6 Tips for Selecting the Perfect Contractor

1- Chemistry

The vibe you get from the interview is so important that it should be an automatic elimination factor, even if all the other boxes are checked.  

Remember, you are entering into a relationship that is going to last a while.  Communicating should feel easy, and you should feel comfortable discussing any concerns.  

They should seem genuinely interested (excited, even!) about your project and give you the feeling that they want to — and are able to — hear you and help you to the finish line and beyond.  


2- Time, Cost, Quality

The saying goes, “There are three aspects of every project:  time, cost, and quality.   You can only prioritize two.”  

Realize that if you want high quality on a low budget, you will have to be more flexible with your timeline.  If you want a quick turnaround on a low budget, you should expect a lower quality level.  And, if you want high quality on a quick turnaround, you will have to have pay more.

3- Experience

My own contract with my clients states that “The Owner shall select a qualified Contractor, experienced in projects of similar scope and quality.”  

As you browse a website, look for projects similar in scope and/or style to your own.  If there isn’t a website (or you don’t find similar projects there), call to ask whether the scope of your project is similar to other completed work.  They may be able to bring photos to your interview or arrange a tour. 

4- Timeline

In addition to the standard questions of “When could you start?” and “About how long will my project take to build?,” ask:

  • Do they have the manpower to begin your project and keep it steadily moving forward from start to finish?
  • What do they do to avoid delays in the schedule?
  • Do they enough employees to compensate for sickness or injury if it occurs?
  • Will they provide you with a schedule of deadlines for decisions you need to make?

5- Fee Basis

There are two main ways that builders price a project:  Cost Plus (also known as Time and Materials or T&M) and Stipulated Sum (also known as Fixed Price or Fixed Bid).  Both are acceptable under the correct circumstances, however I strongly recommend a Stipulated Sum agreement for most residential projects.  The exceptions are for jobs where it is not possible to accurately predict the time required (such as complex repair work) and for clients who have difficulty sticking with decisions they’ve made and are likely to change both the overall scope and materials chosen throughout the construction process.  

Working with an architect (like me) results in a detailed set of plans and specifications that become part of your contract with your builder.  As a result, your contractor will have the information he needs to facilitate bidding and should be able to provide you with a fixed price to complete the work as described.  This shifts the risk of underestimating to the contractor.  

The sales pitch you may hear is that Cost Plus could save you money.  In order to enter into a Stipulated Sum agreement, most contractors include a contingency fund in their price that is theirs to keep if they don’t need it.  It might feel like leaving money on the table, but in my (many) years in architecture, I have only had 2 projects where the contractor completed the job for less than originally estimated.

6- Referrals, References, Requirements

Ask your architect to recommend contractors before you ask others.  Once you ask your friends, family, and colleagues, there may be pressure for you to work with them or at least solicit a price from them.  You may think that allowing them to price your job is a nice gesture on your part, even if know they won't get hired.  The truth is that putting together a thorough estimate is extremely time-consuming.  Every contractor I know would rather NOT price a job they have no chance of getting.

No matter the source of the referral, you should ask for a list of references from each candidate and contact a couple from your favorite candidate's list.  Also, spend a little time checking their licensing status with your state board.  If you see a history of closing the company and re-opening under a different name, that is probably not a good sign.