Category Archive: Hiring and selecting general construction contractors

Remodeling University: How to Hire a Contractor

The First and Most Important Step for a Successful Home Remodeling Project:
How to Hire a Contractor

One of the hardest parts of a home remodeling project is selecting a contractor. Your contractor is the one who you need to trust to successfully complete your home remodeling project. Your home is probably your most important asset. Make selecting a contractor as painless as possible by taking your time, following your instincts and doing your homework. Start your project off right by following the tips below for selecting a reliable and professional contractor.

Types of Contractors & Home Improvement Professionals:
The type of contractor you need to hire depends upon the size and nature of your project. Understanding the different types of contractors will help you narrow down your search.

General Contractor – General contractors handle most home remodeling projects from start to finish. They typically hire subcontractors and work in conjunction with architects and designers to get the job done. Think of a general contractor as the project manager of your project. [Editor: the distinction made here about General Contractors working mostly though subs and Design-Build Contractors (see below) working with in-house crews is inaccurate in our opinion. The main difference would be that the Design-Build firm incorporates the design phase in its services, often offering it ‘in-house’ as is accurately noted below].

Architects – Architects design larger projects, such as room additions and home remodeling projects that require structural changes.

Interior Designers – Interior designers can work alone or with an architect to plan and design the finishing touches for your project.

Design/Build Contractors – Design/build contractors provide the same services as a general contractor but typically do not sub-contract the work [Editor: please see our editorial comment above].
They have architects and designers on staff. Homeowners do not need to hire any additional contractors or designers.

If you don’t know where to start looking for a contractor, the best place to start is by asking your friends, family and co-workers who you trust. If your friends and family were happy with a contractor, then chances are you will be, too. It’s best to consider recommendations from friends and family who have had similar projects completed. If you are planning a kitchen remodel and addition, don’t necessarily take a recommendation from a friend who had garage and deck work. Include questions about whether the job was completed on time and whether the contractor was accessible to answer their questions and address any issues. Keep in mind that each person has his own idea of quality. Inspect the work completed at your friend’s house so that you can determine if it is the quality that you want.

Contact the Contractor
Call or E-mail the contractor you are interested in and ask a series of initial questions to find out how long have he been in business; how many similar projects he has completed; what type of suppliers he uses, and whether he will work with the materials of your choice?

Get references and ask if you can view any of the completed projects. This may be more difficult with an indoor project. However, if a homeowner had a wonderful experience and is pleased with the results, he’ll probably be happy to show you the completed project. You can also request to visit jobs in progress. This step will give you a lot of insight into how the contractor works and interacts with his clients.

License and Insurance
Walk the other way if you come across an unlicensed contractor. Unlicensed contractors are a red flag. Any contractor who claims to be professional would not be without a license. According to the Federal Trade Commission, “most states license electrical and plumbing contractors, only 36 states have some type of licensing and registration statutes affecting contractors, remodelers. The licensing can range from simple registration to a detailed qualification process.” Check with your local licensing authorities to see what a contractor in your area is required to have.

Liability insurance is equally important. In most states, a license will not be granted without liability insurance [Editor: In California, there is no requirement for a contractor to have a liability insurance. A license will not be granted without a bond, but that is very different from liability coverage] . If the contractor uses sub-contractors, you must check that the sub-contractor has liability insurance or is covered under the policy of the contractor. This is extremely important because if a sub-contractor gets injured while working at your home and he is not covered by any liability insurance, he is legally allowed to sue you for the damages. [Editor: injuries to workers and subs are not covered by a liability policy, unless the general contractor was negligent. Always ask for and verify that every worker on your job site is covered with a workers’ compensation insurance. This is a mandated coverage in most states, but it is too often absent, leaving homeowners with a significant liability in case there is an injury]

A simple Internet search will reveal if there are any unresolved complaints against a contractor. Additionally, check with your local Better Business Bureau (BBB). [Editor: In California, check with the CSLB]

Check Out Remodeling Magazines
Several remodeling magazines, such as “Remodeling,” publish an annual list of the biggest home improvement companies in the country. While biggest isn’t always best, consulting with these companies will lead you to recommendations for quality contractors in your area. Additionally, remodeling magazines can help you think of design ideas for your project and to learn about new products.

Resist the Urge
The lowest proposal is definitely not the best proposal. For many homeowners, that urge to select the lowest bid is strong. Resist the urge to go with the lowest proposal. Instead, use your instinct, be smart and your homework will lead you to the best contractor for your project.

The Contract
Learn all you need to know about contracts here.

Written by Marcy Tate
Marcy is a home improvement blogger at the Networx blog..

Remodeling University: Dealing with Hazardous Materials

A couple of days ago I had a call from a gentleman, whose parents hired a Los Angeles contractor that removed acoustic ceiling material as part of the demolition work at their home. The problem was that no one bothered to test the material for asbestos beforehand and, after it was all removed, it turned out asbestos was present.

Why is this a problem? Asbestos, once air born (no longer encapsulated) remains suspended in the air, contaminates flooring, walls, furnishings, clothing, etc. It becomes extraordinarily expensive to abate such contamination and complete success is questionable.

And why is that a problem? Because studies have conclusively demonstrated that long term exposure to asbestos leads to many health issues, not the least of which is cancer!

And that gentleman’s parents? They are very elderly and are staying in their home, in spite of the asbestos. Guests and family though, cannot visit them due to fear for their health, as the house is massively contaminated. Both the state and federal governments are now investigating. And the contractor? Well, not surprisingly – no sign of them (and this was a license company, as best the owners could tell).

Of the possible hazardous materials at homes, asbestos and lead would be at the top of the list (there are others). Please read a previous post regarding new lead-paint regulations. Like asbestos, the adverse effects of lead exposure are well researched and documented. Lead is especially devastating to kids and to pregnant woman. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you, your family or the workers you hired are placed in harm’s way.

Here’s is what to do:
1. Age of home: Neither asbestos nor lead should be found in new construction. Asbestos wise, there might be a risk if the house (or ceiling material) is from 71′ or before. Lead paint wise, your ‘cut off year’ is 1978. If your home is newer, odds are good you should not worry about asbestos or lead.
2. Testing: do not let anyone scrape off your (71′ or older) acoustic ceiling until and unless it was tested for asbestos. Asbestos test is inexpensive. Not doing it is a fools’ bargain. With regards to lead paint, starting April 22, 2010 no one is allowed to disturbed more than 6 square feet of interior paint (or replace a single window) unless they either tested the paint for lead or assume lead is present and take the required precautions. Lead testing is more involved than asbestos (more sampling is required) but it might be cheaper than to spend money on precautions if lead is not there.
3. Contractor: make sure your contractor is an EPA certified firm to deal with lead paint. This is applicable to your general contractor, to your painter, to your window replacement company or to any person or company working on your home, as the replacement of even a single window, as mentioned above, falls under the EPA regulations. No exceptions.
4. Records: review the credentials of the testing company/lab. Ask for a copy of the results and keep all pertinent paperwork for your records. If any abatement work is done, keep those records as well. This paperwork may become handy when you are selling your home or when a CalOsha or an EPA inspector comes calling.
5. Educate yourself: Reading this blog is a very good start. There are many online resources and publications available (EPA and CalOsha have great publications available free of charge) that can help you get a sense of what the correct abatement or defensive procedures should be. Educate yourself so that you could intelligently review your contractor’s efforts and confirm that what is done at your home is in compliance with the ‘best practices’. Its your family’s health that’s at stake here.
6. Cut costs at your own peril: Abatement can be costly. There are endless stories about homeowners that opted to ‘save’ by not properly handling and disposing of hazardous substances. If you don’t get caught “all that’s at stake” are your family’s health (and that of the workers – a potential liability issue for you to consider). If you do get caught (neighbors complain, a worker complained, an inspector drove by, etc.) the costs could be enormous in fines and in remediation work that would be needed to undue the damage.

“Knowledge is power” if and when it is intelligently acted upon. You now started collecting the knowledge. Next you ‘simply’ need to take the needed action. Think of Hazardous Materials as just one more thing to consider when planning a remodeling project.

If your home falls within the ‘problematic’ age group, a little caution will go a long way.

Happy remodeling!

Remodeling University: Permits and your remodeling project

Let’s talk a little bit about the roll of the city in your project. When are permits required? When are plans a necessity? What kind of inspections would be needed? And more.

So here are some highlights to consider:
1. Permits are typically die for any project inspections would be required for. If you are painting your home or redoing your driveway there is nothing a city inspector will look at. Correspondingly, a permit is not required. Projects that have any structural, electrical, plumbing or mechanical elements to them will typically need to be inspected (unless minimal finish work, such as replacing an old faucet with a new one, is what’s done).
2. If you are in doubt about the inspection issue, call your local department of Building & Safety ahead of the work.
3. As far as the city is concerned, plans are needed anytime your remodeling project involves structural work and/or changes to the building envelop, layout or use.
4. If you project is a kitchen remodeling or a room addition in Los Angeles (for example), multiple inspections would be required during the work. In general inspections would be needed as follows – before footings or slabs are poured, before walls, floors and roofs are covered, after insulation is set, after drywall and exterior lathing are nailed and at work completion. Note that this is NOT a complete list and you should consult with your local B & S department.

In addition to the cost of architectural design and drafting and structural engineering, some plans will also involve a survey, grading plan, soil study, energy calculations and more. Each of the involved consultants is an additional ‘soft’ cost that you need to be aware of and budget for.

In some instances, you will also need to clear additional planning hurdles. There might be a Home Owners’ Association whose approval you’ll need to secure (even before the city’s) or some planning commission (such as the Coastal Commission in Los Angels and others). These type of approvals will often include requests for artist renderings of the project and attending public hearings to present the project.

Last, let’s not forget the ‘official’ costs involved. These vary based on location, but would include a plan check fee, permit fees (for building, electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits) and, in California, a special tax for all addition over 500SF to support our wonderful public schools system (take shelter, this one is a whopper).

In addition to consulting with your local B & S, you should have a conversation about these issues with your architect, designer and/or your general contractor. Los Angeles can be a daunting place to get plans approved, but it is routinely done. All you might need is some professional help.

Happy remodeling!

Remodeling University: Do you really need a general contractor?

With all the discussion (see previous posts) about the best way to hire a general contractor, Los Angeles residents might ask themselves a legitimate questions: “do I really need a general contractor on my project?”

Well, in my opinion, the answer depends on your particular circumstances.

Generally speaking, the more complex your project is and the larger it is, the more a competent general contractor is needed. Many homeowners might not be aware of it, but being an owner-builder is a viable option for many remodeling projects. That category (owner-builder) is also recognized by the city for the purpose of securing permits.

As an owner-builder, you act as the GC (general contractor). So let’s say that you live in Los Angeles and Kitchen remodeling is what you are considering. You might decide to do the demolition yourself, have an electrician take care of the electrical, a handy man patch the walls, you’ll do the painting, the Home Depot would supply and install the cabinets and a friend of yours would install the tile counters. Is that a legitimate approach? It sure is…providing;

Here are some of the challenges you should be aware of:
1. Like for anything else, for this too there is a learning curve. Even if you are a very fast learner, chances are that you’ll have a few missteps the ‘first time out’.
2. Design knowhow: the more complex the project, the more critical the design would be. Unless there is a design professional on your team, yours would be a hit-n-miss experience.
3. Code and construction knowhow: Someone on your team needs to be knowledgeable in the various codes pertaining to your project and in the best sequencing for your particular work.
4. Competent supervision: while a layperson can review finish work and judge it satisfactory (or not), the same does not hold true for ‘rough’ work. As a layperson, can you tell if the plumbing is run correctly, the wires properly sized, the drywall legally nailed, etc?
5. Availability: will you be able to be on site to see that things are done as agreed to or as needed? Was the gravel base placed before the driveway was poured? Was the second coat of paint applied? Were the old pipes abandoned and new ones ran in the wall? Unless you are – A. On site to supervise and note all these things, short cuts are certain to take place and B. Even if you are at home to supervise, do you know enough about construction’s ‘best practices’ to be able to effectively supervise?

None of it is rocket science. Truly. But there is enough complexity in today’s homes that you need to consider your options; if you have a basic project that does not involve multiple trades, is not too complex and the overall scope and budget are small, I think you can take it on yourself, should you be so inclined. Just take time to educate yourself (endless resources available online these days) and stay on top of everyone. If, on the other hand, the home remodeling you are considering is complex, involves structural work, requires design and/or is broad in scope and budget, I strongly feel that teaming with a competent, professional and experienced general contractor would be in your best interest.

Happy remodeling!

Remodeling University: Choosing a General Contractor

As noted before, the subject of how to choose the best contractor for your project is of critical importance. It is probably the most important decision you’ll have to make with regards to any substantial remodeling adventure. It is also a subject that is impossible to cover adequately in a single blog post. So here is the second installment;

Beyond the brouhaha of a sales pitch and independent of the appeal of low, or too-good-to-be-true quotes, an alert homeowner can find clues and telltale indications relating to the remodeling companies being considered. The challenge of course, is to ignore the pull of the ‘great’ low quote or the charisma of the persuasive salesperson long enough to be able to objectively evaluate these criteria.

1. Contract: educate yourself about what a complete and proper Home Improvement Contract should contain (in California, use the CSLB website). Ask the contractor for all his contract papers and compare to what’s required. You will often finds remarkable short falls in what the contractor’s contract looks like to what it needs to be. Note that these state mandated contract elements are there to protect you, the consumer.
2. Payment Schedule: Never, ever work with anyone that requires substantial sums ‘with commencement’ of anything (unless you are ordering a custom item, like cabinets). A good Payment Schedule is hinged upon Completion of stages of work, not commencement of them.
3. Success leaves clues: if the contractor is indeed professional, experienced and competent and has been doing this for a time – what does he have to show for it? Did he receive any awards? Any positive media recognition? Talk is cheap – the proof is what you need to look for.
4. Scope of Work: how detailed and complete is the Scope of Work? Worry of its not. Did you hear the sentence “don’t worry about it” once too often? Worry about it.
5. Portfolio of work: well, first many construction companies in Los Angeles (and I’m certain, elsewhere) don’t have a portfolio of their work, but may be doing great work. If you did not look through a portfolio ask and go look at projects (recommended at any event). The point here is about those who do show you a nice portfolio. Are these pictures of projects these contractors actually did or are these pictures off the internet, manufacturer’s brochures and so forth? A keen observer should be able to tell.
6. Deposit amount: are you being asked for an unreasonably high amount up front? That’s a big red-flag. In California, the deposit cannot exceed $1000 or 10%, whichever IS LESS!

These are just some quick examples of indications you might be heading into troubled waters. Remember that in remodeling the amounts involved are relatively large and the ‘entry threshold of membership’ is very low (it doesn’t take much to present one self as a contractor or even to procure a license to be one). Together, these two factors are a recite for trouble.

A proactively cautious homeowner that is diligent and careful about any hiring decision will likely end up fairing better with regards to the project than those owners that are not.

Happy remodeling!

Remodeling University: Choosing a General Contractor

Choosing the right general contractor for your project is the single most important decision you will make with regards to your remodeling work. The scope of this subject far exceeds that of a single blog post, so I expect to revisit this issue several times in future posts.

For starters, why is this such an important decision?
– Unlike an ‘off the shelf’ item’ your project is yet to be ‘manufactured’. Yet, the ‘factory’ qualities are unknown.
– Once a general contractor is hired, you are no longer dealing with a regular business transaction. You are now a ‘hostages’ along for the ride.
– The contractor’s knowhow, expertise, notions regarding quality and ethics, financial strength and so forth – all critical to the success of your work – are all unknowns for the most part.
– The contractor’s demeanor under pressure and when problems arise (and they will) will greatly affect your experience of the project and ultimate outcome
– Cost overruns and time overruns, so pathetically common in remodeling, could adversely affect your family and you and are mostly contractor related
– The ‘value proposition’ or ‘what you are getting for your money’ is entirely hinged on the contractor you hire
– Of course, there are the nightmarish scenarios associated with unsavory, aggressive and/or underhanded contractors (that our industry is full of, regrettably), which often result in job-abandonment, walk-aways (with padded pockets and little work completed), liens being filed by unpaid vendors or subs and the like.

So it is clear why this is a critical decision. Why than, do so many homeowners fail to make the right, or at least the best choice?

Well, the blame here is shared, I believe, by both the contractors and the owners:
– Regrettably, some of the more shady and aggressive contractors out there are also some of the most accomplished companies as far as sales are concerned.
– Much like con artists that could be charming, charismatic and endearing, so are some of the salespeople working for such companies. It is almost too easy to be misled
– Mediocre contractors (and worse) compete on price alone. They would often be among the lower bidders
– Greed is a powerful motivator. Affordability is almost as strong. When homeowners want a more involved project than they can afford, they sometimes lose some common sense and better judgment when faced with a ‘great’ (read: too good to be true) bid.
– WIth so many contractors out there and with the ‘urban myth’ of the ‘get 3 estimates’ guiding homeowners’ hiring practices, odds are the homeowners choice for a contractor would be the wrong one.

For starters, I strongly recommend downloading and reading our free report: “The 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make Before Remodeling that YOU must avoid”. You will find this report on our Home page ( at the top right corner.

Beyond that, read through our articles and elsewhere about best practices for hiring a contractor. You will find more about this right here, in future posts, so please feel free to come back.

Happy remodeling!