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How to Hire a General Contractor

For a home building project, major home improvement, or remodel that will involve several trades such as plumbing, electrical, concrete, and drywall, it’s important to hire a general contractor who can guide the entire process.

A general contractor is a licensed construction professional who is trained in several trades. He or she has the knowledge and skills needed to hire and supervise specific trades people, called “subcontractors” or “subs.” Typical subcontractors include plumbers, carpenters, electricians, cabinetmakers, and so forth.

Some general contractors maintain their own “crew” of subcontractors. Others hire subcontractors on a job-by-job basis. Many maintain a crew of carpenters and then hire contractors for other trades as required.

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Some general contractors pitch in and work alongside their subs while others just supervise.

The general contractor is responsible for scheduling, coordinating, and paying the subcontractors. He or she negotiates a contract with the homeowner, and then pulls together the necessary crew of subcontractors to do the work. The contract is usually considered to be a firm bid that includes the cost of both materials and labor.

In most states, a general contractor must be licensed or certified. Be sure any contractor you hire is licensed or certified and that he or she carries worker’s compensation and liability insurance.

How to Select a General Contractor

When you hire a contractor, you’re choosing a person who will be in the midst of your family and who may have a profound influence on the success and quality of your home. Make the decision carefully.

Start by getting at least three recommendations from friends, family, colleagues, and your architect or designer. More recommendations is better, but the work in vetting them can become significant.

Call each recommended contractor. Tell them why you’re calling and who referred you. Be prepared to discuss the size and scope of your project. For example, be prepared with the approximate square footage of your project, when you’d like to begin building, and when you want to have the project finished.

Ask the following questions:

• How many projects like mine have you completed?

• Do you have your own crew? How big is it?

• Are you available during the construction period that I have in mind?

• Will you have other jobs underway at the same time? How many?

• Can you provide me with the names and numbers of satisfied customers who I can call?

During your conversation, take note of your impressions. Does the person communicate well and sound trustworthy? Is he or she enthusiastic? Does he or she sound like somebody you wouldn’t mind having in your midst during your construction project?

Select the strongest candidates and set up interviews at your home. For this interview, you’ll need to have a set of construction documents that you can give them. In fact, it’s a good idea to have your architect or designer involved in the meetings. A contractor will develop his or her bid based on the plans and this conversation.

Ask for proof of a license (if required by your state) and bonding to protect you against an unfinished job. Also request at least three references of clients who you can call. Then follow up by calling the references you’ve collected.

Ask whether the project was a favorable experience, and if not, why not. Ask whether the contractor and subcontractors did a good job and were pleasant and punctual. In other words, ask “Would you recommend the contractor?” Be sure to find out whether there were problems, mistakes, or conflicts. Last but not least, ask if you can view the result and, if so, go to their home to check it out.

As an additional measure, you can check Yelp listings for customer reviews and call your local Better Business Bureau and/or state consumer protection agency to see whether any complaints or actions have been filed.

It’s also a good idea to ask the contractor if you can visit a job in progress. This is where you can see the crew in action and discover a lot about their work styles.

In order to compare apples to apples, ask the contractor to detail costs for materials and to spell out the payment schedule they would want. Don’t let the payment schedule get ahead of the work.

Expect an initial payment of five to 10 percent, followed by incremental payments of 20 to 25 percent. These progress payments should be tied to defined milestones, such as foundation poured, rough framing completed, drywall installed, and so forth. Hold back at least 15 percent for the final payment to be paid after all inspections have been signed-off and you are satisfied.

Don’t necessarily choose the lowest bid. That contractor may be cutting corners. Price is important, but so are quality of work, compatibility, trust, on-time performance, and the likelihood that your construction project will meet your expectations.

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How to Deal with Contractor Problems

If you’re unhappy with the way your independent contractor is handling your project, your first step should be simply to express your concerns in person. Most contractors will make every effort to ensure that you are satisfied with their work.

Should you reach an impasse, an architect, designer, or other professional who knows your project may be able to help broker an agreement. If such personal approaches do not work, you can act on one or more of the following recommendations, beginning with the least drastic measure:

Send a certified letter outlining the contract requirements you consider to be unfulfilled and stipulating a reasonable time frame for compliance. Sometimes this is enough to inspire action.

File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau by calling (703) 276-0100 or visiting www.bbb.org. The BBB will forward your complaint to the contractor, who may consider your requests in order to avoid an unfavorable BBB report.

Contact the local or state board that licenses contractors, if one exists in your area. Contractors have a strong incentive to maintain a clean record with the licensing board because some of these boards have the power to levy a fine or even revoke a license in cases involving serious negligence or incompetence.

If both parties agree, try to resolve the dispute informally with the assistance of a mediator. The BBB and many local organizations offer mediation services to help businesses and consumers work out mutually agreeable solutions.

Present your case before an impartial arbitrator. More formal than mediation, but much less costly and time-consuming than litigation, arbitration gives both parties the opportunity to present evidence in a joint hearing. The arbitrator’s decision is usually binding. You can arrange for this option through the Better Business Bureau or through the American Arbitration Association (www.adr.org).

If you are seeking minimal damages (the amount varies from state to state but is usually no more than a few thousand dollars), bring your case to small claims court. You will not need an attorney, and court costs are usually modest.

If you are suing for a large amount of money, you can consider filing a civil suit. This option has definite drawbacks: The case may drag on for months or even years, and your costs can exceed any award you may receive. Remember that if you have fired a contractor who has essentially done the work as agreed, you are the one who will be found to have breached the contract. Make every effort then, when drawing up a contract, to be explicit about the work to be done.

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About Don Vandervort
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Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years, as Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996.

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