The legwork of hiring the right contractor

by Rik Goodell

Given the elusive market conditions (by “elusive” I mean that no one, including me, really seems to be able to decide what to call it) many owners are likely to be remaining owners – rather than sellers – for the time being. Owners that need more space or a better space, may be remodeling. Check the stats; when sales slump, remodeling contractors are often getting busier.

The “war stories” about lousy contractor’s are way too many … and not all the fault of the contractor. Let’s start a discussion about wisely selecting the right contractor for your job.

Once you’ve got your project defined clearly (see July posting: “First Step to Remodeling”) you’ll begin interviewing the contractors; that’s what this is by the way, an interview – and it’s a lot of work. If you’re not willing to do the research, hire a remodeling coach to assist with the preliminary chaff and wheat separation. Ask significant questions such as: How long have they personally been licensed? How long have they been in the building trades? What do they consider their strengths to be? Do they use the same subcontractors regularly? How many workmen do they employ? How long has the foreman been with the company? Does the contractor actually work on the project daily himself? Where do they get their supplies?

There aren’t necessarily good and bad answers to these questions but you will get a sense of their experience, manner and comfort with the tasks at hand. Moreover, you will get a perception as to whether or not you like this person. Can you both communicate well with one another? Are you comfortable with his or her style of presentation? The bottom line question, ultimately, is the one you ask yourself: “Is this a person I will be comfortable having in my home in my absence?” The answer to that one, one way or the other, cannot be ignored.

Once you have narrowed the field, go online [ ] to the Contractor’s State License Board and check out the finalists. You will need the license number to do this and you’ll want to confirm the license, bond and workmen’s comp status. If you checked mine, for example, you’d get a big red flag because it would say, “This license is inactive and not able to contract at this time”. You may also be able to get complaint info but access is limited by law.

The last hurdle is to get a list of references and speak with some former customers. Go and look at the work the contractor did for them (remember, I said this is work). Every business-person is going to have some folks out there who’ll have some unpleasant things to say about them so try to listen between the lines and identify what the real problem was. If you have decided this is a contractor you really feel comfortable with, and a former customer talks about displeasure in how much the job cost, maybe the customer was continually changing the plans and specifications for the job and the cost overrun was justified. Think about it.

Be fair and reasonable and open and honest in dealing with your selected contractor so you can reasonably expect that kind of treatment in return. This policy just happens to also be the most likely way to bring your construction dreams into excellent reality.

Next: Avoiding Poor Workmanship

“First Step to Remodeling” [theFrontSteps]

12 thoughts on “The legwork of hiring the right contractor

  1. As an architect, I’ll reiterate what I said before:

    Collaboration is the key to success of any construction project, between the Owner, the Architect and the Contractor.

    Interview and hire the architect first. The architect establishes a written scope of work, develops the appropriate budget for construction, develops the additional soft costs including design fees, permit fees and contingency. (most owners forget about the soft costs; I make sure they know up front).

    The architect develops the construction drawings and specifications, hires and coordinates any consultants need for the project, including structural, mechanical and electrical engineers if necessary.

    The architect submits the completed construction documents to the Planning and Building dept for approvals, and follows up with any addendum drawings or revisions required for final approval.

    The architect develops a Request for Bidding, interviews at least 3 licensed contractors to see if they qualify for a particular type of construction project, issues drawings and specs for bidding, establishes the bidding requirements and deadline for receiving the bid.

    Once the owner has selected the winning contractor, then construction starts. The architect is involved (and should be) with Construction Observation on a weekly basis with the contractor at the job site. The architect does not “supervise” construction, but works on the owner’s behalf to see that the project is being built according to the plans and specs. The architect also works closely with the contractor to resolve conflicts in the field and make revisions as needed during construction. A weekly field report is issued to the owner and contractor outlining the progress of the work.

    At the end of the job, the architect develops a “punch list” of items to be completed, or corrected or revised, before the Owner signs off and the contractor is paid the final invoice.

    This kind of collaboration described above does not make for a perfect project, but it is the best and right way (in my opinion) to reach a satisfied conclusion for the Owner, Contractor, and yes…the Architect.

  2. In my experience, it is the subcontractor who affects the bottom line the most. The dreaded “extra” is the reason for this, the cost overrun. These things cannot be predicted, and must be accounted for upfront. Be wary of the drastically lower contractor bid. It’s likely that that contractor has not built in the eventuality of cost overruns.

    Sometimes these things cannot be helped. A spike in gasoline prices will make just about every raw material more expensive at the marketplace, therefore driving up prices. This can happen halfway through the job.

    But sometimes people are unscrupulous. A sub hungry for work gives a very competetive bid. Then, two weeks in, his phone gets flooded with requests for work. All of a sudden, you aren’t as important. He feels strained. Knows there’s more money out there, and socks it to you. Beware of this. Hire a contractor who uses the same people over and over again.

  3. Speaking of remodels, what are the downside of not going through with the final final inspection?

    I have a unit remodeled with permits. We passed all intermediate inspections. The only thing missing is the final inspection. Decided to hold back on the final inspection until I sell the unit because if I finalized the inspection my property tax bill would go up. If I re-apply the permit, and have the final inspection done at the time of sale, then I save on property bill as the re-application for final inspection would cost less than $100 or so (i believe).

    Any holes in the reasoning here?

  4. Any holes???


    nothing other than you’re attempting to make your own rules, instead of following them like most other people would do.

    Sounds like the Ed Jew book of life.

  5. ditto duggo (yeepee for our architect who helped us select probably the best contractor in the city for our projet)

    as for kenny point about the subs. This is something you NEED to discuss with the contractors about. If there is a conflict between you and one of the subs, where and when can you take the hand and hire another sub?

    Also, we had one of our subs in our rolodex, and wouldnt replace him for any “usual guys” from the general contractor. Then, check again what the contractor’s policy is on that one.

    Last. Remodeling = NIGHTMARES and SLEEPLESS NIGHTS = dust and mess = decisions and mistakes all the time.

    So I would really advise for checking the hot temper of both the architect and the contractor. Are they nonconfrontational to the detriment of your project? are they the tantrum type, at the risk of having nobody showup for a week because of an argument? And of course, what is the vacation policy of the company? on a short project, you can specify no vacations so the project keeps on track – but on a long project, the guys WILL (and need) some time away from your place. Do you prefere everybody out at the same time so the project stops for a week? or do you prefere rotating vacations so there is always something going on? (my experience is that vacation of anybody MEANS a project’s halt. And we used to take advantage of this to stop the main project and do mini side projects not or little related [a window triming here, a patching the siding there, reparing a fence etc] – at least you dont fool yourselves with a working week that would turn eventually into a zero productivity week)

    I forgot. Flat contract or time and material?

    When I phoned the many references provided by my contractor, nearly all the them said he and his employers became friends, and that they billed time and material – even to 7 digits projects.

    We were cold feet, so we went for a partial remodeling contract for a flat fee. Then agreed with the previous remodelers, and switched to time and material for the rest of the project – which BTW meant we had no more need of the weekly architect visit (something I didnt expect at first).

    waiting to read more on the subject.

  6. sophie..

    ah……I would suggest you RE-READ what I wrote a few comments back. It says it all very clearly.

    The projects I am involved in are NOT nightmares..they are well thought out, well developed, well budgeted, well designed and well constructed…

    You always get what you pay for.

    And by the way, I NEVER work with new clients who say they have “no need for the weekly architect visits…” by not having the architect on board til completion is a huge red flag for problems. So, suddenly, YOU the homeowner know more about construction than I do, or the contractor does? And with the architect no longer there, acting on your behalf, WHO is going to observe that the work is actually being built per plans and specs.

    Those are precisely the projects that become nightmares, my dear.

  7. Sophie: You make some excellent points. I like your middle-ish paragraph with all the questions. Not only do these questions present another micro-view of a project but they prove that, as in your experience, every job has its challenges and unique angles. I am of the suspicion, though I could be wrong, that is even true for those jobs that have an architect baby-sitting them.

    Duggo: Oh how I wish people would always get what they pay for. I guess you mean that by paying you to quarterback the project and do weekly observations, homeowners will be assured of getting what they pay for. Assuming they employ one who is without bias and fully qualified to perform those inspections, I agree. So much depends on the individual observer or inspector since titles, government-issued licenses and educational monikers are generic and can be so misleading. The homeowners commitment to have a ‘pro’, whether an architect, construction facilitator or remodeling coach (What’s in a name?) keep an eye on the project’s progress is a very wise decision indeed.

  8. duggo, I’m sorry that you read me wrong.

    Let’s say it another way. We are 2 years into construction while LIVING in the house – I dont see how you could pretend that living above a bobcat would NOT be a nightmare.

    Regarding babying the project till completion, I say the exact opposite. A homeowner who needs the architect for picking the paint color, or the brand of the toilet is a whimp, is building a soulless house, and will probably never feel home. The proof? buy any architecture magazine. ALL the houses are strictly the same, with the same blaaaaaaaaaah colors, the same blaaah black granit/cherry cabinet kitchens, the same blaaah bathrooms, the same blaaaah windows, the same blaaahhhhhh deck – add the 25/100 lots in san francisco, and you dont get any zing out of the house. WHERE IS CREATIVITY? There is a time when the homeowner NEEDS to let go of the standard provided by the architect and start to dig into him/herself for inspiration.

    A home should NEVER be a showroom. A Home is where you are deeling with your joys and fears and tears, alone, with the door closed.

    as for do we know more than an architect? in some instances YES. One very basic example being the structural part that you subcontract – something quite odd when your clients are themselves engineers. Never ever assume your client is a wallet. SanFrancisco is a city where you’d better have preapproved staff on board to pass thru the planning and building department. Thus homeowners might not hire you because you are the almighty architect but because they need someone experienced to help them thru the PROCESS (not the design).

    Last, my major and unshakable complain about architects. I have yet to meet an architect who will put PRACTICALITY and LONG TIME MAINTENANCE first instead of design. It has been over 50 years that architects have been designing beautiful and hip spaces that are livable, instead of confortable down to earth spaces that are beautiful.

    That’s when your contractor is more important that your architect. Your contractor is the most likely helper to point toward uncleanable windows, unpaintable trims, un-unclogable downspouts, and such … Once the architect has his photo of the building, usually, he will NEVER EVER come back 10 years later to check if the building is as clean and as beautiful and as design as it was on the first day, and if it’s mold free, leak free, etc. Please prove me wrong.

    Thus my first point. Your contractor is actually BUILDING your home, the place of your soul. Extreme good communication is the best anticipation of problems to come in 2 or 20 years, and while building, it’s in most cases still time to change some of the blue prints to make it better. On that point, the weekly meeting is useless – because in many cases, undoing one full week of work is not an option anymore (thus, make sure your architect will be available AS NEEDED – that is in many cases MORE OFTEN than the weekly basis – and in other cases LESS OFTEN than the weekly basis)

  9. Re: Delaying final inspection to reduce property tax

    Duggo – Your response seems to suggest there is a law being broken there. I am not aware of any law against such a practice. The only thing I am aware of is that if the permit is more than 3 years old it could take them some time to fish out the old records and renew it for you. But I believe as long as you pay the renewal fee and pay for the final inspection, it’s fine.

    If you are putting in $250,000 into remodel/expansion, then the annual increase in property tax is almost $2800 in SF… Compare that against a $160 permit renewal and final inspection…

  10. LOL..oh, ok.

    you asked for any opinions, so I gave it.

    I don’t know if it’s illegal or not, but what you’re trying to do is save some money. nothing wrong with that. we all like a good bargain…now and then.

    but, lets be real, dude…You’re trying to avoid paying legitimate property taxes that are assessed for ANYONE who adds value to their property thru remodeling/expansion. god, we’re not stupid here.

    If everyone took the stance that you do…”if I can get away with it, why not?”..this city would be broke, and we would have no city services.

    Like I said, sounds like you and Ed Jew are cut from the same cloth.

  11. anon8mizer,

    to the best of my knowledge and experience, you RECEIVE the reassessment letter ONCE you pull a permit.

    on that letter, you have the option to tick “no construction was done” – and IIRC there is an option to tick “improvement done without the use/the need of a permit” (which can be legal in many cases) [should we guess that letter would come because of a neighbor’s complain?]

    So to me, that means that reassessment is NOT linked to any inspection – and it’s your word as for in which state and what square footage was on your lot on the 1st of january.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how we got it by our own reassessment – WAY BEFORE any final inspection.

  12. I really hate for this string to become a rant, but it has.

    1. There is no way you can do about $250k in remodeling WITHOUT a permit. and you shouldn’t.

    2. The assessment is required by LAW for any construction or remodeling under way as of Jan 1 of each year.

    3. The assessor-recorder can request an on site inspection to view actual improvements. That’s the law again.

    Am I the only one here who believes that we all should abide by the current laws and codes now in place? Yes, it can be expensive, and yes it can be a hassle, and yes it can be painful…but WTF?

    For more detailed info, check out

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