Working with a general contractor

If you’re gearing up for a major home renovation, get ready to make hundreds of decisions, from figuring out the floor plan to picking paint colors and plumbing fixtures.

None is more important than choosing the right general contractor for the job. When remodeling projects go bust, nine times out of ten, problems can be traced to an issue between the homeowners and their GC.

To avoid that fate on your next renovation, steer clear of these five hiring mistakes.        

Mistake #1: Going with the first contractor you meet

It’s a bit like dating—you don’t marry the first person you meet, no matter how perfect he or she might seem. For a major renovation, plan to consult with five to seven GCs in person. That might seem like a lot of work, but you’ll learn something new about the project (and yourself) with every meeting. Then, get bids from at least three finalists. This will give you an accurate sense of the project cost.

While the conventional wisdom is to throw out the highest and lowest bids, if the priciest GC seems like the best fit, ask if they have any wiggle room with the budget. Most contractors are willing to negotiate, especially on large projects.               

Mistake #2: Not doing the due diligence

Meeting face-to-face with potential GCs is the first critical step. Then comes the vetting process. Starting by making sure the GC meets your state’s licensing requirements and that they’re fully insured. It might turn out that the pro simply forgot to update their paperwork, not that they’re out to deceive you.

Regardless, if something goes wrong on the project, you could end up suffering the consequences if their paperwork isn’t in order. So ask to see the credentials upfront. Any GC who is running a reputable business will happily oblige.

Mistake #3: Ignoring your gut

You want a GC who runs a tight ship. But they also need to be someone you feel comfortable with. Remember, this is the start of a long-term relationship. Listen to your gut.

  • Are they trustworthy?
  • Do you have good rapport?
  • If there’s a spouse or partner in the picture, as well as an architect or designer, how is the total team chemistry?

These intangibles will be so important once the work gets underway and stress levels start to rise.  

Mistake #4: Bringing the contractor in late in the design process

We often hear about homeowners who spend months working with their architect on a design they love, only to discover that it’s way beyond their budget. That’s why you want to get your GC, with their hands-on knowledge, involved in the design process as early as possible.

They will help you avoid things you can’t afford. For example, the extra-wide doorway that looks easy enough on paper that will add tens of thousands of dollars in extra structural work.

Mistake #5: Going with a handshake agreement

It doesn’t matter if the GC is your best friend or your brother-in-law. A written contract is essential on any home remodel. Not only will the document keep you and your contractor on the same page, but it could also provide legal protection in the case of a serious falling out.

The contract should spell out the full scope of the project, including an itemized list of products and materials, as well as a payment schedule. Try not to have a lot of “allowances” in the contract. These are basically, blank spaces that can give the GC a lot of leeway with product and material costs, leading to potential budget overruns.

For good measure, include a target completion date in the contract. Yes, there’s a good chance the project will go long, but it’s still helpful to set a goal with your GC and put it in writing.


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