Do you need a contractor?
Technically, no. Homeowners can pull a permit for work on properties that they own. The bigger the project, the better off you will be with a contractor as part of the team. Sure, you can do the contractor’s job yourself — plan the project, hire subcontractors, supervise them, and make sure it all goes according to plan. It isn’t easy to do, which is why they get paid the big bucks.
It’s not unusual for a contractor to charge 15% of the total cost of your project — 7½% for project coordination, and 7½% for overhead — in addition to the costs of work. For a $200,000 project, you’ll add $30,000 for the contractor.
What will you get for that money?
Someone with knowledge, experience, and connections. Contractors have existing relationships with the subcontractors, which can be very valuable. If problems arise, a contractor may get better treatment than you would. An electrician might not be very concerned about disappointing you, but if the electrician wants the contractor to hire her for future work, she’s more likely to show up when she’s supposed to.
Most projects require complex sequencing. You might start with a foundation, then rough carpentry, electrical, and plumbing, and then it all has to be inspected before you can move on to the next phases. If you don’t time that right, your project can get delayed and that could cost you extra money as well as time.
For all that can go wrong in a building project, if you have a contractor, you have an experienced person there in your corner to back you up.
Where should you look for potential contractors?
Start by asking people you know. Maybe a friend, or friend of a friend, has talked about their renovation project. Ask if they were happy with their contractor.
Advice from an architect (me):
- Look at the website of the contractor. What do they say is important to them? What vibe do you get from their marketing materials? How large is their company? Do they even have a website? Many contractors I’ve encountered are proud of the fact that they don’t have a card, don’t have their name on their trucks and don’t have a website. Of course, this means that you will only be able to get their number from someone who knows them.
- Call up the company and talk to the person who answers the phone. Was that enjoyable? Did you feel like they were interested in talking with you?
- If you can get the contractor on the phone, talk to him about your project and ask him what his process is. Does he seem interested in your project? Are you enjoying your conversation? If the answer is yes, send him a PDF of the drawings of your project and ask him to contact you for a site visit if he is interested. Do you really like him? Have you noticed any red flags (things that make your heart sink or make your stomach feel a little wrong. The biggest one for me at this point is being grumpy and resistant to meeting in person.)
- If you have an architect on the project, the architect should be there for the walkthrough of the project to talk to the contractor about potential challenges and to help you evaluate the contractor. What is his demeanor and attitude during the walkthrough? I recently interviewed a contractor who kept sighing and saying how much work the project was going to be. That was pretty obvious.
- Call the references and ask about the bad times. How did the contractor handle conflicts, mistakes, misunderstandings, and changes?
- Don’t ask contractors that you don’t like to give you estimates for your project. They may not give you a good, comparable price if they don’t want the project, you’ll be wasting your time and theirs.
Advice from a contractor (Allen Carpanella of MBA Building Group, Reading MA):
- Slow down and plan out everything before contacting a contractor.
- Take a team approach, get your architect working with the contractor for the best result.
- Ask for referrals from a similar-sized project and actually call them.
- Visit past projects in person with the contractor. Ask questions about his process. Look at the overall quality, keeping in mind that projects might be a few years old. While walking through with the contractor, he or she will describe challenges that they met on the project and how they solved them. Ask them about problems on the project and how they solved them.
- Ask them what insurances they have.
- Decide how much hand holding you are going to need during the project, contractors vary in how much management they offer.
- Be realistic about your budget, and tell the contractor what it is. Do not get excited by a low number once the estimates come in. If you hire someone for a low price who ends up losing money on the job, he could walk away leaving you to find someone else to finish the job. This is going to cost you more in the end, not to mention the frustration and aggravation.
- Have a full set of documents ready for pricing. The set should be 90-95% of the way there. The documents should include floor plans, elevations, structural drawings, demo plans, specifications detailing finishes,
- Hire someone you trust.
Ask candidates about their subcontractors, at least the ones they use most often. Who do they use and why? Some contractors have carpenters, electricians and/or plumbers on staff, which makes them more reliable and easier for the contractor to schedule and properly sequence into the flow of the project.
The contractor is a person you will be in a deeply personal relationship with for many months. The relationship will include money issues, promises kept and broken, misunderstandings, and many expectations to manage. In the end, hopefully, there is love. If you aren’t feeling the love from the beginning, walk away.