Ask The Experts: The Do’s and Don'ts of Selecting a General Contractor

Ask The Experts: The Do’s and Don'ts of Selecting a General Contractor

Home design, remodeling, and renovation projects have drastically been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. With more people staying at home, there’s a huge need to elevate your space and make your home a place where you want to be in for long periods of time. Though a lot of interior design and home renovation projects can be DIY, having a general contractor is essential in assisting with some of the larger projects, like a kitchen or bathroom renovation.

There is a lot that can go wrong with a general contractor - as designers, architects, and interior architects in the New York and Connecticut areas, we have experienced horror stories while working with contractors. From contractors overcharging, taking much longer than anticipated to do the job, to installing projects incorrectly - we have seen it all. Selecting the right person for the job is key. With decades of experience in interior design, architecture, retail design, and commercial architecture, we have worked with numerous contractors and are here to guide you through the selection process. Here is our list of do’s and don’ts when selecting a general contractor and how to ensure your home renovation project runs as smoothly as possible.

Founders and contractors at Stewart-Schafer in the middle of a architectural project

DO have a clear idea of what you are looking for. Prior to hiring a general contractor, you should know what you want to do with your home renovation project. We recommend starting the process by hiring an interior designer or architect who can produce technical drawings that clearly outline your intention. An interior designer can offer a clear scope of work with very detailed drawings. Good drawings are important because they enable you to obtain accurate pricing and ensure that the general contract knows what is expected. Through drawings and a detailed outline, the general contractor can’t cut corners or lay blame elsewhere if he/she does not perform the work as it has been intended. If there are any grey areas in the scope of work or incomprehensive drawings, there’s a good chance that your project will go awry. We have seen general contracts try and change the orders and not do the work as planned, and the results were disastrous. As an initial priority, it is crucial to have a thorough plan that illustrates the work to be done with transparent pricing, clear logistics, and a reasonable timeframe.

DO look for reviews or obtain a referral. After your interior designer or architect has laid out clear plans and drawings for the project, be sure to bid the job to a few contractors. Look for reviews or better yet, obtain a referral. A referral is your best bet when it comes to finding a good contractor. Your designer or architect will likely have great relationships with general contractors in your area, and will know which ones to work with and which ones to avoid. A general contractor will always be more responsive to a designer or architect because of the future work they can bring, thus giving them more leverage.

DO compare bids. When it comes to the bid, look at the numbers of all of your vetted general contractors and compare them. Oftentimes general contractors will bundle up numbers which can be confusing. If this is the case for you, make sure you ask the contractor to break it down, which gives you a clear understanding of the budget as well as an itemized list of work. If the scope of the project changes, you will need this information on hand so you do not get overcharged. You will also want to have a distinct breakdown of all of the costs so you can compare each bid. Architects will actually send a bid format so you can easily compare them. If you are working without an architect or designer, be sure to get a few bids and create your own bid format. Ask the general contracts to resubmit their bids so you can get all of the line items and can easily compare each contractor line by line.

DON’T go for the cheapest contractor you find. Pricing should be similar between general contractors, as the bid is made up of material and labor. Overhead and profit will vary between general contractors depending on the size of the company. If you are working within a tight budget and a small project, your best bet will be to look for a smaller operation that carries less of an overhead. However, it is important to note that the smaller operation will likely not have the administrative staff as a larger one would. That being said, you may run the risk of a slower time drame and perhaps a more inefficient project. If selecting a smaller firm, make sure that they have a proven track record of delivering their work on time.

DON’T be afraid to ask questions along the way. If one general contractor charges more in a certain area than another, make sure you ask why so you can justify the cost.

DO ask your general contractor for a proposed schedule of work. Though the schedule may change, it is a good reference point to track their progress. If things fall behind schedule and there are not many people on the job, you might have a reason to be concerned.

DO ask to speak with previous clients. When reviewing general contractors, it’s important to ask them if you can speak to 2 or 3 of their recent clients. Ask your contractor if you can have a tour of a similar project. Be sure to thoroughly review their portfolio and assess their past projects. When discussing how the project will run with your general contractor, ask to meet the foreman on the job - he is the key to the project’s success. Get a feel for what the foreman is like and how you like working with him. Ask the foreman about previous projects, particularly ones that he is proud of. It’s important to work with someone who takes pride in their work and likes what they do.

DON’T be put off by a firm’s bad website or lack of social media presence. Smaller operations may not be as tech savvy as larger ones, and do not want to hire people to do it. Some of the most skilled general contractors we have hired do not even have a website. Don’t be lured in by fancy websites or a fabulous Instagram account - more often than not it does not make much of a difference in terms of the quality of the general contractor and the work you receive.

DO have a contingency budget plan. One of our biggest rules in our interior design and architecture projects is to always, always, always add in a contingency plan into your budget. Depending on the scope of work and the existing conditions of your home, you will always run into something unexpected which will add to the cost. Don’t be blindsided and plan ahead. We suggest building in an extra 10 to 15 percent to your contingency budget.

DO review the payment schedule ahead of the bid. It is important to withhold money and pay on completion of the contractors work. Typically, you would pay a ten percent deposit and 3-4 progress payments afterwards. If you have an architect working on the construction administration, they will let you know when you need to make payments. Always hold ten percent back until the project is 100 percent completed. Always hold the money and payment as long as you can - nothing motivates a general contractor to finish the project on time than money.

DO ask for weekly updates from your general contractor.

DO make sure your general contractor is licensed and has insurance. Ask them for their certificate of insurance.

DO always follow your local code requirements and process. These are in place for your own protection.

DO always go with your gut feeling. Meet the foreman and others who you will be directly working with and go with your intuition. You will be the one communicating with them, so make sure your visions are aligned.

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