Hiring Mr. Right

Getting the right contractor the first time around
By Gail Jamentz
Michael James Hillman/Submitted

Construction season is in full swing as homeowners continue to tackle their remodeling wish lists spawned from two years of homebound living and plenty of time to reassess how they want their interior spaces to meet their family’s needs. 

This flush of pent-up demand has created a frenzied environment as homeowners compete to secure a quality contractor to complete their remodeling and building projects this year. 

While supply chain product delays, climbing loan interest rates, a skilled labor shortage, and almost daily material price hikes have challenged most construction companies, the demand for their services has not waned. 

So how do you find a talented, licensed contractor with the business skills to negotiate these industrywide hurdles and still produce a beautiful, finished product on time and in budget, while making it an enjoyable experience.  

It’s a tall order. But as the saying goes, “cream rises to the top,” and quality contractors are out there, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley. 

The key is to find the right professional for your type of job, personality and project budget. 

With that in mind, following are six industry pro tips to ensure a successful selection process and remodeling experience. 

Do your due diligence

“One of the biggest mistakes I see homeowners make is that they don’t actually take the time to call the references listed on a potential contractor’s Client Reference List,” says new homebuilder Rich Mortensen, owner of Waterford Construction. 

“They may read former client testimonials on the contractor’s website or Instagram feed, but that’s not enough. Homeowners should have an extended phone conversation with past clients about the contractor’s work quality, business practices, and the overall experience of working with his team.”

Additionally, it is important to find out if he “plays nice with others.”  

For example, how well did he work with former project architects, interior designers, subcontractors, or the local building department? 

Homeowners have every right to ask a potential contractor for names of industry peers he has collaborated with to ascertain an accurate picture of his professionalism and business practices. 

And it goes without saying, running a contractor’s license number through the California Contractors State License Board website is a must. This precautionary step will determine if his license is current and in good standing. 

It is not enough for a contractor to just show a business card, flier or website with his license number listed. It may be expired, or it may not even be his company’s license number. 

Additionally, researching his license number will reveal if his company has filed a contractor’s surety bond, carries workers’ compensation insurance, or has consumer complaints filed against it, all very important matters when selecting a professional whose team will be working on a property for months or even years.  

While none of these issues are the creative or fun part of the building process, they are essential and should be discussed with a potential contractor before signing a proposal. 

Who’s his posse?

Like many professional service providers, the lead business owner, in this case the general contractor, is only as good as his team. So, it’s important to learn about who the subcontractors are that he would bring to the job site. Be sure to ask how long they have worked together, and most importantly if his subcontractors are licensed tradesman.  

Most likely the contractor will bring several tradespeople such as his electrician, plumber or HVAC sub to see the space before creating his final bid. This is called a trade day and is a great opportunity to meet his team and ask questions. 

Set a date

While it is key to meet a contractor’s team, it is also very helpful to visit one of his completed projects that are similar in type to the renovation being considered. This offers a chance to assess the quality of his work in person, as opposed to just looking at photos. 

A talented contractor will have positive relationships with former clients and should be able to arrange a brief visit to a past job site to view his work, as well as his attention to detail and level of craftsmanship. 

A successful remodel should add value to the home, so take note of the quality of the building materials; the method of installation of materials such as tile, millwork or painting, for example; and whether it feels comfortable to be in the space.  

If his work quality is impressive; former clients and industry peers speak highly of him; and his license, bonding and insurance are in good standing, then it’s time to take the next step and ask for a written proposal. 

Play the field

It’s a number’s game — in more ways the one. 

Be sure to meet with several potential contractors and provide all of them with the same detailed design plans to bid on. 

“Having an architect or interior designer involved in developing your design plans prior to bidding on the cost of construction is always recommended,” suggests contractor Ray Hughes, owner of Whitcomb-Hughes Design Build. 

“When we receive a detailed scope of work it takes the guesswork out of the bidding process and the homeowner can receive a competitive estimate that meets their desires.”

Also, it is much easier for homeowners to compare multiple proposals when everyone is pricing the same set of design plans. 

In addition to reviewing the construction estimates, take note of the contractor’s professionalism, punctuality and responsiveness when emailing or calling with questions during the bidding process. This is a sure indicator of how one will be treated during the monthslong construction process. 

Shades of gray: But not in contracts

For a contractor to put his best foot forward and produce an accurate, detailed proposal it is up to each homeowner, and his or her design team if hired, to provide as much project detail as possible. 

Additionally, it is important to ask that the proposal pricing be listed out by trade such as slab fabrication, tile installation, cabinetry and electrical, for example. 

“Never accept an estimate without a cost breakdown,” Hughes advises. 

“It is important that homeowners understand they are paying for, so make sure the contractor’s estimate has a detailed scope of work with line-item costs. If the project estimate is vague, that’s a red flag,” Hughes warns. 

A detailed scope of work will also help mitigate future change orders, which is industry verbiage for approved additional project costs and time. 

So, to minimize financial stress, manage expectations and ensure a successful project be sure the construction proposal is complete and clearly states whether the prices are for labor and materials, or just labor. 

This is particularly important because often homeowners assume something is included, when it is not. 

Also review the quote and see if it includes a either a notation, or an allowance, referencing building permits, design review fees, recycling fees, and post-construction cleanup, to name a few, which can often be overlooked by first-time remodelers when developing their budgets.  

And lastly, the contractor’s bid should indicate the quality and type of building materials he is planning on installing. 

For example, it is not enough for a bid to state: “supply and install bathroom countertops.” This is too vague. What type of countertop? Natural stone or manufactured quartz? Custom or prefab? What’s the slab thickness? How many slabs are needed? All of these design decisions affect the material and labor price of fabricating countertops and should be spelled out. 

Stay in your power

Knowing what to expect, ask for or insist on when working with a general contractor can involve a learning curve if there is not a designer, architect or owner’s rep advocating for the homeowner, or it is homeowner’s first-time project.  

This is completely normal and highlights the importance of selecting a contractor that respectfully answers questions; explains things thoroughly and in a timely manner; and does not try to dodge questions, bully or intimidate anyone into making decisions. This is particularly relevant for women managing a remodel to keep in mind. 

And just as there are high expectations on how a contractor should communicate and treat a client, the same applies to homeowners’ communication with a contractor. 

“A great client is someone who truly listens, is decisive, and also realistic about the project budget and timeline,” says Mortensen. “And if the homeowner offers a compliment to the contractor or subs occasionally, it goes a really long way with the team. The workers can feel when they are appreciated so if unexpected, additional work comes up on the job, the guys will go out of their way to finish and meet the deadline.” 

A compliment and a little gratitude mean a lot to a contractor who is typically juggling a lot of behind-the-scenes issues with suppliers and tradespeople to keep a project moving forward, while running multiple jobs concurrently. Not to mention, he is also handling the project paperwork, city inspections, client billing and material ordering, to name a few. 

“Many clients want to see the general contractor at the job site every day,” Hughes says. 

“But what they need to keep in mind is that we are visiting multiple job sites daily and communicating with our team several times a day to make sure each job stays within scope, on schedule, and that costs are being maintained. That’s what results in a quality project.”

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