10 Things to Consider When Choosing a Contractor for Your Construction Project

Nesting on 05.19.11
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Photo Credit: Quyen Tran

As your family grows, it's almost impossible that you will be able to avoid either moving to a larger house or expanding your current house. In any case, unless you have the good fortune to find--and the means to buy--the house of your dreams, ready-made for the needs of your family, you'll have to make some modifications. And you will probably need help.

When we found out that my wife was having twins, we immediately got to work figuring out how to make our tiny bungalow accommodate four people and a huge dog. This eventually entailed doubling its size. One of the tasks I had as the owner-builder was to hire contractors to take care of several aspects of the construction. But I wasn't going into this blindly. I have had a lot of experience in construction, and would in fact be doing most of the work myself.

If you were to look at my resume, next to the phrases "stay-at-home dad," "adjunct professor," and "blogging hack," you might also notice the words "licensed contractor." I have now been a carpenter for more than half my life. I've worked on everything from high-rises to straw-bale houses, and have held contractor's licenses in both Virginia and California. Before my kids were born, I had a pretty sweet deal wherein I would teach a few college writing classes while simultaneously working on remodeling projects. I still have a California license, and squeeze in small projects when I can.

During my two and a half decades in the trades, I have worked with incredibly talented, honest, intelligent, and efficient craftsmen. I have also worked with total dirtbags. I've witnessed amazing examples of ingenuity and endurance; and I've seen dangerously shoddy work done by unconscionable shysters.

In fact, I've done quite a bit of remediation on homes that have been mutilated by said shysters. And in my conversations with homeowners who have been taken in by these charlatans, I've noticed many recurring themes. Based on these conversations, as well as my own experience in hiring contractors, I've compiled a list of things to consider before hiring someone to work on your home.

But before I get to the list, a word about how to find contractors to interview in the first place. (And before that, a word about my sexist use of pronouns. I realize that there are female contractors out there, but the vast majority are men, and for the sake of readability, I will be referring to the hypothetical contractor exclusively as "him." Deal with it.)

First off, you probably know people who have had work done on their houses; and if you're lucky, they had a good experience and will be happy to recommend their contractor to you. If not, you'll have to do a little legwork.

If you're thinking about doing a major addition or remodel, you should consider going with an established local company with a long history and excellent reputation. If they're worth their salt, you will have seen their signs up in front of houses in your neighborhood and read ads in your local alternative weekly featuring such phrases as "voted #1 by readers," and "25 years of experience in [name of your town]."

If you're looking for someone to do specific tasks such as plumbing, wiring, or concrete, however, I would recommend Craigslist.

I know, I know, Craigslist is a clearinghouse for thieves and perverts; but it's also where smart, frugal entrepreneurs who don't want to waste money on advertising offer their services. And it's pretty easy to weed out the idiots based on the text in the ads. Even if a guy is a great plumber but a terrible writer, if he has any business sense at all, he'll find someone to write a decent ad for him. Of course there are other internet directories out there, but I found almost all of the contractors I used on my house through Craigslist, and was completely satisfied with every one of them.

So what do you ask him once he comes over to give you an estimate? (And you should never, ever have to pay for an estimate.)

Does he have a contractor's license? His having a contactor's license tells you three things: a) this guy has his stuff together enough to study for and pass a comprehensive standardized test; b) he has verified experience in his field; and, c) you have some recourse (i.e. filing a complaint to the contractor's board) if he screws you over. Demanding a contractor have a license is another way for you to weed out the riff-raff: there's really no reason for a reputable freelance tradesman to not have one.

Does he have any skeletons in his closet?You know how to use the Google, right? If this guy has done something egregious, chances are pretty good that someone will have broadcast it somewhere on the interwebs. At the very least, check the contractor's board website.  They should have a record of the status of his license (whether it has expired or been revoked), and any complaints filed against him.

Does he have a local address? Unless you want to track this guy down all over hell and half of Georgia, you should try to find someone who lives near you. The further away he is, the more likely it is that he'll have trouble getting over to your house when you need the caulk on the crown molding touched up.

Does he have local references? If he can't provide you with at least a dozen local references, something is amiss. And don't be satisfied just to see the list. Call a random sample of his clients and see what they thought. This might be the single most important thing you can do to avoid being disappointed or ripped off.

Is he internet friendly? He doesn't have to be an HTML expert or have a soaring Klout score; but it's really convenient to do business with someone who is at least comfortable with email. Being able to send photos, plans, and documents back and forth instantaneously makes the job move along more quickly.

How much experience does he have in the type of work you want done? Even if someone has a general contractor's license, and is therefore credentialed to do almost any type of construction, you need to know how many decks he has built, how much drywall he has hung, how many roofs he has shingled. My license says I can do all the plumbing in your house. Trust me, you do NOT want that.

Will he be doing the work himself? Some contractors will come over to give you an estimate, seem knowledgeable and personable, and then send Igor the knuckle-dragging manservant over in their stead once the job starts. Get a commitment that the guy you talk to will be doing most of the work.

Does he put everything in writing? There is no reason that a contractor shouldn't give you a written estimate, and then, once you agree on terms, a written contract. Check with your local or state building department for laws about what kinds of forms the contractor is obligated to give you before works starts. California, for example, requires contractors to give clients a "3-Day Right to Cancel" form that allows them time to back out if they have misgivings.

Will he build to code? The only way to be sure of this is to have him get the appropriate permits, after which city or county inspectors will have to approve each phase of the work. Permits can be a hassle, and an extra expense, but they're worth it not just for your peace of mind; but also for your resale value. In most parts of the country, if you have unpermitted work on your house when you sell it, your agent will be restricted in how she can list the property, and ultimately the unpermitted work will be disclosed to the buyer, which will be a significant bargaining chip for them. Not to mention, if you are caught by the authorities doing work without permits, you will be fined at the very least, and likely made to tear down the work that has been done.

What does your gut tell you? Your gut doesn't always detect a shyster. Some of them are just too slick and charismatic. But if you get a bad vibe from a potential contractor, you shouldn't ignore it. You are going to have to communicate with this person a lot, and possibly spend quite a bit of time around them. Don't hire a jerk.

So, did I forget anything?  If you have any questions, comments, or edifying contractor horror stories, please don't be shy: put 'em in the comments!

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