Hiring a Contractor? | Here's What to Consider
If you’re planning to build a new home, renovate your bathroom, or remodel your kitchen, a general contractor will play a critical part of the construction process. There are several essential things to consider when hiring a contractor. The word ‘contractor’ itself can be confusing, so let’s start by providing a basic definition before hiring a contractor.
What is a Contractor?
If you find yourself asking the question, ‘What is a contractor?’, you are not alone. A contractor is the person in charge of day-to-day operations, quality control and deadlines where the building work is to take place, whether this be an apartment, house, or a new building set to take over an entire city block. A contractor is the man or woman who turns the visions and renderings of architects, engineers, and interior designers into reality. Typically, the bigger the build, the more complex the role, and contractors can be expensive so it’s important to know about the work a general contractor handles, when to hire one and what to expect from them.
WHAT IS A GENERAL CONTRACTOR?
General contractors, often used interchangeably with the term ‘contractors’, coordinate and execute the construction or renovations of homes or businesses. This is the person, team or firm that enters into the primary contract with a property owner and bears the responsibility of overseeing the project.
A general contractor serves as the construction manager, responsible for daily oversight of the site, the management of all vendors and subcontractors and the primary communicator to everyone involved during the course of a building project. Contractors are almost always licensed by their state and must ensure that their work meets code requirements for the specific location where the building is to take place since code requirements can vary dramatically depending on locale.
What are the
Types of Contractors?
Beyond general contractors, different types of contractors fall into these general categories:
- Finish Carpenters
But from there, the list of specialty contractors goes on to include pool builders, masons, roofers, excavators, landscapers, cabinetmakers, and dozens more. While many contractors have skills in different areas—general contractors are often carpenters by trade, for example—union regulations often prevent them from working in more than one field. On a construction project, the coordination between these different trades is the responsibility of the general contractor.
What Is a 'Bonded' Contractor?
In general, if a contractor is considered “bonded,” it means that the homeowner is financially protected if the contractor doesn’t complete the job. Or, if the work is poorly executed, the bond pays out to finish it properly. Bonded contractors do not commonly work on building custom homes as it’s often cost prohibitive; custom homes tend to be design-builds with cost-plus contracts where contractors are paid for incurred expenses and more, versus negotiated fixed-cost contracts. With certain projects it’s nearly impossible to put a number or a clear definition on the scope of the work right at project inception.
Difference between contractors vs subcontractors
It’s important to understand the difference between contractors vs subcontractors. Subcontractors typically form agreements with a general contractor, rather than a homeowner or client directly. And often these “subs” specialize in one specific area of construction. Some of those areas of specialty might include:
Subcontractors form relationships with seasoned contractors that often span years and dozens of projects, and that in-the-field experience can bring valuable and applicable expertise. Ultimately, general contractors are responsible for their subcontractor’s quality of work, efficiency and behavior.
Subcontractors should be insured and licensed, as well as highly qualified and experienced in their trade. If you choose to work with a subcontractor directly, check their qualifications and if possible, get estimates from several to get the best value proposition. Just keep in mind that when working with specialty contractors without a general contractor, the role of managing schedules payments and budgets falls to you.
When should you hire a contractor?
It is almost always advisable to always hire a general contractor as early as possible, and to bring them in to do pre-construction services such as budgeting and scheduling. The reason for this is that if any major issues arise you can modify your plans. If you hire a general contractor from the get-go, that person should be able to give you a good idea of where any issues lie, lay out where you’re spending your money, and roughly estimate what the total project should cost. A contractor should be there to help you prioritize how and where to invest your money. For instance, if it’s determined that a new tennis court is going to blow a large portion of your overall budget, the contractor will work with you to prioritize the importance of the court versus the kitchen, or the master bedroom, with the aim of keeping the project grounded in reality.
What to look for when hiring a contractor
Whether you’re hiring a contractor to build your dream house or renovate a room in your current residence, it pays to do your research. Here are a few important things to look for when hiring a contractor:
Like interviewing a prospective hire in any other profession, it’s important to assess if a contractor has the experience required to meet the demands and scope of your project. Ask her or him about their unique capabilities and to provide examples of similar work they’ve succeeded at in the past. A time-tested general contractor will often have dealt with more experimental builds, which positions them to be better at addressing any out-of-the-box issues that arise. It’s also appropriate to ask for referrals and run background checks.
History of work
Look at a contractor’s portfolio as well as where they’ve worked on projects since different states or areas can have very different rules and regulations that contractors need to be aware of. Think about the quality of the contractor’s work, and make sure to consider and share your expectations, right down to how involved you’d like to be at reviewing costs and when you’d like to see invoice.
Asking about a contractor’s organizational and billing structure is something that’s not often addressed before work begins but should be. Bear in mind that large-scale projects can involve 40 or more different entities between subtractors and suppliers, so it’s important that your contractor have a reliable system in place to properly manage the project. Remember that the more complex the project, the more sophisticated your contractor’s organizational tools and resources need to be.
Once hired, a contractor will become part of your life, and sometimes for extended amounts of time. Make sure that there’s a positive dynamic between the two of you and that he or she is a good communicator and when it comes to trust, pay attention to your instincts.
Depending on the scope and complexity of your project, making sure that your general contractor has sufficient resources may be important to know. When it comes to resources here are a few questions to consider asking:
- Do they have a strong network of reliable subcontractors to support the project?
- Do they have enough staff the oversee the build on both the project-management and administrative sides?
- Are they and their staff familiar with the local municipality and permitting agency, if pulling permits is involved?
- Do they offer unique capabilities, such as an in-house drafting department that can give them greater control over the process, schedule and costs?
What questions should you ask a contractor?
Here are a few questions to ask your contractor before a contract has been signed, and construction has begun.
- How long have you been in this business?
- Do you have a contracting license? Can I see your certificate of insurance?
- Will you obtain the permits and set up the inspections required for this job?
- What is our timeline for completion?
- What is the payment schedule?
- Will I have a dedicated team working on my job?
- What way would you like me to get in touch with you?
- What way would you like me to get in touch with you?
- How will you clean up at the end of the day?
- How and where will tools and materials be stored if the job spans multiple days?
- What steps will you take to protect my property?
- How will additional charges be dealt with?
- How do we resolve any disagreements?
What Are the Licensing Requirements & Qualifications?
Most states require contractors to hold a license and specific qualifications by law. In California for instance, you can incur several penalties for unlicensed work (and even serve jail time), and all contractors working on projects valued at more than $500 require licenses, with only rare exceptions. To become a general contractor in California, you must meet multiple requirements set forth by the California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board (CSLB), including education. More details on requirements, education and licensing exceptions are listed on the CSLB website.
Whether you choose to hire bonded contractors or not, it is advisable to work with a general contractor who’s able to actively manage your budget in real time, provide multiple reasonable bids from subcontractors, and update your budget each time an invoice is issued.
If your contractor is doing her or his job by providing you with visibility into key project elements, such as budget, you’ll be able to make appropriate adjustments to your plan versus realizing it too late in the process. In some cases when this happens, some people aren’t able to afford completing their project—this is not as uncommon as you might imagine.