how to hire a Good General Contractor

A good general contractor will do three important things for you:

   1) Provide you with a clear, detailed, accurate estimate for your project.

   2) Manage your project well.

   3) Build your home beautifully.

Sadly, too often, they don’t. Sometimes that is because you hired a bad contractor, but more often it’s because of a lack of experience or poor communication. Being a good builder doesn’t make someone a good business person or good project manager. Let’s explore those three areas of expertise so you can arm yourself with the knowledge you need to get a better, more accurate estimate and have an easier, more successful remodel.

1) A clear, detailed, accurate estimate

My favorite contractors are amazing project managers, and when they start a project they provide a clear, detailed list of all the decisions they’ll need from the homeowner with specific dates by which they’ll need those decisions. This makes communication clearer, and avoids the stress and costs that come with project overruns. One of my favorite contractors who gets an A+ for project management is Palmer Residential. They have a beautifully organized 3-ring binder for each of their clients containing all timelines, contracts, and plans, and hold regular meetings with their clients throughout the remodel process. How do you know if you have a gem like that on your hands? Look for clues in your initial meeting and estimate:

– Did they confirm your meeting a few days before they showed up?

– Did they show up on time to provide you with an estimate?

– Did they provide you with a detailed estimate? (Or, just as good – did they say they *couldn’t* give you an estimate yet because they don’t have a clear enough remodel plan from you?)

– Did they send that estimate to you in whatever timeframe they promised? (Doing a proper, detailed estimate can take an hour or more to put together, so it’s appropriate for a busy contractor to need at least a week to send one your way).

what should an estimate include?

Let’s start with what it should *not* include. It shouldn’t be a simple number like “$30,000” that says “to remodel bathroom.” That’s just not enough information. Does that cover disposing of the debris from demo? Does that cover just labor, or materials and fixtures too? This is the kind of bid that doubles in size over time. Run from it.

You also shouldn’t expect it to layout contractor profit and mark-ups, although some contractors do disclose that. But just like you don’t buy a blouse and ask the sales person how much the store marked it up from wholesale, you shouldn’t expect a contractor to tell you that level of behind-the-scenes information.

What you *should* get is a nice long list of labor tasks, materials allowances, and a contingency amount (for those “surprises” like rot or termite damage). Ideally those three elements will be spelled out separately enough that you can compare one contractor to another. Three contractors may be suggesting very similar labor costs, but one might allow for more expensive materials, and another may not include materials in their bid at all. If you don’t know how your $175,000 bottom line breaks down, it’s hard to compare bids.

2) A well-managed project

If your contractor provided you with a clear and detailed estimate, odds are good that they’ll effectively communicate throughout the project. They’ll expertly manage their subs (like the electrician or plumber) so everyone shows up when planned and the project stays on time, and they’ll provide the homeowner with the tools they need to be a great partner in the project, like a list of decisions they’ll need from you and deadlines by which they’ll need those decisions.

If they *don’t* give you a list like that as soon as you hire them, then I *strongly* recommend you take on that work yourself. Put together a spreadsheet that lists every darn finish material you need to select, and add a column for the material, the link to it, the cost, and the due date. Have a meeting with the contractor (ideally before demolition) and go over it line by line to create a timeline. Then make all those decisions well before your deadlines so that *you* aren’t an obstacle in the remodel process. (If you work with a design team like us first, you’ll already have all those decisions made – from counter edge style to grout color, pendant lights to cabinet handles.)

The more you make all the design decisions pre-demo (or pre-estimate) the easier and more efficient your remodel will be. There will still be mid-stream decision along the way (like, “ma’am, we opened the wall and discovered a plumbing stack right where you wanted your shower niche – how would you like to handle that”) but you won’t have the stress of last minute “what counter do you want?” decisions.)

If you’re not ready to hire a designer, don’t have an organized contractor, and don’t want to make your own spreadsheet, there are lots of tools online to help you (or your contractor), like this one – it just might be the best $97 you ever spend! (Disclaimer, I haven’t used their spreadsheets, so try before you buy.)

3) a great gc will Build your home beautifully

Of course, this is the end goal, right? Even if a project goes over budget and over time, and even if you hate the contractor so much you’ll never speak to them again, you hope that in the end, you have a beautiful kitchen that is functional and durable.

This means you *do* need to hire a crew that actually knows how to remodel to your standards. Whether the GC does it his or herself, or hires subs to do the framing, electrical, plumbing, sheetrock, painting, and finish work, the final product should be lovely. Establish early on what level of quality you expect (start paying attention to your friend’s homes or hotels you visit, and consider going to open houses in your neighborhood to learn what good installation looks like – or doesn’t – and take pictures so you can have an educated conversation with your contractor from the start). Call references and ask questions like:

  • Did the contractor finish your project on time and on budget?
  • What hours did they keep? Did they show up every day when they said they would?
  • Did they keep a neat and tidy work environment? Was the bathroom trashed every day you’d come home?
  • Were they good about locking up the house each evening, and keeping pets secure and safe? (This is the homeowner’s job, too.)
  • Were you happy with the quality of their installations?
  • Think about your personal pet-peeves. Hate loud music? It’s okay to ask the referral if the contractor tended to use earbuds or play from a boom box onsite. This is *your* house – you don’t want to dread coming home each day!
  • What would you do differently if you were doing it again with this contractor? (Note I didn’t say *is* there anything you’d do differently because I guarantee every project has *something* that could have gone more smoothly.)
  • Is there anything else I should know about working with this contractor? (I love open-ended questions like this!)

Good homeowner etiquette:

– Be honest with your budget, and be direct and specific about your design needs, quality expectations, and timeline. If you don’t trust the contractor, then don’t hire them. But don’t lie to them from the start – you need an honest, clear working relationship with this person.

– Be prepared. Try not to ask a contractor what your kitchen remodel will cost if you haven’t done any design planning yet. Yes, they can give you a sense of what projects will cost in general (or you can check out this blog post) but they can’t give you an accurate estimate if they don’t know if you’ll be moving a wall or not, moving plumbing or not, or installing Taj-Mahal-level tile or a simple subway backsplash. (Remember, it’s always an option to hire a designer. Work with us first and you’ll have that detailed plan in your hands with every design decision already made. Hand that design plan off to a contractor for an estimate and they’ll truly be able to give you an accurate quote, not to mention manage the project more effectively!)

– Don’t ask for a bunch of revisions to the estimate until *after* you hire them. It’s a-okay to ask for a detailed bid while you are still comparing two or three contractors, but please don’t waste their time with lots of changes to the scope until you’ve made that hiring decision. In order to make that hiring decision, all you need are apples-to-apples estimates from about three folks. That means asking for a quote on the *same* scope of project, not changing it from contractor to contractor as you get more ideas from each one. It’s normal to change or tighten up the scope once you’ve compared your contractors and decided who you’ll hire.

Hopefully this arms you with useful information for having a great project from start to finish, and hiring a contractor that helps the process go as smoothly and quickly as possible. Yes, hiring a contractor that puts the time into good project management *will* cost more up front. But promise me when I tell you it will be well-spent money and *may even save you money* if it avoids delays and other cost-overruns. Not to mention the stress you’ll avoid with a well-run project. Seriously.

If you have any other questions on getting an estimate or hiring a good general contractor, don’t hesitate to ask those questions below. Have a great contractor you’d like to recommend, or a horror story you’d like to tell us – share that below too! We can all learn from each other!

May your home (& your remodel experience) always be happy! 

Hi! I’m Rebecca West.

I’m not your classic interior designer because, frankly, I don’t care if you buy a new sofa. I do care if your home supports your goals and feels like “you.” Remember, happy starts at home!


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