Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Glen's Renovation Series Part 4. Choosing a General Contractor

What is a General Contractor? This is a seemingly easy question to answer but allow me to explain. The TV version of a General Contractor is that of a man in nice, clean blue jeans and a plaid shirt that shows up on a jobsite in his shiny pick-up truck with clipboard in hand. He manages all of the sub trades on many different jobsites and ensures that his own employees are moving smoothly too. This may actually be the case in larger centres but for us in the Maritimes it’s a little different. Yes the General Contractors here do manage the sub trades (electricians, plumbers, dywallers, etc.) but here they are likely to be found doing many jobs themselves. It short, they are like one of their own crew who lugs lumber and shovels dirt, but they are the boss. At night they clean up and do paperwork. There are very few Bob Villa types in these parts. This is good news for homeowners because the guys with dirty hands know how to get stuff done better.


For first timers, choosing a contractor is likely the most daunting part of a renovation. For those who have followed the instructions on my previous articles it means that you've been doing a great deal of work yourself laying the groundwork for a successful project. Choosing a contractor means having to now deal with people, showing to them your plans and negotiating with them. So how do you even start this phase of your project? Where do you look? I'll show you where I deem the best can be found and it may not be in the places you would think to look. The pre-amble that I'll give here is to take the word of mouth route first and make a list of recommendations. Then, check out their presence online or in the Yellow Pages next. If they are not in these areas don't immediately exclude them. It may just mean that they are really good and therefore busy enough that they don't need to market themselves. Don't do this step in reverse order or you'll get swamped or lost quickly. There is a mess of guys on Kijiji who are completely fly by night and will not give you the final project you deserve. So, here is where to look for your dream contractor:

At Work: Yes! You will not be the first or the last to have work done on your home so tap this resource first. Word of mouth remains the best way to get a great contractor. E-mail your colleagues or spend some extra time around the water cooler to talk about important things, like your new bathroom! Ask your workmates the usual questions like "were they on time and on budget?", but be sure to ask them the questions on the list below.

Neighbours: Again, a word of mouth thing, but if you've noticed a neighbour who has recently had some work done at their home ask them who did it and if the experience was positive. Many contractors end up having a lasting presence in a neighbourhood because their first customer there was so happy with the work.

Social Media/Friends: Although they may not have had work done they may know someone who has and what their experience was like. Also, if you have friends who own residential plumbing or electrical businesses they are a wealth of knowledge. Undoubtedly they have worked for several general contractors over the years and may be able to recommend the right one for your job.

So, after you have done the legwork on the word-of-mouth side you can then check out their presence on:

·         Social Media

·         The Yellow Pages

·         Websites

·         Kijiji

Narrow your list down to three solid choices. Any more than three will be a waste of your time and theirs. To a contractor a long list of bidders means that the customer is looking for the absolute lowest price and that will make the good contractors walk away. If he is one of just a few, it makes him want to participate and still be competitive.

Now its time to contact the General Contractor. This first contact is extremely important as it sets the tone for what will be a true relationship. Think about this point carefully: this person will be in your home when you are not there, be around your pets and possibly your children. Also, you'll be entering into a contract with one of them where money is on the line. Now is they time to convey your seriousness about the way you do business. I strongly recommend calling them on the phone first to gauge what the person is like. That e-mail stuff is for later. If he doesn't answer then give him until the evening to call back. He may be too busy to return calls and possibly did not hear his phone as he was in a noisy environment. Give him a brief description of your job and arrange a meeting. Most GCs (that’s General Contractor) do evening sales calls as they know most of their customers work during the day. They also like meeting on the way home from a jobsite. As a courtesy to the potential GCs schedule meetings far enough apart so that they do not have to park together in your driveway. General Contractors are extremely competitive with one another and if you take away any awkwardness from your dealings with them you further cement your professionalism. Also, when they are meeting at your home they’ll be concentrating on you and not if the competition is watching his every move.

What did you take away from your brief telephone conversation? Was he pleasant, was he willing to accommodate a meeting time easily? Did he step away from the loud backhoe as a courtesy to you? Look for these things as indicators and file them away in your mind. You'll be surprised how much a first impression really does matter in the end. 

Meeting Day! When you do meet be prepared. Don't come to the door in your jammies with the television on. Have your materials prepared and on hand. This is a business meeting. Shake his hand and be professional. He is interviewing you as much as you are him. Remember, you want to get the good guy, not chase him away by presenting yourself as not being serious.  

Show him the physical space of your project first and then sit down to the materials you have assembled. Offer him a coffee. They all love coffee. Don't be shy to ask him if he sees any downsides to the plan you have at hand. He can say for certain if there are things that need tweaking. At this point it is a good idea to check your pride at the door and allow the GC to make his points freely. What may seem like an up-sell to you may be just his hard-learned opinion that he wants to offer. In my experience, most GCs just want to do a good job and leave behind a happy customer who will give glowing recommendations of him and his work. It is also my experience that a GC will also give pointers on less expensive options that will give you near the same results. Listen closely during this phase. Even if you don’t choose this particular fellow, his advice may improve your project’s results. 

Once you have shown him your proposed project its now time for you to ask for an estimate or quote.  This is a tricky part and it forms the first part of your negotiations. An estimate is a very educated guess on price that considers all of the parameters of the project. In most instances you can count on this number being the final cost. A quote is a hard number and it takes into consideration all of the specifications that you have listed. This is the price that you will pay at the end of the project. So what is the difference between a quote and an estimate? On a quote the GC has no option but to protect himself from the unforeseen and therefore add a percentage to the final price that he calculates. With an estimate you pay the unforeseen. And here is the even trickier part: if there is a really, really unforeseen thing like a huge structural problem that reveals itself after a wall gets opened, the customer still pays for that because it was outside of the original specifications that your presented. So, is it best to ask for an estimate or a quote? If your specifications are clearly defined and there is a design for the project that details everything, you could go with a quote. If things are still fuzzy for whatever reason you could ask for an estimate, just to get an idea of what you are in for in terms of cost. Ask for him to include the following when he delivers the estimate/quote:


·         Proof of liability insurance.

·         Letter of good standing with Worksafe (New Brunswick) or other workman compensation agencies if you live outside of New Brunswick.

·         GST/HST number.

·         E-mail addresses of three of his previous customers who have had similar work done.

·         The Warranty.


Be prepared to wait for your estimate/quote. If it’s a large project with many details like a finished basement with bathroom and home theatre, expect to wait a week or more. The GC will need to confer with his sub-trades and crunch many different numbers in order to be accurate. For a job like that he may need to commit a whole day to achieve an accurate number. 

So, now you have some useful information on what a General Contractor does, how to find one, how to deal with them in person, what to present them with and what to ask them for after your first meeting. You are now well-prepared! I’m looking forward to my next instalment when I’ll walk you through what you need to know after the quotes/estimates come in.

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