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Signing Mr. Right: 7 Trade Tips for Hiring and Managing the RIGHT Contractor, The FIRST Time

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

Swipe right for a great contractor.

Swipe left to avoid six months of S-T-R-E-S-S, financial drain and a migraine.

Imagine...a dedicated website featuring professional, well-priced and competent contractors excited to execute your vision on time, in budget and without leaving oil stains on your driveway! Ahhh, if only this type of pairing was as easy as some of those popular dating sites.

A girl can dream right?!

Blog post – 7 Trade Tips for Hiring and Managing the Right Contractor, The First Time

Unfortunately, unless you really know the industry insider questions to ask before hiring a general contractor, the reality of signing the most-qualified contractor for your type of job isn't always that easy.

Often times homeowners believe they've done their due diligence by interviewing a few candidates and checking the their references, and then they proceed to him or her, only later a few months down the road they begin to have misgivings for a variety of reasons.

Checking references is a good start, but only a small step in the contractor selection process. There are a number of other key tasks you want to invest time into to ensure you're going to sign with a skilled licensed professional with business integrity.

Because let's face it, construction, while exciting, can easily devolve into a costly and stressful experience if you have partnered with a company that doesn't share your values, vision or expectations.

So in this two-part Blog series, we will highlight "7 Trade Tips for Hiring and Managing The RIGHT Contractor, The FIRST Time" to help you avoid job delays, costly mistakes, poor workmanship and unnecessary stress.

Tip #1 - Really Check Him Out

You've asked for past client references and reviewed some of your potential contractor's past remodels or additions. You like what you see and his past client's seem pleased. That's a great first step. But let let's take it a bit further because really who's going to pass out a bad reference list, right?

When assisting our Pasadena-area clients during the contractor selection process I tell them I want to know if the contractor they are considering "plays nice with others", i.e. how well did he or she work with past project architects, interior designers, subs and the local Building Department? Homeowners have every right to ask a potential contractor for the names of other team members and peers they have collaborated with on a project so they can garner a more accurate picture of his professional business practices. So don't be shy, just ask and see how forthcoming they are to give you that information.

Also it goes without saying, you must run his license number through your local Contractors State License Board website.  Here you'll learn if your prospective contractor is licensed, carries commercial general liability insurance (which is highly recommended) and is in good standing. It is not enough for a contractor to just show you his business card, flyer or website with his license number listed. It may be invalid, so run the number.

Additionally, if a contractor has employees, he's required to carry Worker's Compensation Insurance in many states. If he doesn't and one of his employees gets injured on your job site, you could be financially liable to pay for the employee's medical and rehabilitation bills (note: your homeowner's insurance may or may not cover these costs).

In some states, like California, contractors are also required to carry a Contractor's License Bond of $15,000 which frankly, in light of today's high construction and material costs, is not a lot to cover substandard work should an issue arise. So be informed and refer to your local State Contractors License Board for more details or questions.

Now it goes without saying, none of these issues are the glamorous or fun part of the building process, but they are essential and should be discussed, as well as outlined for you in writing before you sign anything.

Tip #2 - Who's His Posse?

Really. You need to know.

Like many professions the lead business owner, in this case your general contractor, is only as good as his team. So it's very important you learn about who the sub-contractors are that he will be bringing to your home or office, how long they've worked together and, most importantly, if they're licensed tradesmen.

While it may be tempting to hire unlicensed labor as they typically have a lower day rate, it's not worth the risk as a homeowner and it's not legal, despite it being a frequent practice.

Tip #3 - Set a Date

Yes, you need to spend time with your prospective contractor before signing on the proverbial dotted line. Visiting one of his or hers completed job sites that are similar in type to your project is a great way to view learn more about his attention to detail, level of craftsmanship and work ethic.

A good contractor will have positive relationships with former clients and should be able to arrange a brief visit. If you like his work, receive positive feedback from his industry peers and past clients, have checked his license and insurance standing, then you should feel confident taking the next step and asking for a proposal for your project.

Tip #4 - Play The Field

Yes, it's a more ways than one. We always recommend clients meet with several potential contractors individually and provide them all with the same detailed information to bid on. If the contractors are all given the same Scope Of Work to bid on then you you can feel confident you are comparing apples-to-apples as the saying goes.

In addition to assessing their estimates, take note of their professionalism, punctuality to meetings and responsiveness when emailing or calling with questions during the bidding process. This is a sure indicator of how you will be treated during the months-long construction process.

Tip #5 - Shades of Grey...But NOT in Contracts

Throughout my 20-year design career, I have reviewed my fair share of residential and commercial construction bids for clients and one issue that sends up a red flag is a always a construction proposal without enough detail.

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard disappointed homeowners say they assumed "xyz" task or product was included in their quote only to find out it wasn't and a Change Order is needed.

A Change Order, if you're not familiar with the term, is a written document signed by the homeowner and contractor approving the additional cost and project time to execute and a new task above and beyond the original contract scope and budget.

Needless to say, most homeowners don't likes Change Orders unless of course they're intentionally enlarging their scope of work. So in an effort to minimize stress, manage expectations and leave nothing in the grey area your contractor's construction bid needs to detailed and clear before you sign it as reflected in this sample below:

Sample Contractor Contract

This contractor's bid is detailed, indicates which items are supplied by him and broken out by trade.

It is up to you, or your consulting designer or architect, to give your prospective contractor in writing all of your project specifications, as well as a realistic budget and desired timeline so he can put his best foot forward and produce an accurate, detailed proposal for you.

This does not mean texting your prospective contractor the name of that gorgeous white marble you want in your new kitchen, or calling him with a verbal description of the wood bath vanity you desire. Texting or verbally communicating color and material specifications can easily devolve into a misunderstanding between client and contractor, as such we always suggest communicating in writing.

I assure you detailed written specs = a more accurate construction bid, fewer job delays and less Tylenol during construction. And who doesn't like that right?

Now if the idea of making all of your finish, fixture and material selections, as well as the necessary space planning decisions before bidding out your project sounds overwhelming (don't worry it does for many), then I suggest investing in a professional to assist you.

Honestly, the amount of time you'll save and confidence you will feel knowing you have a professional to guide you will be worth the investment.

If you decide to make all of your finish selections and space planning decisions on your own, just be sure not to wait until you're under construction to start the process. Particularly this year as leads times to procure appliances, plumbing fixtures, tile and cabinetry, to name a few, are quite long due to disruptions in the logistics industry.

Starting construction without our products selected and ordered will likely result in not achieving your vision as you'll likely be under a time crunch and default to your contractor's suggestion of that ubiquitous beige-a-licious tile or nondescript sink faucet.

Tip #6. Line Items, Not Lump Sums  

When reviewing a prospective contractor's bid it is best to ask for each line item to be broken out by labor and material cost, rather than given to you as a lump sum. This will give you a clearer picture how much you're actually paying your project's labor versus investing in the building materials and you can adjust accordingly.

Additionally important is understanding the quality of the building materials he or she is installing on your project. Again, if you are working with a designer or architect the Scope Of Work and CAD drawings they prepare for the contractor to bid from will detail include detail on the quality of building materials desired . If you're doing this on your own, you must be specific or you may end up with inferior products or materials.

For example, it's not enough for a bid to say "supply and install quartz bathroom countertops". This is too vague and can't be priced accurately. What type of quartz? Custom or pre-fab slab? What's the thickness? What's the finish, polished, honed or leathered? What type of edge detail do you desire? All of these decisions affect the material and fabrication price of your counter tops.

Having a detailed construction quote to hold a contractor accountable to also helps prevent the old material "switch-a-roo" tactic where a contractor invoices you for supplying and installing one type of product such as wood cabinets with plywood sides, but then goes and purchases and installs as less expensive and inferior quality product such as cabinetry with particle board sides, and pockets the difference. Granted this is not an everyday occurrence but I've seen this happen with unlicensed tradesmen I've advised my clients not to use.

And lastly, make sure your contractor's proposal includes an allowance for building permits, your City's design review fee (if needed), recycling fees or post construction cleanup, to name a few. All of these line items can add up and should be planned for in advance so there are no surprises.

Tip #7 - Add Some Sugar, Sweetie

Homeowners, and their pets, get weary during construction. I get it. Dust gets in places you didn't know it could go. There's music not on your playlist going all day. Trucks parked in your driveway constantly. Early morning strangers in your home and constant noise. Oh joy.

I'll let you in on a little can sweeten the deal and accelerate your project timeline. Two strategies will help. First, consider offering your contractor a financial bonus if he finishes ahead of the projected completion date. Yes, you heard me correctly. Lay on a little sugar. Your sanity is worth the investment.

Here's the backstory: Contractors typically run several jobs concurrently like many trade professionals, so if there is an added incentive to schedule his subcontractors on your project before Mrs. Smith's job down the street, guess whose job is going to get done faster and avoid stop-and-start work flow which is very frustrating for any homeowner.

Tip #8 - Stay In Your Power

Ladies, this one is particularly for you. If you haven't hired a general contractor before I understand knowing what you can and cannot expect, ask for, or insist on can involve a learning curve particularly if you don't have a designer or architect backing you up.

Frankly, I wouldn't expect you to know. You're busy running your career, raising a family, studying, caring for elderly patents or handling whatever activities fill your day. Unless you've had previous experience remodeling, managing a contractor can be a delicate dance.

My best advice garnered from years in the field is this:

Stay in your power. Don't unconsciously soften your voice or defer because you think they "know more."

  • It's not about being "liked" (it took me a long time to learn this one!) It's about being respected as a capable woman.

  • Ask questions if you don't understand. And then ask more questions. You're the client and you have every right to understand everything before you consent to any work.

  • Stop being "cute" or my least favorite "helpless." This is business. There is money and a finished product on the line.

  • And lastly, be decisive. Don't second guess yourself on what you like or allow yourself to get talked into something you really aren't that excited about. It's your home, you deserve to be surrounded by what makes you happy! Not what makes your contractor, designer or architect, for that matter, happy.

Tip #9 - Bonus Tip: Shake it Off

Let's face it. Construction, just like relationships, isn't always sunshine and butterflies.  There will be days, hopefully not too many, when mistakes happen or you feel frustrated and tired. When this happens, I encourage you to take a deep breath, wait a day to collect yourself, and then have a personal phone conversation (not text or email) with your contractor about your concerns.

Start with a compliment and a little gratitude, your contractor is trying hard and juggling a lot of behind-the-scenes issues with suppliers and tradespeople to keep your project moving forward. Discuss your issue in a matter of fact manner and give he or she the opportunity to make it right. Because in the end, everyone wants a beautiful finished product and positive referral and little grace and understanding when there are bumps in the road will go a long way in achieving the beautiful home you desire.


Gail E. Jamentz, Principal of Soul Interiors Design, proudly serves the communities of Pasadena, San Marino, La Cañada Flintridge, Sierra Madre, South Pasadena, Altadena, Glendale, Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs.


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