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How to Find and Select a great Contractor

Regardless of whether it's a design client or a construction client, we constantly hear nightmare stories about bad experiences people have had with contractors. Giving them money upfront and having them disappear, poor construction, total lack of communication... it sometimes feels like the wild wild west in the contractor world.

So how do you go about finding and selecting the right contractor(s) for your renovation project? Our years of experience remodeling homes and Brendan's experience as a general contractor has given us some helpful insight into how to chose the right ones. I can't guarantee that the advice below will absolutely get you an amazing contractor - there are tricky people out there! - but I can confidently say these tips will take you very much in the right direction. Let's learn the do's and dont's of selecting a contractor.

Before looking for a contractor...

There are a few important things you need to have in line before you even reach out to anyone:

  • Define the scope of the project. Make a list of everything you would like done for your project, including the general types of materials you're looking to use. This doesn't have to be a final list of finishes, but your contractor needs to know what kind of labor they should estimate. For example, installing 12x24 porcelain tiles is much less cost- and labor-intensive than installing 3x6 marble subway tiles. Having an idea of your finishes will lead to less surprise costs further into the project.

  • Define your timeline. Develop a general timeframe for when you'd like the project completed. From there your contractor can let you know what's realistic and you two can get on the same page.

  • Most importantly: DEFINE YOUR BUDGET. I cannot stress this enough. So often we have potential clients say, "I have no idea what it costs to do XYZ so I don't have a budget." It's completely understandable for you to not know what the construction will cost, but you do know how much money you have available. To start off on the right foot with your contractor, prepare your ideal budget (what you'd like to spend on the project) and your max budget (the absolute most you can spend on the project).

When a contractor sees that you've prepared for your initial meeting they will be more eager to work with you and will likely treat you with more respect (sad, but true). Defining your scope, timeline and budget from the beginning will make the estimates more accurate and communication more efficient. Not to mention it will help make sure you and any other decision makers on the project are all on the same page. A little bit of preparation goes a long way!

So how do I find contractors?

My three favorite sources for contractors are: realtors, referrals and reviews.

Realtors. Your realtor works in the home industry and has a vested interest in A. making you a happy client and B. increasing the value of your home in hopes they can sell it down the road. So they're likely to refer you to the best contacts they have. Always ask your realtor who they recommend for contractors!

Referrals. This seems like a 'no-duh' source, but hear me out. Sometimes people in your immediate network (friends, family) won't have good recommendations for you. But that doesn't mean you're out of luck - there are plenty of other 'networks' to tap into for referrals. When I was working at a software company I would ask for contractor referrals in the company-wide Slack channel. I received some fantastic recommendations that way! Another incredible resource is Facebook groups. Join local groups (parent groups, school groups, neighborhood groups, real estate investor groups, etc.) and ask people who they recommend. I can't tell you how many great subcontractors we've found through Facebook referrals.

Reviews. Any time I'm looking for contractors (subcontractors in our case), I always sort my searches by online reviews. Not all good contractors will necessarily have online reviews, but our experience has shown those that have good online reviews are typically better communicators and have stronger operational setups. While the guy from Craigslist with no website and no online reviews miiiight be good at his job, you're taking a major risk hiring them as the only way you'll find out is to let them do construction at your home. Thanks, but no thanks.

I would recommend getting three bids for every project. Yes, this requires a fair amount of your time, but it will ensure you get an accurate picture pricing and services available. Once we received a quote for some mold remediation on a project - the first bid came in at $17,000. Ouch. But - bid number two was $3,600 and bid number three was $2,200. Price isn't everything, but there are some companies out there that prey on consumers with high pressure sales tactics and ridiculously high pricing. Always get three bids, even for the small projects.

When you meet with the contractor...

There are several key questions I would recommend asking every contractor at the initial meeting (make sure you write down their answers):

  • How long have you been in business?

  • What's your experience like with this type of project?

  • Are you licensed for this type of work? What type of insurance do you carry and what's the limit? Do you carry workman's comp insurance for your employees and subs? (ideally get copies of their license and proof of insurance)

  • Can you send me photos of projects you've done recently? (if not on their website)

  • How do you communicate with your clients throughout a project? And with what frequency?

  • What kind of written warranty would I receive if we move forward?

  • Will you obtain permits for this project? (it may be your preference to not pull permits - make sure to discuss the pros and cons with your contractor)

  • What potential issues do you anticipate for this project?

  • May I speak with a few of your previous clients to hear about their experience? (Note: it's a red flag if a contractor gets shifty about giving out references!)

  • What hours do you and your team work? What would the daily schedule look like for this project?

  • How do you structure payments? Is there a deposit? If so, how much?

Let's talk about payments for a minute. Payment structures can vary greatly among contractors. At Greyhouse, for construction projects we ask for the cost of materials upfront. We offer to show the client exactly where all of that money is going so they have confidence we're not blindly asking for a lump some of cash. Since we're running multiple projects at a time and we function as the general contractor (ie all the materials roll up to our bottom line) it can become a huge burden to carry the cost of materials upfront. If a contractor asks for a deposit, they're (usually) just trying to run their business efficiently - it's not a bad thing. If a contractor asks you to pay for the entire project upfront, that is a red flag.

All of that said,UnfortuUnfortunately many people have been burned by contractors asking for large sums of money upfront, then the contractor completely disappears. Doing research on the contractor is absolutely critical. If they're asking for a large sum upfront and they have some red flags (see below), you could be getting yourself into a bad situation.

Do your research.

This step may feel like a bit of a pain, but I promise you it is worth every single minute of your time. Feeling good about your contractor and having a nice rapport is important, but not nearly as important as knowing the facts.

Research the LLC. Check your local city, county and state records to review the history of the LLC. Has it been around for a while (good sign) or was it just established in the last couple of months (potential red flag)? Are there any lawsuits associated with this LLC? Is the contractor's name associated with multiple LLCs over the last few years (opening and closing multiple LLCs in a short time frame is a huge red flag)?

Evaluate their insurance. Check the proof of insurance to see how much the contractor is covered for. If the contractor carries a $1 million insurance policy then accidentally burns down your $1.5 million dollar home... well, you get the picture. Additionally make sure the contractor carries workman's comp insurance for their employees/subcontractors OR only hires subs that carry their own workman's comp. If a sub falls off a ladder and breaks their arm and there isn't any workman's comp insurance, guess who may be liable? Yep, that's you! Make sure the contractor has ample insurance to cover your home and the work being performed.

Look into the individual. Doing something as simple as Googling the contractor's first and last name can provide some telling information. Double points if you're able to run some type of background check. If the contractor has had tons of lawsuits or run ins with the law, it could be a big red flag. (Note: I'm not suggesting you don't hire someone solely on the basis of whether or not they have a criminal record. For example: they may have a drunk in public on their record... lots of people have done dumb stuff in their lives and it doesn't always represent who they are today. But if they have a record with something like cases of fraud, you mayyy want to take that into consideration.)

Get a copy of the contract. Give yourself ample time to review the contractor's written contract in detail. Areas to pay attention to are the payment schedule, warranties/guarantees, insurance and termination rights. You may want to even take it a step further and review it with your lawyer, especially if you're hiring the contractor for a large-scale project.

Finally, make your selection.

At the end of the day, only you can make the right decision for yourself and your project. Trust your gut and trust the research you've done. If someone has a squeaky clean record but gives you a bad feeling in your stomach when you speak with them, TRUST that feeling. And likewise, if the contractor seems like an amazing person but their paperwork looks flimsy at best, you should probably talk to a couple more contractors.

One note on price: going with the least expensive bid is not always a bad idea... but it can be. Our experience is the cheapest contractors will be exactly that - cheap. You're making a big investment in your home by taking on a renovation project. We recommend spending a little extra to go with a contractor you have ample confidence in. This will save you time, energy and money in the long run.

So there you have it! These are our top tips for selecting a reliable and quality contractor for your home renovation project. At Greyhouse we have three core tenets in both our design and general contracting businesses that guide the work we do: quality, customer experience and communication. If you're looking for a top notch general contractor and/or interior designer in the Treasure Valley, give us a call and we'd love to walk you through the excellent service we can provide for your remodel project.

Best of luck with your contractors out there my friends. Just like any industry there are wonderful people and not so wonderful people - the tips above will help you navigate who is who!

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