Hiring a General Contractor

There is a plethora of General Contractors on Vashon Island, but there is also a reputation for island contractors being unresponsive, unavailable, or under qualified. Horror stories are abundant, and after researching a bit, I am under the impression that often, both parties are responsible when a horror story arises.

One of the biggest problems we face with employing a General Contractor, an independent contractor, or a design firm is a simple misunderstanding and miscommunication of expectations. It is easy to see how this happens, because renovation projects are a discovery process as the project unfolds. Sometimes we just don’t know that we want a custom item until we realize that the items on the market don’t match needs, or the opportunity arises in the budget that was not expected.

Ever feel like you are screaming when trying to get through to your contractor, and still it’s not quite heard? Trust me, they feel the same way!

Ever feel like you are screaming when trying to get through to your contractor, and still it’s not quite heard? Trust me, they feel the same way!


Locking down expectations and getting a clear scope from the start can be a challenge.

Keep reading to know what to look for in the contract!

Keep reading to know what to look for in the contract!

  1. Get all your ducks in a row.

    A contractor should be established and locked in at the start of design. This helps the designer set the design schedule and understand what timeframe is available. There is no point rushing the designer through a project when the contractor will not be available for 6 months. Likewise, there is no reason to expect the contractor to start next month when the design will take 3 months.

    Know that the contractor will not be able to give you pricing right away- without knowing the product selections and complete scope, this is an impossibility. What they should be able to do is give you a range or a realistic ballpark starting point.

  2. Know your expectations

    When do you want to start construction? When do you want it to be completed? Will you live on-site during construction? Where will product be stored?

    Waldron Designs meets with the contractor at the end of each design phase to review the drawings, review any potential issues, and discuss the budget feasibility. If you are a client, you will want to ask your contractor what their response time is for these meetings in regard to budget feasibility and updating the pricing as the project develops. We have waited 7 days, 10 days and 2 months for updated pricing, which ultimately shifts the entire timeline, and increases design fees.

    I have had contractors who do not provide formal paperwork and contractors who do not have email. This is entirely unacceptable in business today. Remember, that while these may be craftspeople… they are also business people. There is no excuse for not being able to communicate in a way that leaves you with a paper trail.

  3. Do your research

    If I am working with you on a project with a contractor, I will research that contractor to the best of my ability. I will have looked up their license and checked to see that they are bonded. I will let you know if I see any red flags. But, I do not hire the contractors and it is important that you do your due diligence and follow through... even if it means waiting for the better option.

    This may also be a good time to check in on our General Contractor Red Flags!

  4. Get the paperwork

    Let’s face it, we live on “island time” and often times business is done “island style”. Just because we’re all neighbors and will see each other in the grocery store, that doesn’t protect you from getting “stiffed” or mistreated if the expectations are not documented. We highly recommend using this contract or at least reviewing it with your General Contractor, once Construction Documents have been supplied and the bid has been accepted. The contractor may provide their own contract for pre-construction services, such as bidding and attending design meetings. Make sure your contract includes the following:

    1. A clear scope of work: This typically cannot happen until the design has been established. However, many contractors do a “pre-construction” agreement which covers the work that is done with the designer before construction begins. Once the design is complete, the agreement may be either adjusted to reflect the project scope or a new agreement can cover this. The pre-construction agreement should also be clear- with an estimated construction start date and expectations during this phase listed as well.

    2. Budget/Estimate/Bid Expectations: When you are working with a designer, neither the designer nor the contractor will be able to tell you what it will cost until the design is complete. What they can do is provide an average range or ballpark. (Keep in mind that while the average kitchen remodel is in the $60k range right now, choosing all the highest end, exclusive items should not be a huge surprise when it comes out to $100k in the bid). Once you have a budget established, the design can start. Once design documents are complete, it is a good time to ask for an estimate. The estimate does not lock in any pricing, it merely allows the contractor to provide allowances based on the design that has been provided. Once the construction documents have been provided, it is fair to ask the contractor for a final bid.

      Ballpark- This is a best guess based on experience.

      Estimate- The estimate is not set in stone, but is a more thorough line item approximation based on what has been provided.

      Bid- The bid leaves very little wiggle room, without change orders. When the contractor provides a bid, they have requested bids from all of their subs and included their mark up. Surprises can still happen in the field, but at this point, there should be very little to no change without a written change order.

      It is important to get all the financial aspects in writing, no matter how trusted your GC is. Many contractors on the island do not like to do the paperwork, but this is business and should absolutely be expected.

    3. Payment policies and timing: Every business has its own approach for payment policies. These should be clear. If different people have different rates, establish who these people are and what their roles will be on your project. The last thing you want to find is that the lead carpenters are charged at a higher rate, but they will only be using lead carpenters on your job- surprise!

    4. Approximate project dates: If they say they plan to start early June but plan poorly and are unable to start until August, it would be nice to have this in writing. Of course, some flexibility is key and it is important to understand that this is an unpredictable business. If they plan to start in early June, but are unable to start until late June and give plenty of communication and updating, this is not unusual and due to the nature of the work, can be inevitable.

    5. A procedure for changes: If your contractor is offering a flat fee, it is important to understand that the fee will change as changes arise. Change orders should be discussed and how they will be presented before doing the work and sending a bill.

    6. An out: Bill the contractor is signed on in March for a June start then goes silent until August… you want a way to get that deposit back and move on, right?

    7. Communication Expectations: This is something you likely will not find in contractor agreements and is not generally recommended to look for in the advice of publications across the internet. However, this is the biggest downfall I’ve run into as it pertains to contractors. There should be regular communication- how often do you expect to hear from them? If you contact them via phone or email, what is a reasonable response time? How often can they deliver late on an expectation? If this is a common problem, the best thing we can do as a community is start drawing the line.

      Because we put other projects starts on hold so that we can manage your project, Waldron Designs’ fees will increase if we are expected to wait longer than the projected timeline. We cannot manage your contractor, so it is important that timelines are communicated, clear, and are in writing. Who is responsible if the contractor’s timeline is pushed out 3 weeks because they were too busy to get a bid in time for us to move on with the design? This means 3 weeks of additional design fees, so it should be clearly communicated with your contractor.

    8. Lien Waivers: Any laborer who comes to work on your project can place a lien on your property claiming that they were not paid. Meaning, that even if you paid the general contractor, his sub can place a lien if he was not paid. The best way to avoid this is to have a “lien waiver” supplied by the contractor for each installment until the next one is due. This means that the contractor must use the funds he has to pay for the work that has been done to that point.

I have had clients (and contractors) recommend that I get my General Contractor’s license… so why haven’t I? See all this work? It’s a hard job they do! I respect that and know that I want my focus to be on your designs. When I am in a place that I can do this, maybe I will. But it is not in the immediate future.

I have had clients (and contractors) recommend that I get my General Contractor’s license… so why haven’t I? See all this work? It’s a hard job they do! I respect that and know that I want my focus to be on your designs. When I am in a place that I can do this, maybe I will. But it is not in the immediate future.

Hiring a contractor requires a lot of homework and due diligence. I wish I could say that I could do this work for you. The best I can do is my part of communication, and education. I am still learning myself! But,a contractor who does not communicate is a huge red flag- and it is worth it to hold out and wait for one who will, regardless of how anxious you are to move forward.

Remember that a contractor has the difficult job of handling multiple projects, all of which will likely make last-minute changes, extending the project timeline. If a contractor is squeezing you into a tight timeline, it may be the reality that your project will be pushed back. However, when that happens, it is your right to expect communication and an updated timeline… not silence and ambiguity. Likewise, when a contractor does not move forward because not all the decisions have been made, that is their right as well, and it makes sense for them to move on to other projects while they wait for the client to gather all the required information. It’s a two-way street and when both parties come together and communicate well, the project runs smoothly and beautifully!

Contractors are employed directly by the property owner, not by the designer. So, it is important that the owner keep them on schedule, prompt them for response, and review the budget.

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