Then, we did everything you’re not supposed to when planning construction. We hired a contractor who had previously worked on our apartment building without checking references. We had no idea if he was licensed. We started the project when I was six months pregnant.
Still, despite some setbacks, the project was finished on time. In fact, the living room floors were being varnished when I was in the hospital giving birth. The place looked good, and we even received a baby present from Dave, our contractor.
Dumb luck. And dumb might be the operative word here. As more people are turning to remodeling instead of moving — and with the decline in new construction meaning more eager contractors to chose from — it makes sense to know how to choose a general contractor.
“People shop for cars more carefully than contractors,” said Mario Barbuto, who has been a general contractor for the last 25 years in the New York area.
A remodeling experience gone wrong can make your life hell. Patricia Maier, a retired teacher, signed a contract in July 2008 for an addition to her house in Lexington, Mass., which was built in 1884.
Almost three years later, she is still coping with a job that was supposed to take four months. She hired an architect who was the husband of a colleague and used a general contractor he suggested.
The builder quickly did much of the exterior work, then took a 10-day trip to the Caribbean. Things never got back on track. Newly installed floors warped, were reinstalled and warped again. French doors that had been put in weren’t sealed correctly. Gutters didn’t drain properly. The architect dropped out of the process.
“Things looked good superficially but there were so many problems,” she said. Now Ms. Maier is seeking redress through various state offices.
“Never hire a friend,” she said, referring to the architect. “It will always backfire.”
Do you even need to hire a general contractor?
No, said David M. Dillon, a general contractor based in Dallas. Any competent person can oversee construction, he said. But if several subcontractors are involved, a lot of time will be spent by a homeowner managing details and personalities.
Should you decide you want a general contractor to run your project, how do you find one?
Word of mouth is always a good option, as is contacting your local government’s public works and building departments.
“They’re full of opinions about who is good and who is not. They’re looking at their work every day,” said Mr. Dillon, who has self-published a book this year called, “Homeowners, It’s Time to Think Like a General Contractor.”
Online referral sites are another option to find contractors. Some are free, but Angie’s List, which is one of the better known, charges membership fees. The cost starts at under $10 a month, and opinion online is divided on how good these sites are.
After narrowing down a list, what do you do? Most people would say ask for references and photos of previous work, but that’s just the beginning. References are important, but how do you know they’re genuine customers? Web site photos are nice, but a lot can be hidden.
So it is much more important to ask to physically see work that has withstood the test of time.
“I show jobs that are six or seven years old, because new jobs always look good,” Mr. Barbuto said. And he’s happy to ask former customers if he can do a walk-through for potential clients.
“After all, everything looks pretty in a picture,” he said.
When visiting a completed project, take the time to talk to the owners there and get a sense of how happy they were with their contractor.
Of course, you can do all the right things and still have problems. A friend, who is so embarrassed and angry about her situation that she asked not to be named, was having a house built. She visited six or seven working job sites in various stages of development and talked to numerous project managers.
She chose a contractor with glowing recommendations who had done her best friend’s house.
“We hired them and happily moved forward with a full team,” she said. “We worked very well together, and I looked forward to nearly daily meetings and trips to the job site.”
Against her somewhat better judgment, because her experience had been so positive, she paid the contractor ahead of time for doors and windows, rather than upon delivery.
Then, she received a letter from the contractor announcing bankruptcy.
Now, she said, she knows that “lots of people can build a good house, but not everyone can run a good business.” My friend wishes she had looked into the contractor’s business practices and contacted his subcontractors and providers; some of the contractor’s problems might have become evident.
When hiring someone, homeowners should make sure they understand whether the prices a contractor gives you are hard and fast or guesstimates, Mr. Dillon said.
If the contractor says it will cost $5,000 for the plumber, ask to see the contract between the contractor and plumber, Mr. Dillon said. Otherwise it could turn out to really be $17,000 — and guess who is going to pay that difference?
“Anyone who is aboveboard should be willing to show you the contracts,” he said. And be sure to get multiple bids, and when you do, compare what is priced.
“If one has an electrician bid and one doesn’t — what’s up with that?” he said. “Go through it line by line.”
I asked some friends who had construction experience what advice they would pass on. Here are some hard-won words of wisdom:
¶ Check the number of projects the contractor has going at the same time. Too many at once can add a considerable amount of time to your own.
¶ What margin does your contractor take to provide materials? Perhaps you can save by buying materials yourself. My friend Eliza saved about 20 percent doing that for a remodeling project.
Contractors aren’t always keen on it, though. Mr. Barbuto warns that if you get your own windows, for example, and they’re the wrong size or cracked, the problem is yours to deal with, not his.
¶ Never go on a vacation and leave contractors to work on their own. Even with builders you trust, it’s better to be available. And at worst, it can mean little or no work gets done while you’re relaxing on the beach.
¶ Listen to the ways the contractor and the subcontractors, like the plumbers and electricians, interact. My friend Amy had four different contractors come with their subcontractors to bid on a major renovation.
“Listening to them talk together, I got a sense of how they respected each other and worked together,” she said. “In the end, we didn’t hire the cheapest guy, but the one I thought was the smartest and most creative and got along best with his subcontractors.”
Finally, everyone said to hold some money back until the project was completed. And that means no small unpainted areas or loose tiles or bad grouting. Too often, builders, even good ones, leave small details unfinished once they’ve moved on to their next project.
In fact, Amy suggested that after you’ve unsuccessfully hounded the contractor for weeks to do the last bits and bobs, try this: take that money and hire a handyman.