Picking The Right Contractor

By James Dulley

March 13, 2017 4 min read

Dear James: An architect is almost finished with the plans for my house. I need to select a good general contractor, but have heard of many potential problems. What is the best way to insure a good job? -- Julie F.

Dear Julie: Everyone has heard horror stories of how a contractor has taken someone's savings and not completed the job or not corrected problems. These events make great stories for the late television news, but most contractors are reputable and want to satisfy their customers.

It is always a good idea to ask for references and actually talk face to face with owners of two or three homes a contractor has built. Checking with the Better Business Bureau is not always helpful. People sometimes make unreasonable requests of a contractor and then file frivolous complaints with the BBB. These complaints get counted in with the legitimate complaints so the reports may be misleading.

Once you have narrowed the selection down to two or three possible general contractors, have your architect meet with each one. You may have to pay a few hundred dollars for the architect's time, but an experienced architect should quickly be able to evaluate the contractor's ability. Some contractors may have more experience with a particular building process or design feature which your architect has included in your house plan.

During your initial discussions with the selected contractor, ask about the payment schedule. If the contractor requests a large percentage of the money up front, be wary. It is not unreasonable for a contractor to request some small deposit, and some states actually require this, but he should be financially stable enough to make some material purchases on his own.

If you are selecting some unique cabinets or fixtures that are custom made for your house plans and not returnable, many contractors will want you pay for these items immediately. It is generally considered fair to all parties for the contractor to request partial payments each month for the work that is completed.

The following is a typical percentage breakdown of the costs to build a $200,000 house with average features and amenities. You can use these numbers, as many financial institutions do, to gauge the amount of the costs at various stages - excavation - $4,000, sewers/septic - $6,000, footings - $4,000, foundation - $26,000, basement/slab floor - $4,000, floor joists - $8,000, subfloors - $4,000, hardwood floors - $2,000, stud walls - $4,000, wall sheathing - $4,000, siding/brick - $8,000, roof rafters - $8,000, roof sheathing - $4,000, roof shingles - $4,000, windows/doors - $6,000, room partitions - $6,000, plumbing - $18,000, electrical - $8,000, ducts/heating/air cond. - $12,000, insulation - $2,000, drywall hanging/finishing - $12,000, interior trim - $6,000, interior doors - $4,000, cabinets - $4,000, appliances - $2,000, kitchen/bath flooring - $4,000, indoor/outdoor paint - $4,000, interior decorating - $4,000, carpeting - $4,000, garage - $2000, gutters/downspouts - $2,000, landscaping - $4,000, driveway/sidewalks - $6,000.

Discuss schedules for the inspections of the work with your contractor. You can do some simple inspections yourself and others will be done by the appropriate inspection agencies from your local government. There will be other times though where you many want to bring in various experts to determine if the work is completed properly before making your next payment.

It would be wise to consult your lawyer to review the final construction contract, which lists the payment schedule and the responsibilities of both you and your contractor. This will be a fairly standard simple contract, so your lawyer should not charge too much for a quick review of it.

James Dulley's weekly column, "Here's How," can be found at creators.com.

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