Contractors: Finding a reliable contractor; getting bids; making a contract

The best way to find a good contractor for a job you want done is to consult a friend or neighbor who has recently had a similar project completed. If you can’t easily get a referral, ask at building supply yards or your municipality’s building inspector’s office. They generally know who uses good materials, has his finances in order, and completes jobs promptly. As a last resort, check with your local trade association or look in the classified telephone directory.

In all cases, get financial and professional references from the contractor and check them out. Go to see other jobs he has done if possible.

A builder who takes on big projects and coordinates crews of tradesmen is usually known as a general contractor. He supervises all aspects of a project, arranges for tests and inspections required by law, and makes sure that the work is done on time and to a specified quality. As much as one-third or more of the cost of the job will be his fee.

An individual tradesman, such as a plumber, carpenter, or landscaper, who works for a general contractor or directly for you is called a subcontractor. You can save money by acting as the general contractor yourself and hiring the subcontractors directly. To do this successfully, you must be able to visit the site at least once a day, to understand and coordinate the different trades, and to deal with banks and the local building department. And you must have insurance to cover any potential claims or liabilities that could occur.

Getting bids
If your project is large, you may already have an architect who can recommend contractors or who may act as general contractor. If you don’t, draw up sketches or plans and list what you want done. Include materials by brand name, where possible, and appliances by make and model.

Submit the same plan and list to at least three different contractors and ask for bids and time schedules. When the bids comeback, evaluate the cost, the quality of the contractor’s past work, and the time it will take him to complete the work. Don’t hire on price alone. Base your decision on the best quality at the most convenient time as well as price.

If a price seems too high or if the job is small, you can pay for time and materials rather than a fixed price, but this is a gamble. The job will be cheaper if the work goes quickly but more expensive if any difficulties arise. Contracts

A contract can be prepared by the contractor, by your, lawyer, or by you if the job is small. It should be a written agreement specifying what, when, and how all aspects of the project are to be accomplished. It should include exact dates for start and finish, prices and brand names, and exact descriptions and specifications of the work to be accomplished. Anything not written down could lead to an unpleasant surprise later on.

Include a written procedure for changes you decide to make during construction; changes are where most conflicts arise. They can interrupt a job and add costs, but if both you and the contractor agree and “sign off” changes, it won’t be a surprise when the final bill is higher than the contract price.

The contract should also specify when payments are to be made. Always reserve a substantial payment until after the job is 100 percent complete. This will keep the contractor responsive and give you the power to insist that details be completed to your satisfaction. Also make sure that the cleanup is included so that sawdust is swept and debris is hauled away.