Friday, May 15, 2009


A few good questions now save headaches later! If you are embarking on a renovation job, here is a little quiz for the people doing the job.

From Friday's Globe and Mail
May 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
— Hiring a general contractor is like buying a car: While getting the right one isn't rocket science, getting the wrong one is an unmitigated catastrophe. Take heart. Although the search for a good contractor may seem fraught with peril, you have one big thing going for you: You're able to look into a general contractor's eyes and take your measure of him.

Not that being a good judge of character by itself is enough. Your research begins in the hood. Have your neighbours worked with someone they would recommend? If a contractor has worked on nearby houses, it indicates that he's familiar with the era of your home and the local bylaws.

If your hunt for referrals comes up dry, contact your local home builders' association. It will have a list of members who focus on renovations. Once you've narrowed the list to three to five candidates, invite them to your home one at a time to review the project.

At the first meeting, your goal is to determine whether he's a diligent professional who communicates effectively. He should show up on time, with a note pad, measuring tape and digital camera. He should spend an hour reviewing your drawings and investigating your home.

If he's competent, he'll red-flag areas of concern and speak plainly about timelines and budgets.

There are good contractors out there, just as there are good politicians. But the bad ones use the same tactics: They schmooze, charm, hedge and intimidate. They make claims that can't be proven. If a contractor or a politician is a hack, he won't be able to look you in the eye and answer a simple question both clearly and completely.

So here are a few to throw at him:

What does your chain of command look like?
You want to establish who will be working in your home and the nature of your contractor's relationship with them. If he's a solo show, he'll likely conduct much of the work himself. If so, be sure that he's qualified to wire and plumb.

Larger firms will have carpenters and labourers on their construction team. On a big project, these teams will answer to a site manager, not your contractor. Ask the contractor who your daily contact person will be.

Also, inquire into about your contractor's relationships with electricians, plumbers and so on. Does he have favoured trades he works with on every project? (This will assure quality control but the price will be slightly higher.) Or does he put out to tender parts of the project and award the work to the lowest bid? (This decreases the price, but can create uncertainty about quality.)

What permits are necessary for the job?
If you're doing a large reno, your architect or interior designer will prepare the drawings required for a building-permit application. With your consent and in most jurisdictions, they can apply for the permit. But a general contractor is responsible for getting all the other required permits and inspections for construction.

Be extremely wary of contractors who say you don't need to apply for permits. As the owner of the property, you're the one who's liable — and, I promise you, the city will make it difficult for you on future permit applications if it sees you've broken the rules. It may also fine you or force you to take down whatever changes you've made and return your home to its original condition.

May I see your written proposal?
He should have one. A proposal for construction is an exhaustive document that takes a general contractor a few weeks to prepare and submit. It itemizes the labour and material costs for the project and identifies where more information is needed to complete the cost estimate.

The document should also clearly list what is not included in the pricing. That way, creeps in the scope of the project are easily identified during construction.

How do your fees work?
In renovating homes, most contractors like to work on a "cost-plus" contract — the cost of labour and materials plus a percentage (generally 10 to 15 per cent). They prefer this arrangement because there are so many unknowns lurking in the walls, floors and ceilings of old homes.

It's key, when negotiating a cost-plus agreement, to present the contractor with a complete design and request that his proposal be based on that information. You want him to quantify the project as thoroughly as possible at the front end. He should also identify a cap on the cost of the project — it'll help prevent you from running over budget.

What about changes during construction?
Changes are one of the costliest aspects of any renovation. Your contractor should have a clear protocol for quantifying and implementing changes that arise because of unknown site conditions or shifts in your feelings about the design.

A change-work order outlines the scope of services required for a change, the necessary materials, and the cost and impact to the schedule. When a change arises your contractor should draft a change-work order and submit it for your approval. If you don't sign it, it's not approved.

What's your liability cap?
Your contractor should be willing to provide you with copies of his insurance documents and registrations for workers compensation insurance, liability insurance and, ideally, third-party insurance (to cover subtrades). Ask what the cap on the liability insurance is: You want to be certain that he has enough insurance to cover the value of your home should something happen.

May I have three references?
I read somewhere that only 30 per cent of employers call the references of a potential employee. What lunacy! Call all three of your contractor's references. And don't be shy with the questions — ask how reliable he was, how timely, how clean the job site, how the crew treated your home, whether the budget was accurate and what problems, if any, arose during the whole process. Then ask how the clients feel about the contractor now and whether, given the chance, they'd hire him again.