Choosing a general contractor (GC) for an addition or major renovation can be one of the most important decisions a homeowner ever has to make given the magnitude of the construction cost and the time spent living through the process. Most residential architecture firms offer bidding as a service option, but you can do it yourself. Here are the 5 steps and some tips:
Step 1: Construction Drawings:
The decision process starts with a clear and detailed set of construction documents which define the scope of the project and the materials to be used in construction. Contractors providing bids or proposals based on incomplete drawings can lead to disaster. How can a contractor provide (and keep to) a price for constructing something if they do not know exactly what they are suppose to construct? If they make an assumption about something which is not specified in drawings, it will likely result in a less quality end result for the homeowner.
Step 2: Contractor List:
Local recommendations from trusted friends who have worked with the contractors are the best source since they represent a completed service experience. Online reference tools (Angie's List, HomeAdvisor, etc.) represent another channel, but homeowners should investigate the criteria for the recommendations from these organizations. Are the contractors paying to be promoted on the list? Try to get a list of at least six. From this list, ensure that the candidates have the appropriate licensing.
Find out what information you can online about the companies. Do they have websites or a presence on social media (Facebook, Houzz.com). This should provide useful information including a description of the services/projects they specialize in, images of completed work, or testimonials. Based on this, try to narrow down your list to 3-5 contractors and send out the construction drawings with clear instructions about due dates and site walk-through options.
Step 3: Bid Period
During the bid period, contractors have the opportunity to demonstrate to the homeowner their willingness and ability to do the project. The contractors should be putting their best foot forward, so pay close attention to promptness in meetings and communications, communication style, level of engagement when discussing the project, and general personality fit. Homeowners should avoid initiating or engaging in discussions about changes to the bid documents or project scope, as this will jeopardize having an apples-to-apples comparisons of the bids.
Step 4: Review of Bids
Once the bids are in, review each very carefully and create a spreadsheet comparing each line item of the various bids. Were some items left out? Were some items added in? Were there allowances for certain line items? As much as possible, remove any of these extraneous line items to get a true apples-to-apples number. Next, was everything provided? If start date, duration and payment schedule were requested, were they provided? How professional and clear was the bid presentation itself, and was it provided on time? At this point, try to reduce your list down to 2 candidates. Let the candidate know that you are considering them in the final selection, and reconfirm their timing, interest and ability to do the project. Finally, request a list of references from similar projects (local, if possible) that were completed by the foreman that will be assigned to your project.
Step 5: Contractor Questions
With your list narrowed down, ask the remaining contractors questions about how they work:
-How long have you been in business?
-How often are you on the job site? Who will be the foreman on the job site?
-Do you use subcontractors? Are they licensed?
-How long do you anticipate the job taking? How comfortable would they be with a bonus for early completion and penalty for delays?
-What are your measures to protect the existing items to remain, and the areas of the house not under construction?
-Will the job site be cleaned up every day?
-What is the daily work schedule? Hours of construction? Will there be days where the crew is not on site?
-What is the preferred method of communication? (email, text, phone) How soon can you expect answers from them, and how quickly would they need answers from you? Who is the main point of contact?
-How do you typically deal with changes in scope/change orders?
-Can you provide references? Please request references for projects using the foreman that will be leading your project.
-What are normal setbacks to expect during construction?
-Do you guarantee your work? For how long?
-How many projects are you working on currently/expect to be working on during my project?
Step 6: Checking References
Be mindful of how responsive references are in getting back to requests. If references are willing, site visits enable both a conversation as well as a first-hand view of the finished product; otherwise, phone conversations should suffice. Any name provided as a reference would likely be delivering a positive review, so it is important to probe when contacting references:
A) What was the scope of project and when was the project completed. Beware of references on projects that are very old. This likely speaks more about an established relationship than a project and may be an indication of not having more recently satisfied clients.
B) Did the project take less time, more time or about the same time to do the project than what was estimated? If it took longer, how much of the delays were outside of their control? How did they manage the delays?
C) Ask about their work-style. Did their crew keep things clean? Was the crew courteous and respectful of your home? Were there any damages, messes, or excess debris that were not taken care of?
D) Changes always happen in home renovation projects. Some happen when you open up the walls and realize that things are different. Some happen when design or product decisions are made during construction. Were there any changes that happened during the project? How were the changes and the resulting impacts to time and or budget identified, discussed, and resolved? Worst case scenario is when a client says during construction, "Oh, I want this wall here and I want it to be tiled, not painted" with no discussion of price or timing impacts. Then, the GC does the work, and pulls a large number out of the air for the work after it is completed that the client does not want to pay for. Best case scenario: a change is identified; the GC and client agree on the change and agree on the cost and timing implications in writing before the work is done.
E) Finally, how was their communication style and effectiveness? Were they pleasant/professional when discussing issues, changes, delays and payment? Were they responsive when you asked questions? When you did need to contact them, did they get back to you (phone, email, text, in-person) in an acceptable time-frame?Did they provide answers to your satisfaction and in a timely matter?
With the references checked, you should make your decision. Do the homework, trust your instincts and commit to your new partner in this important project. I will be discussing contract negotiation in a future blog post.