Whichever way you go, there are no guarantees in life – or in construction. Even with an architect or professional inspector hired to inspect the contractor’s work, at the end of the day, you’ve got to hire someone you can trust to do good work and act with integrity. So really ask around, check with the Better Business Bureau, and check references. Find someone with an excellent reputation and strong track record in the community. Find someone you have a good rapport with. Find out if the contractor will be on the job site regularly and will be available to you if there are problems.
You and your contractor will essentially be business partners for duration of the job, so choose someone with honesty and integrity. Problems will arise during and probably after any large construction job, so it is important to find someone who you feel will act fairly and responsibly in resolving any issues that come up. Make sure the person you hire passes the Used-Car Test. If you wouldn’t buy a used car from this person, don’t hire him or her to build or remodel your home.
Choose a company that fits your style and personality. If you like a warm and personal approach, a small one-crew company might be just right for you. The contractor may be on the job daily swinging a hammer. The crew may do most of the work themselves and use relatively few subcontractors – usually better for finicky, specialized, or very customized work. If you want speed, efficiency, and professionalism, a larger more corporate outfit might suit you better.
Whichever way you go, proceed with your eyes open. Be smart: Trust, but verify. By that I mean, make sure the specs provided by the contractor are sufficiently detailed and complete and will meet your expectations for quality (you can get a second opinion from a construction manager or architect if you’re not sure). Make sure the bid is realistic – that allowances are adequate for the materials you will probably choose. Ask to see certificates of insurance. Read the contract carefully – have it checked by your lawyer if it seems too murky or one-sided.
Finally, don’t expect to the get the best job from the low bidder. If one bidder is significantly below the others, either he is making a mistake (often due to inexperience), is planning to make up the difference in change orders, or is at risk of losing his shirt and may end up cutting corners or even walking off the job.
While I want a good deal as much as anyone, I rarely end up hiring the lowest bidder. Instead I look for the person I can trust the most to get the job done correctly. Often, the savings you thought you were getting with the low bidder later evaporate into the haze change orders, extras, inadequate allowances, and headaches.
Questions for former clients might include:
Have you worked with this general contractor (GC) before?
How did the job go? How did it compare with other contractors you have worked with?
Did the GC communicate clearly throughout the project?
Was the GC on the job frequently? If not, who supervised the work on site?
Were there any problems or surprises?
How was the work quality?
Were there cost overruns or delays, and why?
Would you recommend them for your type of job?
QUESTIONS TO ASK A GENERAL CONTRACTOR
How many jobs like this have you completed?
What is the average square-foot cost for this type of job?
How much experience do you have with energy-efficient construction, green building, passive solar (or whatever your special interests are)?
Who will supervise the construction on site? Who will I be working with once the construction begins?
What work will your own employees perform (as opposed to subs)?
How do you prefer to work: competitive bid, cost-plus, negotiated price, or something other?
What is your company’s greatest strength?
(For remodeling): What efforts do you take to keep the job site clean and safe for children, and to keep dust out of the living quarters?