How to find a contractor . . . tips from an industry insider

Difrancescotruckposter_2Reader John Beaty has a lot of experience in the building industry, working with contractors and subcontractors in many parts of the country. Now living in Pasadena (with a remodeled kitchen I hope he will share with us), John did not have a positive reaction to my recent post on Contractor Red Flags.

In fact, John suggested I stop writing immediately and go work for a remodeling company for at least six months. Gee, that sounds like an awful lot of work. And I'd probably have to get up early. So it seemed easier to invite John to submit his tips on hiring a contractor for the benefit of readers here. What we got is an insightful guide to finding a quality contractor. It's a long essay, but I encourage you to read it through.

At the end, I offer a defense of my own posting (which I remain fond of), as well as a question for John. I'm sure he will entertain all questions you care to ask.

Click here to read what John has to say on Hiring a Contractor.

How much diligence you put into the job of finding a contractor depends on how big and complex the job is. Seems like a “duh” idea. But while most people agree it should take more effort to hire a remodeler than a handyman, they don’t realize that each size and type of job has specific knowledge requirements. So, for a bath overhaul, you need people who do this regularly, not someone who has done it once or twice. With that said, here’s how I approach the problem (in no particular order):

1) Is the job a single type or multiple? Kitchen and bath? Roofing? Landscape? The more things I am asking a general contractor to be responsible for, the more intensely I will probe.

2) How many jobs of this type has he/she done in the last five years? Can I talk to any of the clients? (Will he call and ask them to talk to me? This is critical if the job is expected to run over $100,000. I will not hire a general contractor for a major project without talking to at least one previous client.)

3) What was the last major problem he had on a job and how did he resolve it?

4) How long have his subs worked for him? Why did the last one leave? Can I talk to one of them?

5) Who are his major suppliers? How long has he been dealing with them? Can I talk to them?

6) How many jobs does he typically run at one time? How many people work for him as leads?

7) How do I reach him? Does he answer the phone or return calls promptly?

8)Will he be on site for every major step: inspections, start of new phase? I reserve the right to stop his subs from proceeding if he is not.

9) For really major jobs such as a whole-house remodel, major additions, anything over $100,000, I want bank references. I also want lien releases from all subs and suppliers.

10) Pay: I will put down NO MORE than 10% until work commences (Kathy’s note: this is the law) and then I am happy to make progress payments on a predetermined schedule, PROVIDED ALL LIEN RELEASES ARE SUBMITTED, up to 85 percent of the contract price, then 10 percent more is payable after final inspection and the last 5 percent after the punch list is completed.

11) License and insurance. Call to confirm absolutely.

Obviously most of this is for very large jobs; you can’t do this with a $5,000 fix-up.

For smaller jobs, I want to talk to a recent client, and I want a schedule of payments and I want paper — insurance, license and contract. I will not put down more than 10 percent before work starts in any case; this weeds out the casual and un-businesslike general contractors. Yes, I will write a contract for any job I hire someone to do, and check license and insurance. My mother is still paying 25 years later for a workers’ compensation claim that should have been covered by the contractor but his insurance wasn’t valid, so she got stuck.

The point I am trying to get across is this: Any list of “What to ask when hiring a contractor” has to reflect the seriousness of the work. And many lists don’t even touch on talking to suppliers and subs. In this context, “How old is the truck he drives” doesn’t even enter into it. How timely is he? Organized? Does he take good notes, or ask the same questions over and over? Is he clean? I mean, does he wipe his feet, leave garbage spilling out of the truck, with McDonald’s all over the paperwork? Is he boastful with no backup?

This isn’t a complete list, but it’s pretty thorough. I sometimes have had to wait six months for the contractor I wanted. I have also had to talk to lots of general contractors to get one good one, and I have also not done what I knew I should do and gotten royally screwed. Ah, well . . .”

Thanks, John. Nicely put and very generous of you.

Now, my defense: I never said there would be a red flag for an “old” truck. I said a “beat-up” truck. I’m thinking cracked windshield, bashed-in tailgate that won’t open, side mirror missing, bald tires. You get the picture. So while I wrote “beat-up,” you read “old.” Not my intention. Old, clean, well-maintained trucks are cool.

And finally, my question: Why do you look for a general contractor? I mean, with all your experience in the building industry, why would you, of all people, not act as your own contractor? Many less experienced people opt for that remodeling method. Why not you?

2 Comments on How to find a contractor . . . tips from an industry insider

  1. Jeff

    Read these articles with great interest as I am embarking on a major re-model in Los Angeles. I am having a heck of a time finding a good GC. Was wondering if you could recommend one. Send email to

  2. John Beaty

    Why do I look for a GC? 2 major reasons:
    1) Because if I wanted to be a GC, I’d want to get paid like one. 🙂 I need to earn a living, not chase after subs and materials.
    2) Because a good GC has relationships with the subs who do the actual work, and I can’t get the same quality without investing the same time into their relationships that the GC has.
    Yes, for “beat-up” I read “old” Come look at my roofer’s truck and then at his work, and tell me there is any correlation. I think it’s true that if the truck is in such a bad shape as there is a questions as to whether or not it’ll get them there, fine, But otherwise, not important.
    And I have acted as my own GC (the NY remodel was one example) but that just means I’m working 2 jobs. I still show up on site every day, sometimes twice, I check all electrical and plumbing before close-up, I measure wall switches, I know what sheetrock should look like etc etc. But being new to Pasadena, I don’t have a list of specialty contractors (subs) that I can depend on. That means I have to individually interview etc.
    Like the man said, the attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client. I’m really in agreement with that. I can get just a caught up in the minutiae of the job as any homeowner, and having a good GC can help you avoid the feature creep inherent in remodelling. In addition, they help set and keep budgets, they know what inspectors are looking for and in general, keep the job MOVING. I have rarely regretted paying the GC’s fee. (Although there was this one guy…)
    Thanks for letting me blab on your blog. I’m sending photos to the other email address; feel free t post them.