… and low bid isn’t one of them!

Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some great contractors.  Through this process we’ve developed solid relationships built upon a foundation of mutual professional respect.  We’ve also come to realize that selecting the right builder for your project may be one of the most important decisions you make. 

Unfortunately, homeowners typically approach their project without this experience and are nervous about making the wrong choice. Unsure of how to select between several potential contractors they often simply select the lowest bid.  While that’s understandable, it’s generally not recommended.

Proposals from different contractors are often hard to compare side-by-side, especially without a detailed breakdown listing what allowances are included, how much is set aside for  each subcontractor, and so forth.  While we assist clients in getting an accurate apples-to-apples comparison, we also make sure they evaluate the contractors on a range of other criteria. The following is a list of five benchmarks to help you make the right decision.

1 – Personality Fit

This may be the most important criteria and possibly the hardest to determine early on.  While we often rely on them, initial ‘gut-feelings’ often turn out to be false indicators.  Ultimately, you need to determine – do you like them?  You don’t have to be friends, but you will be dealing with them a lot over the months-long course of your project.

You can begin to determine if this is a good fit at your first meeting by paying close attention to the small things.  Do they feel engaged?  Is their general demeanor off-putting or welcoming?  Through your initial interactions, do you get a sense they are honest and trustworthy?

You should then back up this initial read with past clients’ experience to see if the builder’s personality changed when things got stressful on the job. It’s easy to be friendly at the start of a project, but how are they when you disagree? In the end, you need to trust your contractor and, hopefully, enjoy the interactions you have with them.

2 – Communication Skills

Open, honest communication is the key to any good relationship.  As with a friend or partner, you need to feel comfortable talking with them when a problem arises.  You also need to have a sense that your concerns are being heard and taken seriously.

Inviting a contractor into the process early on allows you the opportunity to learn about their communication skills first hand. You’ll discover their availability for your questions.  Whether they answer the phone when you call or follow up on voicemails and emails that you send them.  Or if their response is typically radio silence.

When they answer your questions, are their responses vague and non-committal or detailed and reasoned.  Do they share explanations and documentation with you to back up their estimates or to illustrate their ideas?  Trust is built through ongoing dialogue and you should be wary of anyone who relies on the answer, “Trust me!”

3 – Plays Well with Others

It takes a team of skilled professionals to build a home, and if they don’t play well with others the process can be filled with unnecessary stress and drama.  For this reason, it is important to discern a contractor’s general approach to projects.

While this may be easier said than done, it is important to ask questions to determine if they have a “my way or the highway” approach to projects?  One way to do this is to ask about their past experience working with architects.  Have they done it?  Do they have positive experiences to share?  Did they find value in the collaboration? 

In the end, you’ll need a team to get the job done, and it’s important each player is working towards a shared goal.  For this reason, look for a contractor that’s a team player focused on creating solutions, not simply pointing blame.  One that doesn’t cut costs by cutting corners, but offers true value instead.

4 – Quality of Craftsmanship

Two different contractors building the same design can easily end up with two different homes.  This is typically based on the quality of craftsmanship their team is able to produce and make available for your project.

To try and determine their abilities, ask about the level of skilled workers they have on staff?  Are there any particular tasks, or trades, they excel in?  Don’t forget to ask about their subcontractors as well.  Do they select them based on the level of care they bring to the job, or do they go with the lowest bid?

It’s always a good idea to request a tour of past projects they’ve built. While there look at how the trims meet at the corners of doors and windows – is it a tight, even joint?  Check out the paint job, is it even and consistent, or is there paint on the door hardware or light switches?  These are all clues to craftsmanship.

5 – Level of Supervision

Proper supervision can make or break a project. Because of this, it is important to learn how the contractor manages their work.  Do they use full-time superintendents?  Do they drive by for an hour each morning?  Do they leave it to their crews to supervise themselves?

If possible, talk directly with the person who will be managing your job to make sure you have a good connection.  Often, the person putting together the initial bid and contract isn’t the person who will be on the job site each day overseeing the work flow.

Finally, are they thinking several steps ahead?  For example, do they review the lighting layout with the framing crew, or the tile layout with the plumber?  A general contractor should always supervise and coordinate with their subs to make sure each is aware of the work required by the other.