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top questions for home building contractors

Home building and remodeling projects are in full swing this year and following the recent economic struggles we are witnessing the most basic of supply and demand economic truths. Demand for construction talent is high and growing while labor across the board is in short supply, struggling to catch up. With these conditions in mind, it is wise to research and be prepared to make the most efficient use of your interactions with these important and overtaxed contractors. Here are questions for home building contractors to help you navigate these challenging waters.

Research your options. Talk to your friends, introduce yourself to others whose homes are currently under construction and ask about their experiences, both good and bad. Check with Better Business Bureau (www.BBB.org) and other consumer review sites to gain insight into contractor candidates and the experiences of their clients. Verify licensing in your community and that your candidates meet those requirements. You may also want to check for any past judgments against them.

Begin the conversation. Armed with your list of qualified candidates and a list of questions for home building contractors, give them a call. First you will want to know if they specialize in your specific type of project in your area. They should be familiar with local codes and any unique challenges in your municipality. Some communities are sensitive to woodlands, or lot coverage. They may have an architectural review or standards committee with input on your home’s details. Get an idea of their current project workload. Can they handle your project at this time?

How much will my home cost? This is the first, or one of the first, questions for home building contractors that many people have. It’s no surprise, as the answer is such a critical component of every project. A reputable contractor, especially if they are especially busy, will want to know, specifically, the scope of work for your project. You will get the very best results by providing preliminary drawings, notes, a scope of work narrative, images of similar projects (www.Pinterest.com, www.Houzz.com, etc.) Watch out for contractors fishing for work with a quote without first understanding your scope of work or seeing the job.

Don’t hire anyone before you meet them in person. It takes time, but the insights of this meeting will give you a sense of communication style, and attention to detail. Can they make time for you? If they can’t meet with you in the beginning, it only gets more difficult during construction. This is a long-term relationship, perhaps extending beyond the completion of your home, you’ll value having a sense of trust and clear communication.

questions for home building contractors

  • What work is subcontracted vs directly performed?
  • Have you built projects similar to mine?
  • Can I meet previous clients and see their home?
  • Are you bonded and insured? To what limits?
  • Can you share a list of references?
  • How do you manage budget, schedule, and project communication?
  • Will you provide a project manager or supervisor?
  • Who is my primary source of contact?
  • Will the job site be cleaned daily?
  • What protections are provided for dust, children, pets, neighbors?

lay it all out on the table

Once you have an agreement in place, it is difficult to make adjustments to that agreement. These are some of the top questions for home building contractors. Make sure that all of the important components are discussed and made part of your agreement.

  • terms for payment. This can vary based on your project size. You’ll want to protect yourself in the event your contractor fails to pay subcontractors and vendors. Insist on copies of waivers and consider the use of a title company to disperse the funds. You or your architect should verify that the work claimed as complete meets your expectations. You don’t want to get ahead with payments for work that has yet to be performed.
  • construction schedule. In the movie ‘The Money Pit’ it seems every construction task will take two weeks. Whether the actual time is more or less, your project will get done faster if everyone has a clear expectation of all of the work and how long it takes to reasonably complete each task. There will be delays. Some can be managed by your contractor, while others (weather and government) take creative solutions to minimize ‘slippage.’ Set your expectations and allow for some contingency in the schedule. However, this is not a ‘slush fund’ for your contractor, simply a method for you to stay sane. It’s tempting to use special events as targets for wrapping up construction. Beware of this pitfall. While an event makes for a good motivation. It can create enormous pressure and disappointment should the deadline be missed.
  • what’s in the contract? At the beginning of most relationships, everything is rosy. It’s only after we get down the road a bit that friction begins to be revealed. Work on the front end can help to have an enjoyable construction experience. Homes are better when they are not soured by a poor experience with your contractor.
  • comprehensive Construction Documents ‘Blueprints’ Also referred to as ‘Contract Documents’, these are the drawings and specifications prepared by your architect to communicate the design of your home. If rushed, these drawings may be incomplete or fail to show adequate detail. In this case, the design is open to interpretation and everyone assumes the easiest and least costly method. This can be a rude awakening when your contractor informs you ‘I didn’t have that in my number.’ They can adjust to meet your expectations, but it will cost you more.
  • warranties. What is covered and for how long? Pay special attention to these documents, especially from vendors. Warranties are often more about what is not covered than what is covered. You should be aware of these limitations which appear to give you peace of mind while providing cover to manufacturers and vendors.
  • building permit. Don’t try to skip this. It’s tempting to save the money and aggravation of the added oversight. However, you expose yourself to fines, delays, and most importantly, work that meets today’s construction standards. Be sure to get a copy of the building permit for your records.
  • insurance. Get copies of your contractor’s liability, property damage, worker’s compensation. Speak with your insurance professionals to ensure that you are adequately covered during construction.
  • price and payment terms. You should find a ‘draw schedule’ which specifies the amount and stage of completion when payments (draws) are due. There is pressure to accepts work as being complete to qualify for the next draw. Insist on verification of the completed work. You may want to allow for a ‘hold back’ percentage to ensure that the work is performed to expected standards.

red flags

It is not uncommon for contractors, desperate to win your project, to apply high-pressure sales techniques and unfair business practices. When you have questions for home building contractors and you hear any of the following from your contractor candidates, proceed with caution.

  • ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time. I can send you a quote without any of the specifics.’ Watch out for the change orders. Knowing that many people are seeking the lowest cost possible, they tell you a figure that you want to hear, then hit you with upcharges for the real scope of work.
  • ‘Pressure you to sign a contract on the first visit.’ Scarcity is a powerful motivator and they may use this as leverage against you, suggesting that their schedule is filling up fast and the may not be able to get to you until much later.
  • ‘I’ve got a guy (an architect) who can save you money.’ Not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there is something to be said for a team that understands how to work with one another. But watch out for this relationship which only serves the contractor’s interests and not yours. An anemic design allows for low-cost assumptions that may not align with your expectations. Better to know the real costs so you can make value-based decisions. An architect working on your behalf can help you to make the decisions that align with your priorities.
  • ‘I need 50% up-front to buy materials’ You may be taking an unnecessary risk here. Most contractors have accounts with suppliers so you don’t have to finance their operation. Low-cost and disreputable contractors can find themselves in a never-ending loop of robbing Peter to pay Paul. They take your ‘deposit’ to pay obligations for a previous job, thinking that they will ‘make it up’ on the next one. At some point, the music stops and you don’t want to be the one without a chair in a game you didn’t even know you were playing.

For more information, you may want to check out the ‘How to Hire a Contractor‘ guide.

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