By Doug Hanna, Principal, S+H Construction, Inc.
Contrary to the sworn oath of the brotherhood/sisterhood of general contractors, we builders do sometimes try to put ourselves in the shoes of the customer. We understand that it can be daunting for homeowners to start down the road of choosing a contractor. There are many aspects to take into consideration including quality, price, reputation, length of time in business, NSA watch-list status, etc. Notice that I put quality in front of price. Many people focus on price first, and while that is certainly important, especially if the budget is limited, selecting a contractor is not as simple as selecting, say, a trash can.
A trash can ?
Let's compare : choices in trash cans have expanded over the last 50 years in that you can now buy a plastic trash can as well as galvanized metal; generally there are two moving parts, the can itself and the lid. That's about it for the trash can: it's simple, built to last, well engineered and the quality is there, though come to think of it, you probably get what you pay for in a trash can, just as you will with a contractor. A contractor is generally not as simple. There are many more moving parts, and unlike the trash can, contractors are prone to human emotions, changes in life situations, tragedies, etc. (though the life of a trash can could be considered tragic, it does not seem to diminish performance). Construction projects are not simple either, which is why it's important to have a complex person/organization with wide and varied experience to manage your project.
Seriously though, our advice when choosing a contractor can be summed up as follows:
contract early with a good architect to come up with a schematic design
in conjunction with the architect, choose one or more contractors of similar size and reputation to give you a preliminary "ballpark" estimate prior to finishing the design ( often teaming up with a contractor and an architect to perform pre-construction design and estimating will save money and time )
look for appropriate contractors for the type of project you have in mind : sources for contractors are often the architect or designer, friends and relations, the web, print advertising, etc.
check references and track record; ask to go to see a couple of completed projects to check on level of quality
find out what contract and payment type the contractor prefers, make sure you understand how it works, and see if you are comfortable with that
Then it's time to say "I do"
Choose a contractor based not only on price but on how well you believe, based on your research, they will perform and stand behind their work. Sign on the line and away you go.
After that there are just a few additional items for everyone to complete including:
the contractor performing the work
you paying your bills
both of you, plus the architect communicating in an open and reasonable manner
no one treating anyone else like a trash can
To be continued ...