A: The best resource for finding a contractor is your architect. We have either worked with contractors that we can recommend or have architect colleagues that have worked with contractors they recommend. If you get three residential architects in a room within minutes we will be talking about contractors. Our client’s happiness depends so much on this that we are constantly swapping information on who is doing great work, who has the best superintendent and who is priced competitively. Even better, we know who to avoid.

When you have a list of 3 or 4 contractors here are some questions to ask:

  1. Is the contractor licensed, bonded and insured?
    You can find all of this information at https://secure.lni.wa.gov/verify
    Search by company name to see if their license is up-to-date, as well as, bonding, insurance and worker’s compensation information.While you’re online, also check for unresolved complaints at the Better Business Bureau:
    www.bbb.org. Even good contractors can have complaints, but you want to see if they are resolved.
  2. Ask for at least three client references and then call them.
    The first question you should ask is:
    • Would you recommend this contractor to a friend? If no, then you have your answer.
    If yes, then you can also ask:
    • Did the contractor communicate clearly?
    • How was the quality of craftsmanship?
    • Was the project finished on schedule?
    • Was it within the budget and, if not, what were the areas of extra cost? (Often client initiated changes were the source of extra costs… “While you’re here can you ______.”)
    • Did you feel the contractor was fair and honest?
    • Is there anything else I might want to know before hiring this contractor?
  3. Ask the contractor about workload, potential starting dates and how long it’d take to finish your project?
    The good news is that the economy is better and architects and contractors are busy again. This can be bad news for clients who may not be able to get on the schedule of a contractor as quickly as they want. Some clients chose another contractor, but others use this time to make thoughtful decisions and get all of their ducks in a row.
  4. Does your project fit their experience and expertise?
    You don’t want your ground-up, new construction house to be the first for a contractor, but you also don’t want your kitchen remodel to be overlooked by a firm with a focus on much bigger projects.
  5. Does the style of the houses they build match the style of your new house?
    You might think this question applies more to selecting an architect than a contractor, but if your contractor only has experienced with, for example craftsman style, then they might have difficulty with the details of a modern house. Better yet, ask them if you can visit a project they completed with a similar scale, budget and style.
  6. Do they use American Institute of Architects (AIA) Owner Contractor Agreements?
    The AIA contracts are vetted by a slew of lawyers and are, frankly, biased toward owners so they can be trusted to represent your best interests. If a contractor doesn’t use an AIA contract, ask to see a copy of their contract and have your lawyer review it. It costs money to do this, but it is money well spent to protect your interests and avoid problems down the line.
  7. Ask to see a copy of a typical estimate, billing statement and project schedule.
    It’s important to see these documents since so much will be riding on them for your project. A detailed cost estimate can serve as a tool for making educated budget decisions. It is also a way for your architect to see if anything has been overlooked in an estimate—mistakes happen and you want to catch them before you start construction. If a billing statement is so byzantine that it is impossible to unravel you don’t want to sign on for months of forensic accounting. If the contractor does not regularly provide project schedules, that can also be a warning sign.
  8. Find out who the point person will be on your project.
    It will most likely not be the charming person you interview. That’s okay, but you need to know that there will be a person assigned to your project that you can call if the tarp blows off your roof at 2 am. Typically, there will there be a project superintendent on site daily who will know all the ins-and-outs of your project.
  9. For families, I also think it is important to ask about the use of day labor on a remodel project.
    For safety and peace of mind, you really need to know that the people working on your home are accountable and traceable. It’s just not a good idea to use laborers that a contractor may have found at a Home Depot parking lot. This is a good time to ask about a contractor’s policy.
  10. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with your contractor, are you compatible?
    It’s not the goal to be best friends with your contractor (at least wait until the project is completed), but is this someone you feel comfortable with, has a compatible communication style and that you trust? If not, then keep looking. There are going to be bumps in the road in any project and if you have signed on with someone that you can’t work with, it is going to make coming to resolutions on even minor issues unnecessarily difficult.
    At the end of this process, you will probably have a sense of who will be the best fit for you and your project. Whether you negotiate a time-and-materials contract or ask contractors to bid on your project, you will have solid information to make a selection. Remember your architect is there to help you with this process.