How to select your contractor

I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old conflict of the architect and contractor not getting along. Today's society is moving towards interdisciplinary occupations, and people are getting increasingly better at working together, gradually alleviating this conflict. More design/build companies (where the contractors and architects are both working for the same company) have begun to emerge, but not all of the perceived benefits are actually beneficial. One common claim made by design build companies is that architects don’t know how to build, and having in-house contractors alleviates the many issues that arise as a result. First, we have the very obvious rebuttal that you can’t paint the entire profession with a broad brush stroke. Do I need to remind you to select an architect with actual experience? No? Good. Second, if you were to momentarily entertain that all architects don’t know how things go together, the claim that contractors are coming to the rescue would be the case, regardless of whether the two occupations are part of one company or separate companies. I’ve known both architects and contractors who’ve owned design/build companies that went back to their respective corners. WHY? They couldn’t do both the architecture and construction well, AND be profitable at the same time. Key point here: paying attention? The fact is, in our rapidly changing world, it is difficult enough to be good at one type of business, let alone two. When you have the added burden of concerning yourself with both occupations AND being profitable, the CLIENT will always lose. It is an inherent conflict of interest. Part of our duty as your architect is to protect your interests. We are your advocate and produce a contract set of documents (your construction drawings are actually appropriately called “contract documents”) to depict your wishes, with which you agree on a price with a contractor. If the person writing your contract and the person executing it are under one roof, it would be like allowing your insurance company to determine which medicine you take…. Oh wait… they do. I love that. Don’t you?

A good contractor is worth his or her weight in gold. It takes years of experience and a creative, yet pragmatic thinker, to foresee challenges coming down the pipeline, and act accordingly amongst the many trades and details involved. I have the utmost respect for good contractors and enjoy working with them. When selecting a contractor, you should call around and chat briefly with as many as you can to get a feel for their personality and the world in which you are about to embark. I’m sure you’ve found some random articles online like, “The 5 questions you need to ask contractors”, or “The 3 things you need to look out for when selecting a contractor”. If not, you should go find some, as there are millions of them, and most of them are helpful. I want to focus on something else here.

There are a wide range of contractors who will provide you with a lovely array of estimates for the same amount of work, and you need to know how to make sense of it all. Take a step back and look at the big picture. You have your low, medium and high contractors to choose from. You need to begin by asking yourself what level of service you are expecting. If you want super creative, unique, custom details, built with the highest level of craftsmanship, don't expect the low to medium priced contractors to do it. I’m guessing many of them could, if given unlimited time and budget, but their low or medium priced estimate indicates that isn’t what they are planning for your project.  If you are just looking for a straightforward and comfortable home requiring less specialized talents, then maybe you do want to work with a contractor who costs less, but consider the following. Most contractors purchase their materials from the same places and use similar sub-contractors that, in order to be competitive, need to charge competitive (i.e. similar) rates. As a result, many times the reason Contractor A’s estimate is so much lower than Contractor B’s and C’s isn't because they have the inside track on super cheap labor and materials, right? And even if they did, my guess is they would still charge you the going rate and keep the profit for themselves.  Granted, I'm sure some people are better at working at a more rapid pace than others, but most likely it will take the same amount of time to frame your kitchen regardless of who does it. Taking all of that into consideration, it becomes clear that your project is going to cost a certain price regardless of who does it. The differences is whether you will know about the additional costs ahead of time (in a detailed estimate) or after the fact (via change orders). I am not implying that low-cost contractors are being dishonest. They are human. Everyone likes to tell people what they want to hear, and everyone likes to make a profit.

I go into greater detail on this topic in my blog about managing your budget

However, if you are a numbers kind of person, one of the only black and white figures you can easily compare is how much each contractor marks up his or her products and services. I’ve seen percentages ranging from 10-20%, and you can typically find this in a lump sum clearly spelled out at the end of the estimate. Outside of that, the demo still needs to be hauled away, the finishes still need to be added, and the building still needs to be enclosed. If one bid includes demo but doesn’t include the hauling and dump fees, creating a visibly cheaper estimate, do you think that the contractor is just going to flip the bill for that out of his or her own good will? No, you will. Surprise! Don’t select your contractor based on who has the lowest bid, as many times all it means is that it is lacking things the other contractors have included. Contemplate these ideas instead.

  • Ask him or her the “5 questions” that you found online and make sure your personalities match
  • Ask yourself if you felt like your concerns were being heard during your meeting.
  • How responsive are they?
  • CHECK REFERENCES! I hope I don’t have to beat this key point to death for you to understand how incredibly important it is.
  • Was the estimate provided in a timely manner? 2 weeks is average, 3 is the max unless it is a really complicated project.
  • Is the estimate easy to read? Why is this important? This is what your invoices are going to look like. Is it organized? Can you understand it?
  •         You must, without exception, sign off in writing on all changes to the contract documents PRIOR to the work being done. Ask if this is standard practice for them, and if it isn’t, let them know this is a deal breaker for you.
  • Although I recommend initially chatting with many contractors, I would only ask 2 or 3 for estimates. Any good contractor will take a lot of time to put together a detailed estimate, and any more than 3, in my opinion, isn’t necessary to get an accurate feel for the cost of your project. Respect their time, and give them a fair shot at being awarded the contract.

A great team is the best way to a successful project.  Just remember that each player should have a distinct role, with your best interest at the forefront of the equation.