Choosing a Contractor

Full Disclosure – I’m a general contractor. I’ve worked in both the custom and speculative markets for clients and for myself. This article is based mostly upon my opinions and experience, but it also reflects a consensus from within my community. If you don’t get anything else from it just remember one thing – Check References – if you do that you will be way ahead of the game.

Before you can choose a contractor you will need to decide what Kind of contractor you want, and why. At one end of the spectrum of contractors you have the Full Service General Contractor. The Full Service General Contractor does way more than just construction. They also:

  • Produce a detailed proposal, and firm price that will be very helpful for securing project financing.
  • Manage specialty tradesmen such as electricians, plumbers, tile setters, etc
  • Manage and usually furnish general construction workers who will perform tasks that are difficult to sub-contract out like foundation lay out, clean up, general labor, as well as specialty skilled trades when sucuring a specialized subcontractor isn’t appropriate.
  • Furnish workman’s comp, general liability, and sometimes builders risk insurance
  • Manage payroll for everyone who works on the job
  • Procure and manage materials
  • Pull building permits
  • Deal with codes inspectors
  • Plan and Schedule all of these elements as well as keep You the customer on schedule “time to get that light picked out!”
  • Quality assurance – make sure that everyone is doing a good job
  • Incur liability – For example if your house burns down because of faulty wiring, the general contractor will incur the liability for negligence (if it was involved) in case the electrician is unable to for any reason. This is a major reason why a full service contractor costs more.
  • Contract with you to do your project for a firm price or at least a well estimated one.
  • Furnish a warranty – if you act as your own contractor you will usually not get much if any warrantability from tradesmen.
  • The General Tradesman

    On the other end of the spectrum of contractors you have the General Tradesman. The General Tradesman will generally perform all or most of the construction personally or with the help of 1-3 others. This crew will work on your job pretty much continuously from start to finish. Other than construction the General tradesman may not do any of the other things that a Full service contractor does. They may Only work by the hour or on a “cost plus” basis, making the final cost pretty hard for you to predict. They will probably want to be paid up to current once a week. The General tradesman may not be licensed or insured, which may or may not be quite legal.

    If you hope to have minimal dealings with managing your project (from planning to warranty) then you probably want a full service general contractor. If you don’t mind being a lot more hands on then you might consider a Tradesman type contractor. Or you might accept something in between (remember, it’s a spectrum).

    Now, here is the most important part: Check their References. Talking to recent past customers is without a doubt the best way to find out what you are getting into. Both types of contractors have their own inherent advantages (which should be obvious). But if you check their references, you will know what to expect. If a contractor won’t or can’t furnish references then don’t even consider them.

    The next most important thing is to get a written contract that specifies exactly what you and your contractor are agreeing on, no matter what type of contractor you hire.

    Keep in mind that you get what you pay for – or at least you don’t get what you don’t pay for. Any Contractor is obligated to perform the work in a competent manner, but if you hope to get other services then you should expect to pay for them. In other words, a full service contractor will probably cost more than a tradesman, but for more money you should also get more service.