Contractor Shopping: How to choose the right one.
Updated: Apr 26
Our renovation project is approved, our neighbors are notified (DOB requirement), and we are ready to get a contractor in the building. We provided the architect's detailed drawings to the contractors that we were considering so that they can build out their quotes. If you've followed along you know we have a tight budget. We had to adjust our project several times to make sure that we stay on budget. We hoped we were going to spend about $200,000 on the labor and rough materials (so basically the contractors proposal not including finishes). However we knew that was going to be a stretch. Our first choice for a contractor was one that we worked with on a past project. We're familiar with his work but we know that he can be a bit more expensive. His proposal came back at $270,000. We thought about continuing to cut down our project, but we are down to the necessities. So, we decided to bid out the job. The process got us thinking about what our shopping list for choosing a contractor should be. Price is important but there are so many horror stories we've heard from bad contractor experiences. How do we put ourselves in the best position to avoid that?
1. Price - Most contractors figure out their pricing based on cost of materials, labor, insurance, complexity of the project...etc. So when they run the numbers they shouldn't be too far off. However there can be some key differences in figuring out the price. Do they sub work out? Or do they have crews that do all trades? We need to be able to pay for our project, so either we need to reduce the scope or go with a contractor that bids within budget.
2. Communication - Most of the horror stories I've heard are around contractors not showing up, falling far behind schedule, not returning calls, and generally not being available. The communication before starting is a good indication of the kind of communication you'll get during the project.
3. Reviews - Any experienced contractor should have tons of reviews out there. There are websites like Brownstoner, Houzz, HomeAdvisor, Angies List, and others. Surprisingly one of the ones I felt the most comfortable with was Google. You have the ability to click on the reviewer and see other places they left reviews. It was pretty clear that they were real people (you never know).
4. Past work/referrals - Most contractors have websites (although I don't necessarily think a basic or low-fi website in the construction industry to should be looked down upon too much) with photos of past work. You can also ask for referrals to speak with before moving forward.
5. In person meeting - I know that we are going to spend a lot of time with our contractor throughout the project. There will be stressful situations and lots of decisions to make. I want to make sure that the person can explain things clearly, make recommendations, and be generally easy to work with. The in person meeting helps with getting an understanding of how the person communicates and how those stressful conversations might go.
6. Knowledge - At this point in our project, we're very familiar with every part of it. As we walked around with our contractors and talked about each area it's very easy to understand how much knowledge and experience they have. I had a few questions ready to ask for each area to see how they respond.
7. Licensing and Insurance - Most general contractors are, but obviously it's important to confirm.
We're not professionals, but those are the things that we thought were important. If there are things that you would consider let us know! For now, we have selected a contractor based on the items above. We found someone that is not only very close to our budget, but he has been excellent at communication, has great reviews and prior work, our in-person meeting went great, he seems very knowledgable on every area of our project, and has already been very helpful. Since we are skipping working with the contractor we have worked with in the past we tried to be as diligent as possible. There is a bit of unknown nerves working with someone new, but we feel that it was more important for us to not have to cut more from the project.
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Thanks for reading!