The Mammoth Guide to Grilling Your Next Contractor

Before you start raking everyone you meet over the coals, I want you to hear what I am going to say.  Not all contractors are alike! You are searching for the best quality work, not necessarily the cheapest bid.  In fact, this selection process has nothing to do with bids.  It is about interviewing to find the very best general contractor.

finding the right home contractor

With that said, I’ve found that most all contractors generally fit into four basic categories:

Professional Hustlers – These men come into town in teams with only one agenda – take advantage of everyone they come across. That is how they make their living.  They are experts in targeting older couples and often drive neighborhoods looking for homes in disrepair or chasing after areas affected by weather disasters.  They are known for offering “too good to be true” remodeling deals and insisting on lengthy contracts which are not only vague but favor the contractor.  They are skilled at extracting as much up-front money as possible before moving on to the next unsuspecting homeowner, without necessarily completing the work.

In August 2003, a gentleman named Bill called my office wanting an estimate after hurricane Claudette tore through the area.  When I arrived at his home, wet stinky kitchen and bathroom cabinets, carpet and assorted debris were heaped in his front yard!

Bill had given a contractor a check for over nineteen thousand dollars to purchase new cabinets, etc.  Simultaneously, the contractor’s crew started to demo his home.  They piled everything in the front yard and then left. He had tried to call the contractor for two weeks before calling me.  Bill’s worst fears had been confirmed when he called the guy’s cell number and heard a recording – “The number you have dialed is no longer a working number.”  By then Bill’s check had been cashed.

Bill had not thoroughly read the contract before signing it.  I am no attorney, but it was clear to me after reading it that the contractor had the right to use Bill’s initial deposit, in this case a check for over $19K, solely for demolition and disposal of jobsite debris.  To add insult to injury, the contract did not specify where the jobsite debris was to be taken.  So legally, the crew had the right to dump everything in Bill’s front yard.

I learned a few months later that the same contractor had convinced one of my subcontractors, a master electrician, to rewire a house.  The contractor had collected from the homeowner but stiffed the electrician for almost eight thousand dollars.

Drifters – These folks typically spend no more than about three to four years in any given town.  They work cheap, drive the junkiest trucks, and frequently ask for emergency loans.  You should hire this type of person for handy man work only, like exterior painting and minor carpentry.

I met someone like this while visiting Terry, a good friend in Oklahoma.  Terry had hired Whiskey Jim to replace a section of soffit and rotten casing on his garage.  Besides being absent from the workplace much of the time, Whiskey Jim spent more hours telling stories to anyone who would listen than working.

Big Talkers – They are quick to boast about having worked for a good contractor for a couple of years before striking out on their own and are never shy about elaborating on what they know.  These folks are typically young, likeable, and drive the most expensive work trucks borrowed money can buy.  Now, do not get me wrong – everyone has to start somewhere.

In fact, I have contributed a great deal of my time and money over the years training young men who were serious about pursuing this business as a career. However, you have to ask yourself two very important questions before you make the decision to hire him:  1) Can the young man do the kind of work that I expect?  2) Can he financially afford to handle any mistakes or unforeseen problems?

Professionals – In it for the long haul, professionals usually have a minimum of ten years of experience, a custom cabinet shop with paint spray booths, granite fabrication services and accounts with specialty vendors.  Most have sophisticated computer estimating capabilities for detailing your project by line item costs and detailed drawings.  Professionals are capable of telling you when the project will be completed, weather permitting, and will not hesitate putting an estimated completion date in a contract.

Interviewing Contractors:

Now, the work begins!  I have compiled a list of important questions you should ask each prospective contractor in order to find the one that is suitable for your remodeling project.  Document their responses in detail, so you will have lots of information to compare at the end of the interview process.

A.  Company Information
1.  What is your company name?
2.  How long have you had this company?
3.  Is your company a sole proprietorship, partnership or corporation? If applicable, what are the names and, contact information for your partners or officers? What are the names, job descriptions, and contact numbers for your office personnel?
4.  Who supervises the jobsite in your absence? What is his cell/residence number?
5.  Do you conduct employee background checks?
6.  What is your company policy for drug testing of employees?
7.  Do you currently have construction liability insurance?
8.  How much coverage do you have and with what company?
9.  Are you willing to provide me with proof of liability insurance?
10.  Have you ever had to use your liability insurance to settle a claim? If so, what are the details?
B.  Experience
1.  How many years have you been in business as a general contractor?
2.  Is a general contractor license required in this State, county, or parish?
3.  Do you have a current general contractor’s license? What is your license number? When was your license issued?
4.  What are the names and credentials of your licensed plumber and electrician?
5.  Are you a member of any local or national associations? What are they?
6.  What did you do before becoming a general contractor?
7.  What are your contact numbers, including cell and residence numbers?
8.  In what areas of remodeling do you have the most experience?
9.  Do you use sub-contractors, employees or both?
10.  What are the names of your subcontractors?
11.  How long have you worked with each sub-contractor?
12.  What are the names of your employees that will be working on this job?  What are their respective job descriptions and lengths of employment with you?
C.  Prior Remodeling Projects
1.  Do you have a website?
2.  Do you have documentation of at least 10 projects with before and after photos?
3.  Will you provide me with a list of at least 10 customers and their phone numbers as references?
D.  Estimating Capabilities
1.  What methods do you use to estimate remodeling projects (computer programs, bids from subcontractors, etc.)?
2.  Will you provide me with a sample of a recent estimate?
3.  When will you provide me with an estimate for my home?
E.  Company Policies
1.  Will you provide me with written weekly progress updates each Friday afternoon and include goals for the upcoming work week in exchange for weekly draws?
2.  What time in the morning will subcontractors and employees need access to the jobsite? When will they leave for the day?
3.  How many days of the week do your subcontractors and/or employees normally work?
4.  Do they work weekends and holidays?
5. What are your policies for subcontractors and/or employees on the jobsite, for example smoking, swearing, playing music, staging of tools and materials, housekeeping, lunch breaks, and vehicle parking?
6.  What are your policies for the protection of furniture, fixtures and flooring during demolition and remodeling activities?
7.  How many projects do you manage at a time?
8.  Do you comply with OSHA requirements regarding safety manuals for your subcontractors and/or employees?
9.  Do you have safety meetings? How often?

The Ultimate Goal:

The ultimate goal of this questionnaire is to find the most qualified contractor.  So, compile the answers and chose the one who answers the questions best.  There are two particular questions that are most important – E1 and E7.  You should consider an unsatisfactory answer to either of these questions to be a deal breaker when choosing your contractor.

Question E1:  “written weekly progress updates…goals for the upcoming week”

Whether you have a day job or not, odds are you will not be privy to everything performed on a given day unless your contractor communicates with you. For instance, let’s say that you want under counter lighting with your new kitchen cabinets, which you did not have before.  Your contractor hires an electrician to install this new service.  It can sometimes take electricians days to install new wiring from your electric panel, across the attic, and through the walls to designated areas of your kitchen.  The time would be much longer if the electrical panel had to be upgraded.

Imagine coming home after a long day at work, expecting to see lots of new and exciting changes.  Unaware that the electrician had worked in your attic all day, the first thought in your head just might be – nothing has been done!  In the meantime, your contractor has left the job-site to pick up supplies, feeling confident that all is being accomplished as planned.  Can you see how this could be a recipe for mismatched expectations?

Question E7: “How many projects do you manage at a time?”

Envision your home after two weeks into a remodeling project.  It is in complete disarray, and you cannot wait until the project is finished. Now, picture your contractor not showing up on week three, because he is on another project.  Need I say more? I cannot begin to tell you how many jobs I have gotten simply because I promised the homeowner to only work on one remodeling project at a time.  And, I meant it!

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