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

Updated: Jul 27

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 (cue the white doves and colorful rainbows), in budget and without leaving oil stains on your driveway! Ahhh, if only this type of pairing was as easy as the popular matchmaking site, Tinder.

A girl can dream...

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, reality isn't always this rosy when it comes to selecting the most-qualified contractor for your type of job.

Often times you believe you've done your due diligence interviewing and checking references. You feel cautiously optimistic. So you sign on the dotted line.

Demolition starts, and then something seems to change. Slowly at first.

By week eight you start to realize work is not proceeding as you had originally discussed. Deadlines are being missed. Material orders are delayed. And communication with you becomes less frequent.

You try to remain calm. "Just breathe," you tell yourself.

And then you're informed that city inspections to sign-off have been moved again. Feeling frustrated, you walk the job site and notice your expectations of quality craftsmanship are well, let's just say VERY different than his, or hers, and work needs to be redone.

And then things start to get tense. And stressful.

"I think you hired the wrong contractor!," a little voice inside your head whispers.

"Quiet!" You retort."My co-worker said he was great, just wait and see," you unconvincingly say to your little voice.

Now, by week twelve things have progressed from bad to worse .You're ready to put a hit out on your contractor, your spouse is threatening divorce every morning at breakfast and you're ready to board the next NASA mission to Mars until construction is finished. Yikes!

Ok, ok, you get the picture right? Construction can be particularly challenging if you don't ask key questions upfront and select the best team for your type of project. But the good news is...YES, there is good doesn't have to be this way! Really.

In this two-part Blog series, you'll learn "7 Trade Tips for Hiring and Managing The RIGHT Contractor, The FIRST Time" thus avoiding job delays, costly mistakes and any need to call Virgin Galactic to book your spaceflight to escape.

Tip #1 - Really Check Him Out

I'm not talking "Heyyyyyyy, nice ________ (fill in your preferred body part), I mean check him (for purposes of the rest of this article I'm using the masculine pronoun, as the majority of contractors are men) out beyond the obligatory Past Client Reference List or website testimonials. I mean really, who's going to pass out a bad reference list?

I want to know if he "plays nice with others", i.e. how well did he work with past project architects, interior designers, subs and the local Building Department? You have every right to ask a potential contractor for names of these and other team members and peers he has collaborated with so you can garner a more accurate picture of his professional business practices.

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 his employee 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. Be informed. Refer to your local State Contractors License Board for more details.

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's 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 together before making this financial commitment. Select a mutually convenient time when you can visit one of his completed jobs that are similar in type to your project so you can see the quality of his work IN PERSON.

A good contractor will have positive relationships with former clients and should be able to arrange a brief visit. You'll learn a lot more about his attention to detail, level of craftsmanship and work ethic if you visit a completed job, rather than just look at nice website pictures.

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.

Meet with several potential contractors and provide them all with the same detailed information to bid on. This is VERY important otherwise you will be comparing apples-to-oranges 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 - 50 Shades of Grey...But NOT in Contracts

Throughout my 15-year design career, I have reviewed my fair share of residential and commercial construction bids for clients and one issue that makes me promptly jump atop my cloisonné soap box and preach like it's the second coming is a construction quote without enough detail.

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard disappointed homeowners (none of mine of course. Wink.) 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 client and contractor approving the additional cost and project time for a particular task above and beyond the original contract price. Ugh.

Needless to say, nobody likes Change Orders (unless of course you're intentionally enlarging your scope of work) . So in an effort to minimize stress, manage expectations and  leave nothing in the grey area of assumptions your 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 quote 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-stained bath vanity you desire. Texting or verbally communicating color and material specifications can easily devolve into a misunderstanding between client and contractor. I strongly suggest you communicate in writing.

I assure you detailed written specs = a more accurate construction bid, fewer job delays and less Tylenol during construction. Can I get an amen please?!

Now if the idea of making all of your finish, fixture and material selections, as well as space planning decisions before bidding out your project sounds overwhelming or to time-consuming (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 design wing-man to guide you will be worth the investment.

Now if you want to DIY'it, more power to you, just promise me you will not wait until you're under construction to make your interior finish and fixture selections! This will likely result in a design fail as you'll be under a time crunch and default to your contractor's suggestion of that ubiquitious beige-a-licious tile or nondescript sink faucet.

Ok, you get my point.

Tip #6. Line Items, Not Lump Sums  

When reviewing a prospective contractor's bid it is best to ask for each line item such as plumbing or electrical for example, 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 detail about the quality of the building materials he is installing on your project. Again, if you are working with a designer or architect this will be spelled out in the bid package. If you're doing this on you own, you must be specific or you may end up with inferior products.

For example, it's not enough for a bid to say "supply and install marble bathroom countertops". This is too vague and can't be priced accurately. What type of marble? Custom or pre-fab slab? What's the thickness? Edge detail? How many slabs are needed? 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, does your quote include 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 blocking your Range Rover. Early morning strangers in your home telling you look great in your yoga pants. And then, after a week or two you find yourself driving to Starbuck's three times a day to escape the circus or you find excuses to actually stay at work.

I'll let you in on a little can sweeten the deal and accelerate your project timeline. Yes! Two strategies will help you: 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. Trust me, your sanity is worth the proposed bonus.

Here's the backstory: Contractors typically run several jobs concurrently like many professionals, so if thee is an added incentive to schedule his tradesman on your project BEFORE Mrs. Smith's job down the street, guess who's going to be kicking up their heels and swinging from a lamp post like Fred Astaire! YOU, of course!

Another helpful technique: Have ALL, and I mean ALL of your plumbing fixtures, appliances, tile, wood flooring, hardware, etc. paid for, inspected, labeled and delivered to your job site BEFORE construction starts. This way there are no construction delays waiting for that custom hood you ordered or that beautiful bathtub you splurged on to come in. The items are at the job site ready to be installed. This will help prevent 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/insist on/  can involve a learning curve 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 some previous experience remodeling, managing a contractor can be...well let's just say...strap on your seat belt. 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 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 a 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. You!

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 him the opportunity to make it right because in most cases this is a relationship worth preserving and everyone wants a beautiful finished project.

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.