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.
Locking down expectations and getting a clear scope from the start can be a challenge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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. Make sure your contract includes the following:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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