know where to begin, ask for recommendations from friends or acquaintances who have had home construction done. Personal references are always best. Personal to you, that is, not to the contractor—sometimes people refer a favorite nephew or the son of a friend out of regard for their relationship rather than a knowledge of the person’s skills or qualifications. You will probably do best hiring a local contractor with an established business and reputation.

If the referrer has had work done by the contractor, ask for an assessment of the work. Did the contractor finish at or near the budgeted price? If not, were the change orders reasonable? Was the work completed on schedule? Did the contrac­tor willingly return to correct problems? Would they use him again? Are they happy with the finished product?

Another source of contractors is your local lumber yard(s). Not houseware stores where nails are sold by the dozen, but real building supply houses where con­tractors do their bulk business. The proprietors of such places know who the reliable contractors are. They know which contractors pay their bills on time, whose orders are always confused, and which ones are always returning merchandise.

Meeting the Contractor
Once you’ve identified candidates, you will need to meet and talk with each of them. The contractor will need to see the plans and will want to examine the structure to be remodeled. Only after looking at the exist­ing home or apartment and reviewing the changes to be made can an estimate be prepared.

Checking References
When you meet them, ask each GC for four or five local references. That’s a perfectly reasonable request, and no reputable contractor should hesitate to provide them. Getting the names and numbers, however, is only the beginning, next, you need to make a few calls.

Telephone the previous clients, identify yourself as a homeowner in the market for building services, and ask the key questions: Did the GC in question finish the job on time? Is the completed job satisfactory? How much did the price change along the way? Were the workers neat or did they leave a hopeless mess behind? If possible, ask if you might be able to take a first-hand look at the work, too. Only by inspecting it yourself can you judge the caliber and acceptability of a contractor’s work. You may get additional insights into the contractor from talking with the clients in person, too. Lessons previous customers learned may be helpful to you.

Call the local Better Business Bureau and ask if there are any complaints on file against the contractor(s) you are thinking of hiring. A call to the local building department inquiring about their professionalism and courtesy may be revealing. Ask each contractor who his primary supplier of materials is, and then call that sup­plier.

A quick call to a local credit bureau is also a good idea. Ask how long the company has been in business. If you uncover any pending suits or liens, walk away. You don’t need the problems that can occur when a contractor is in litigation, like the sheriff arriving to impound the contractor’s tools—or your building supplies. It happens.

Other sources for references are banks and subcontractors. Ask the GC who he has dealt with and call them, too. The banks can tell you about his fiduciary responsibility and the subcontractors about how well organized he is.

Another word of caution: Treat your contractors, subs, and the other people you hire with appropriate respect. They’re not your employees, they are businesspeople from whom you are buying services. A modicum of courtesy and basic con­sideration will be rewarded. That goes for the men and women who work for them, too.

On the other hand, resist the temptation to get too friendly with any of your contractors. Keep your relationships strictly professional. They aren’t your friends: again, these are people with whom you have a business relationship. Invite them to dine with you after the job is done. A friendly but professional distance is appropriate until then.