How to Hire a General Contractor or Renovator for Residential Construction Projects
In the last 10-15 years, the industry of Residential General Contractors has taken a beating by the media. Television, maganizes and articles have waged war on the image, credibility and trust of General Contractors. This is something that as a Home Owner, you must first be aware of.
15 Years ago, there were 3 shows that dealt with residential construction:
-This Old House
-The New Yankee Work Shop
-Bob Villa’s Home again
These 3 shows gave Home Owners an “inside” look into construction techniques and methods, offering plenty of advice, knowledge and wisdom. I suppose they had a loyal following amongst hobbyists, contractors and weekend warriors. But it didn’t appeal much to the general masses. After all, not everyone is interested in learning how to cut Crown Moulding or how to select the best router bits.
Along came a show on HGTV called Holmes on Homes. The entire premise of the show was to unearth the misdeeds of shabby, unethical and unprofessional contractors while at the same time portraying the Home Owners as the innocent victims in a “deal gone bad”. Along comes our saviour, Mr. Holmes, to save the day and right the wrongs.
THE PROBLEM – Are there unqualified, unprofessional and unethical contractors out yet? YOU BET! At the same time, one could ask…are there unqualified, unprofessional and unethical Lawyers? Doctors? Police Officers? Real Estate Agents? Mortgage Brokers? Accountants? And so on? YOU BET there are! Every industry has the good, the bad, the mediocre, the excellent and the horrendous. That’s life, that’s people.
This show sent a subliminal message to Home Owners – Other contractors BAD…Mike Holmes GOOD. Mr. Holmes is a smart man. He knows how to make money and promote himself. Good for him! However, his show has unjustly tarnished the image of an entire industry, done a great deed in misleading home owners, and started a trend of “contractor bashing” that has prevailed since. For all of Mike’s talks about “License, Insurance and permits”, I find it ironic that Mike Holmes himself is not licensed to carry out the work that he performed on the show. The Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs has a clear mandate for licensing and Mr. Holmes himself is NOT a licensed Carpenter. Technically, every time he modified any structural wood element of the house or sold carpentry services he was doing so without the appropriate licensing, breaking the law and casting himself into the dim shadow with which he so readily labels so many other contractors. Hypocrite.
Furthermore, though it is true that many of the home owners on that show were essentially ripped off, misled or cheated, most of the time and most of those Home Owners brought it upon themselves. How do I know? I can guarantee that most of those Home Owners chose their contractor based on price. The ever so tempting taste of a “good deal”. Of course, they don’t tell you that on the show. It kills the “victimized” position.
Speaking of things they don’t mention on the show, ever notice how Mike Holmes usually ends up gutting almost all of the work and then not only building it back up the right way, but going way over and beyond to make it look that much better? Talk about misleading…all of that translates to dollar signs in real life. “GIVING” the home owners glass shower doors, custom cabinets, granite countertops, heated flooring, marble flooring and so on is all great, but what they fail to mention is that in real life somebody had to pay for that. In this case, it was most likely the production company and they received free material from sponsorships. But it’s misleading to take an original renovation where the Home Owners had a $20,000 budget, dump what would equal $150,000 in real life into the home and stand back and say “There…that’s how it should have been done” without telling the viewers about that nagging issue of $130,000.
An entire generation of TV shows continued on with this trend. What you have to know is that ALL of these shows receive sponsorships. A basic premise of most of these shows are “Look, we did all these renovations and it only cost us $X”. They conveniently forget to tell you “Oh yeah, we received 50-100% off on all the materials through our sponsors and we’re not calculating the labour realistically”. Never mind the fact that they probably never got permits for the work, nobody was insured by WSIB, nobody carried Liability Insurance and many other factors.
It’s television folks…it’s entertainment, and production companies and networks do not care about the accuracy of the information on a show that was intended to entertain and keep viewers.
So now that we have reiterated the bias of the media and the years of misleading information that Home Owners have been bombarded with, let’s get on with the meat of the topic at hand. How do you navigate your way towards finding a professional.
The good news is, there are plenty of highly professional contractors to choose from. They just don’t make the news. Unlike what the media would have you believe, the majority of contractors fall in the range of good to great. Your first step in finding one that fits your needs, begins with a broad search. The internet sounds like a decent start.
Start looking through the websites of the contractors out there. Remember, it’s YOUR JOB to find the right contractor and you have to be prepared to do some of the leg work. The right contractor will not just fall on your lap, and since most renovations represent a great investment on top of your greatest investment (your home), you are wise to take your time at every turn, beginning with the “broad search”. In looking through the various web sites, you will begin to get a feel for the level of work that each company represents by browsing through past projects. Not all contractors are the same, some deal with exclusively “High end” renovations, some upper middle, the middle and some have carved out a niche in the lower end, quick and fast types of renovations (bathrooms, floor installations) and other broad appeal types of renos.
You will inevitably narrow down your selection to maybe 5-10 contractors that appeal to the style/look you’re shooting for. In other words, they seem to offer the type of workmanship/quality you would like to see incorporated into your project.
BE REALISTIC- No point in walking into a Ferrari dealership with a Hyundai budget. Conversely, no point walking into a Hyundai dealership if you’re looking for a Ferrari. There is nothing wrong with either of those, but know what YOU want and be realistic about what you can AFFORD. If your gut says you have a small budget, don’t contact a renovator who looks like he/she works exclusively in the “High end” market of homes in Forrest Hill, Rosedale, Bridle Path, Lakeshore west and other affluent neighborhoods. Those homes are almost always in the $1 Million dollar + category (going as high as in the tens of Millions). A simple kitchen reno is almost always a $100,000 + type of project (with some exceptions). Most renovations are in line with the price/value of the home. For example, you’re not going to find IKEA cabinets in the main kitchen of a $20 Million dollar home. Nor will you find $150,000 custom cabinetry in the main kitchen of a $400,000 home.
Now that you think you’ve found the handful of contractors that “fit the bill”, start researching the contractors. Their website and a simple GOOGLE search of their company will offer up a great deal of information on it’s own. With this information, try to narrow your search down to around 3 contractors that look like they would be a good fit.
THE NEXT STEP…DESIGN- Every renovation needs a “plan”. A plan begins with a design and therein you have a few choices. You can design the space yourself if you feel you have enough knowledge or you can retain the services of a designer. A designer can be an interior designer, an Architect, an Engineer, a BCIN licensed designer or you can work with a Design/Build contractor. All of this will depend on the project itself. At some point, in most cases, you will need a building permit. Drawing for building permits are called Construction Drawings (CD’s) and they are different from general designs/drawings. The process usually begins with “concept drawings”, or a representation of the “concept” that is sought. Once the concept has been chosen, the drawings are refined, information is filled in, materials are sourced, the details are refined and you are well on your way towards having a completed set of CD’s. Each designer offers a different take on the project and each have their pros and cons. For example, if budget is a main concern for you then the best option is to work with a Design/Build company. A D/B company designs around your budget and since they are the builders, then can begin pricing the job and building a budget from the concept stage. As the builders, they have the “finger on the pulse” of the costs associated with the project. Working with an Architect on the other hand, is a far better bet if the over all design is the main criteria. An Architect is the master is design theory, knowledge and building methods. An interior designer, as the name suggests, is most concerned with the “look” of the interior finishings. Furniture, wall dressings, floor coverings, fixtures and other materials that blend together to make a startlingly beautiful visual impact custom tailored for each client. An engineer is the master of of durable, sustainable and rigid design and building materials. BCIN licensed designer are most likely the most efficient, cut to the chase A-B option offering competitive rates for budget minded clients who most likely are looking for just a building permit.
So as you can see, each offers a different take on the matter and each have their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to you to decide which factor is most critical with you in choosing your design professional.
If you are working with a 3rd party designer (Interior designer, Architect, BCIN registered designer or Engineer), it is always a good idea to have your contractor involved as the design is progressing. Even if you have narrowed down your selection of contractors down to 3, keep them abreast of how the design is progressing. Most likely, they can begin pricing out the job for you and their feedback is always important.
Working with a Design/Build contractor on the other hand offers the flexibility in having a working budget concurrent with the design. Value engineering is a virtue of this option.
THE MYTH- That contractors can give you an “estimate” before you have working drawings. I hear this over and over again. “Make sure you have X number of estimates from contractors”. What estimates when there are no working drawings? Working drawings define the scope of work and the materials involved for the project. Asking someone for an estimate before having drawings is akin to calling a dealership and asking “How much for a car?”. Well, if you call Ford for example the answer may be anywhere from $15,000 – $100,000. You’re not doing yourself any service.
If a contractor that you call gives you a “price” before you have drawings, one of two things is happening A) He’s mis-leading you in an attempt to sell you B) He doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is not qualified.
Prices vary wildly in renovations. A bathroom reno could fall anywhere in the range of $5,000 to $100,000 +.
Now, if you don’t need working drawings and you don’t think that your project requires a building permit, what should your next approach be? Well…be honest. Tell the contractor how much of a budget you have set aside for the project and let him tell you what you can get for that. Most likely, and in most instances, the contractor can make a guest-timate of whether you have a realistic budget or not. But remember, this is still only a guest-timate. Every budget is comprised of details, and the more details and preparation you have going into it the far more likely you are to stay on budget at the end.
WHAT’S NEXT?- So you think you found 3 or so contractors, you have a realistic budget and regardless of whether you have drawings at this point or not…you would like to meet with them. If you already have drawings, you’re obviously more prepared, but if you don’t then don’t worry…it’s still OK to meet with contractors at this point. Some contractors will not even meet with you unless you do have drawings, but most will. This takes us to our next step.
FREE ESTIMATES vs PAID SITE VISITS/ESTIMATES- Some contractors charge a fee to visit you at your house for the first meeting but most will come out for free. Which is better? Well, that’s up in the air and for you to decide. Normally when you pay for a site visit, the contractor will come out and take measurements and pictures of your home. He will also take notes based on information you provided and provide you with a preliminary assessment of the project. This means that he went back to his office, designed one or two concepts for the renovation, built one or two budgets, assigning “allowances” for the unknown portions of the work that cannot be figured out yet at this point (for example, the finishes, fixtures, and other accessory materials), and then he will meet with you again at your home to review the preliminary appraisal. This is a far more realistic and accurate appraisal for the project than any FREE estimate could possibly be. Until the contractor sits down, designs the space and crunches all the numbers…any “Estimate” provided is hog wash and nothing more than a number pulled out of thin air, representing absolutely no details of the scope of work or allowances for materials and finishes. That is why so many “estimates” vary WILDLY. You’re wasting your time with these.
Your best best, is to always retain someone to perform “Pre-Construction” services on the project. This package includes preliminary design, scope of work, a schedule, budget, material selection, unlimited modifications, value engineering, refining the project to your budget, refining details, sourcing materials, selecting sub-contractors and tendering portions of the job, obtaining working drawings and obtaining all building permits, variances, committee of adjustment or zoning approvals required. This package (Pre-Construction), is the blue-print for the project and will serve for the duration of the project’s life cycle. A PLAN…your #1 key resource towards a successful renovation and the one thing NONE of the so called “experts” and “advice givers” that write article upon article, and preach on radio and TV EVER talk about. Yet, it is the ONE thing that Professionals that actually do the work LIVE BY. The more details, the better. This is also your #1 money saver right here, for though you may pay a fee “initially”…a solid plan that has been “tweeked” will save you tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars down the line. Sometimes, a job that takes 6 months took 2 years of planning. But it is the only way to deliver a job on time, on budget, and to spec.
REFERENCES- No doubt you’ve heard it over and over again. “Ask for references”. The notion of references gives a false sense of security to the public. No contractor will disclose unpleasant references, or the references on jobs that “went bad”. Let’s say a contractor had 100 projects under his belt, and he offers you 20 references…which ones do you think will make the list?
Past clients, as a general rule, don’t like to be contacted and they certainly don’t like people showing up at their homes to “inspect the work” previously done by the contractor. Most Home Owners, once the job is complete, want to move on with their lives and enjoy their home. As much of a pleasant experience as they may have had with their contractor, nobody likes to be hounded by phone calls, week after week, month after month, year after year by the contractor’s new prospective clients. Visiting their home is always awkward as well, nobody really likes to have strangers over in there home to “inspect” the work. People have lives and better things to do…there is a limit on satisfied customer’s good will and this should also be taken into consideration by both the contractor and the prospective clients.
Other things to think about is that we live in the day and age of technology. There is little you can’t find out about a company by using the internet. For example, there are a number of 3rd party websites where one can report and give reviews on contractors. These 3rd party websites are supposed to be un-biased and anyone with a grievance with the company can publicly state such on these sites. This is a far better barometer of a contractor’s reputation and reviews. Good contractors strive to maintain a spotless reputation, as reputation is the key to trust.
And lastly, don’t discount someone who cannot provide too many references of past clients. The contractors that can provide the greatest number of references are obviously the contractors that have been in business the longest. But what about the guys that are new to entrepeneurialship? There are plenty of contractors out there that have spent the last 10, 20, 30 years working for someone else at some other construction company. Everything from carpenters, to site supervisors, foremen and project managers who hold all kinds of certifications, accreditations, licenses along with a rich diversity of knowledge and experience who decided to finally take the plunge with their own company and sometimes the motivating factor was that they thought/knew they could offer the public a better service then what their past employer was providing. Discounting someone’s ACTUAL experience, knowledge, qualifications for a lack of personal past clients is thoughtless and allows the old dinosaurs of the industry to monopolize on all the jobs out there. Whereas, the new guys might be more eager and willing to offer you the greatest deals in the name of building up their portfolio. Just make sure that they really ARE qualified and just may not have too many personal past clients. Accreditation, licensess, past history and whatnot…ultimately, it’s up to the contractor to convey his qualifications. All I’m saying is, the dinosaurs in the industry kind of have a monopoly on the reference thing and it’s a far less accurate measure of someone’s qualifications and ability than most make it out to be.
ON THE ISSUE OF LICENSES/INSURANCE/WSIB – Contractors need a License to sell their work to the public. You can check with the Ministry if your contractor is licensed or not. DOES IT MATTER? Well, on the one hand…it’s the Law and if the contractor doesn’t have it…he’s technically breaking the Law and can be subject to fines or possibly criminal charges. On the other hand, it’s hardly a measure of qualification. The Exam/Qualifications for passing the requirements to obtain a license are no guarantee. Nor is having a Driver’s License a guarantee that you won’t find incompetent drivers on the road…it’s a minimal “check”. Some call it extortion from the Gov’t, because it’s never enforced. I’ve called the Ministry a number of times to report contractors that are operating without a license and nothing ever happens. So some Pro’s see it as an impotent force, that only taxes the REAL, honest, hardworking and Law abiding contractors while letting the guys that break the rules go for scot free and in essence…even help them out by making their prices even cheaper (Less carrying costs). Nonetheless, take it with a grain of salt. Contractors are supposed to have it, and if a contractors doesn’t care about the Law…well, that should tell you something right there about their principles/ethics. Kind of a red flag…but don’t assume that just because a guy DOES have a license that nothing could ever go wrong either. But, they also do a Police Background check prior to issuing licenses, and if a guy doesn’t have a license, even more questions as to who you are hiring. There is also some measure of accountability in that if the contractor is licensed…you could always file a complaint with the ministry in the event that something does go sideways and that individual may have his license revoked.
The contractors needs to have Liability Insurance to protect the workers and anyone coming and going out of your home. Without it, anyone injured on your premises could sue you.
WSIB protects the workers in the event that there is an injuy, once again protecting the health and safety of the workers on the house and freeing you and the contractor from liability. It is our duty as citizens to ensure that we promote a safe working environment for all workers.
THE PROS ARE ALMOST ALWAYS LESS EXPENSIVE…IN THE LONG RUN- No doubt, there are still what we call “hacks” in this line of work. Anyone can call themselves a “contractor” and many do. A guy could pick up a hammer today, print a business card tomorrow and run around calling himself a contractor but these guys don’t get very far. They damage themselves and everyone around them in a very short amount of time, and peter out quickly. Their main demographic are “cheap” Home Owners. They don’t pay taxes, they have no licenses, they have no training, no insurance, no WSIB liability coverage, don’t know what’s involved in a job, how much materials costs, how to calculate labour, they don’t hire professional subs…and so most of the time they drastically underbid a job. This appeals to the “cheap” home owners, who think they are getting a deal. But the fan will be hit sooner or later, and the cost to take down and re-do will ALWAYS cost more than to have hired a professional in the first place. Furthermore, not pulling permits, carrying proper insurance and other issues in addition to the actual work could leave the Home Owner facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines from the city and in some rare cases…homes have even been ordered to be demolished and the Home Owners had to pay to have their home demolished after being “condemnded” by the city. What a nightmare.
THE CONTRACT- Very…very important. Different contractors offer different contracts. Some are “Fixed Price”, “Cost-Plub”, “Time and Material”, “Project Management”, and a number of other variations. Some contractors deal exclusively in one method while some offer a number of options. Pick the one that best works for you. Research into them, and ask around, not all contracts are the same. Whatever you choose…the more details the better. A GOOD contract is one that leaves very little to interpretation should something not go right and an argument occurs. GET IT WRITTEN DOWN! is the rule. Good contractors are very detailed in their contracts, and maintain thorough documentation throughout the project that is transparent to both parties. Warranties are also essential.
IT’S A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP- The atomosphere of the false media has created an adversarial/hostile attitude toward contractors. People believe that contractors are something to guard oneself against, question, look down upon…because they’re ALL out to get you. This advesarial attitude does nobody any good. The contractor and client should be on EVEN KEEL with one another, both respecting the others time, needs, wants, and desires. A symbiotic relationship, where both parties emerge satisfied on having worked together on a successful project. The truth is, good contractors are VERY SELECTIVE in who they work with/for. The bad ones usually work with just about anybody that has the money. But the good ones realize that a project is a commitment on both sides, and 100% of everything actually required to deliver a successful project and get it from A to B occurs AFTER signing contracts, complimenting each other and making promises. Good contractors don’t SELL much, but they DELIVER all the time. Renovations can get very complicated, and most of the Pro’s have a rich background in the training required for the work. Some are Architects, Engineers, Project Managers, Licensed Plumbers, Electricians and many other related professions and their training varies. But all of the good ones understand the complexity of some projects. Gorgeous renovations don’t happen by accident, structures that last hundreds of years are not a fluke, and fine workmanship takes years and years of dedication. Great contractors have spent the greater parts of their lives in perfecting their trade, amassing priceless knowledge and wisdom that they bear upon every project.
So, find a good contractor…and work WITH him (or her). The #1 secret amongst contractors is that the clients that they appreciate the most, are the ones that understand what quality means, appreciate professionalism, appreciate quality workmanship, choose honesty and integrity in who they deal with and understand that working with a true professional is their #1 best bet in seeing a successful project through to completion. I also know, that contractors that have clients with the aforementioned qualities…bend over backwards for them.
This has been the greaest wisdom I could part with on the topic. The choice to follow my advice, or follow the advice of the plethora of so called “experts” who have probably never hired a contractor or taken on any REAL project themselves (painting your living room doesn’t count), people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing…the choice is yours. I know if I ever have to go to court, I want the best lawyer on my side. If I need a doctor, I want the best doctor to diagnose/heal me. If I need a mechanic, I’ll take it to a Pro. In this life, all you are is the choices you make. Godspeed.