Choosing the Right Contractor to Build Your Home

A note from The Heinrich Team:

We would like to introduce Jay Gentry, one of our very good friends who has a passion for sustainable home building. Jay has offered to share his expertise on our website so that our viewers can have the most current information from a local expert. Jay has indicated that he is happy to answer any comments or questions you leave in the comments section below the article.

Choosing the Right Contractor to Build Your Home | Tip #1 – Choose Your Contractor As Early As Possible

We have all heard the “yikes” stories of finding out that your construction or remodeling project will cost twice as much and take twice as long as you thought… or the breakdown in communication and trust among the homeowner, designer, and/or builder – in the middle of the project.

Both can be avoided by selecting your contractor in the beginning.

  • The old paradigm of “design first then get bids from contractors” is giving way to the much more effective “team approach” from the beginning of the whole process.
    • Ultimately, achieving the vision requires the collaboration of three key stakeholders
      • You, the homeowner, provide clear direction based on your needs, wants, priorities, and preferences… along with the realities of time and budget
      • The architect or designer develops an “informed design” based on function, aesthetics, and desired performance
      • The builder brings expertise on construction process (alternatives, budget, and schedule) and commitment to achieve the vision
    • This collaboration is best when the team is formed from the beginning
      • Architects/designers are well qualified to interpret your vision and needs into a design that is both functional and aesthetically on target… but generally do not monitor expected construction costs to ensure that the evolving design stays on track with the realities of your budget and time requirements
      • An experienced builder can provide ongoing cost analysis, suggest possible alternatives, and help keep the evolving design within the investment parameters… and if necessary, can provide real information to guide any adjustments to those parameters, or to your priorities
      • A builder’s experience working with local planning and building departments can also save time, money, and headaches from planning submittal through final inspections and sign off
      • But most important, there is no “handoff” when the actual construction begins. Instead, the team will have been collaborating for months and the builder will be well informed and working from an understanding of the project rather than just a set of plans
      • This understanding of priorities and the intelligence behind various design decisions can dramatically improve communication, reduce misunderstandings, and ultimately, result in a better finished product

Note: If your architect/designer does not plan to involve a contractor from early in the process, I recommend that you ask him/her to contemplate the previous five bullets and possibly reconsider for your project

Choosing the right contractor to build your home

3 Tips for Choosing the Right Contractor to Build Your Home

Choosing the Right Contractor to Build Your Home | Tip #2 – Ask the Right Questions

If you are going to choose the right contractor early, you will need a set of questions to guide your selection process. Most of the following questions are intended to open areas for consideration and discussion. Expect the answers to trigger additional follow up questions and examples.

  • Questions of yourself – before you interview contractors, have a clear idea of your own expectations and concerns
    • How do you plan to live in the home?
      • Full time/part time
      • Expected activities weekdays/weekends/special events
      • Planned visitors frequency/ages/activities
      • How will your answers to the above change of evolve over the next 10/20/30 years
      • Will you keep the home in the family or sell at some point
    • What are you anticipating during the construction process?
      • How frequently will you (or other stakeholders) be in town during the construction process
      • What are you hoping for, looking forward to, excited about
      • What are you concerned about or hoping to avoid
    • When your home is completed, what is perfection? Complete the following sentences.
      • Functionally, it will be perfect if…
      • Aesthetically, it will be perfect if…
      • Emotionally, I will be delighted if…

In the following section we will cover questions you might consider asking your prospective contractor. The questions under Basics are pretty straightforward and answered easily. Questions in the remaining categories require more thoughtful answers and the discussions that follow will give you insights into a contractor’s organization, priorities, and commitment. More importantly, the experience will give you an indication of what it will be like to work closely with them while they build your home. (Depth of discussions will differ based on your priorities and level of interest in the different topics.)

  • Questions for your prospective contractor
    • Basics. do they have the following… and with whom?
      • A “Classification B Contractor’s License” that is “Active” with the State Licensing Board
      • Worker’s Compensation Insurance
      • Adequate Liability Insurance
      • Records to ensure that all subcontractors are licensed and have current worker’s compensation and liability insurance
      • A complying job safety program, regular safety training and job-site inspections
      • Certification as a Green Building Professional (this is not required but I view it as an important priority for compliance with increasingly stringent building codes… and for sustainability)
    • What do they believe differentiates them from other qualified contractors in the area, and how does that differentiation apply to your specific project?
    • How does their particular business model work with respect to the following:
      • Supervisory positions from job-site to senior management (experience, responsibilities, billing)
      • Selection and management of sub-contractors (when do they typically use subs, what is the selection process, how are they managed)
      • Job-site tracking process (employee hours by task, materials, products, and systems)
      • Job-site clean up
    • How do they go about creating and tracking the following “accounting related” processes and tools? (Note: You will want to go into full detail with the contractor you eventually choose, but during the selection process you may want to limit the discussions based on your own level of interest.)
      • Budgets – What do they provide in terms of preliminary budget, iterations of the planning and building budgets, and budget comparisons as the numbers become more specific (from estimates and allowances to bids, quotes, and actuals)
      • Schedules – When and in what formats do they provide construction schedules, and what is the frequency of updates
      • Selections – What is their process for identifying and managing the myriad selections you will need to make (windows, doors, mechanical systems, tile, fixtures, finishes, etc.), so that the project stays on schedule
      • What types of contracts do they offer/prefer, and what is the process for change orders, if needed (At this point you are interested in learning about available options and preferences for evaluation purposes)
    • What standard practices and tools do they employ to manage the ongoing communication among stakeholders throughout the building process?
      • Establishing expectations and protocols for the communication process at the beginning of the project
      • Regularly scheduled meetings (on-site, other face-to-face, GoToMeeting, telephone) of the stakeholder team, and do they provide agendas and report on decisions and/or outcomes from the meetings
      • Ongoing electronic communication… what do they use to achieve 24/7 communications among stakeholders for questions, issues, decisions, pictures, etc.
    • What is their view of “performance” as an element of quality construction?

If you ask the above question verbatim don’t be surprised if you get a blank look. Despite the advancement of building science and overwhelming evidence of the positive impacts you can enjoy, for a small additional investment… performance, beyond what is required by code, is still not a priority consideration for many builders.

From my perspective it is a foundational issue, but requires too much explanation for this specific post, so I am only suggesting the one question for now, just so you can get a read on the contractor’s awareness and understanding of what is coming as building codes evolve.

I am planning on a subsequent post on “Performance as an Element of Quality”, but in the meantime I have provided a short explanation below, and would be happy to answer any questions that you have. My contact information is available through the Heinrich Team or at the end of this post.

If the idea of home performance makes sense to you… here is a brief explanation:

  • What is their view of “performance” as an element of quality construction?
    • Thanks to building science we already know how to build a home that is 70% to 90% more energy efficient than a home that is simply code compliant
    • If you are already planning to build a high quality home, the additional investment for achieving an extremely high level of performance is generally between 5% and 9%
    • Extreme energy efficiency comes largely from constructing an airtight building envelope and then providing continuous fresh (and filtered) air within the envelope
    • Eliminating leaks and managing the air exchange can reduce the airborne pollutants by as much as 95% and results in dramatically improved indoor air quality and, therefore, the health and comfort of the occupants (the link below is to a 2016 study of these health benefits)
      http://e4thefuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Occupant-Health-Benefits-Residential-EE.pdf
    • An additional benefit, airtightness and continuous filtered fresh air pretty much eliminates the need to dust – consider that the dust on your furniture comes from the air you breathing
  • A final point about questions… Pay attention to the questions that prospective contractors ask you

Along with your asking the right questions and listening to the answers, you can learn a lot from the questions that a prospective contractor asks you during your conversation/discussion.

This interview process is their chance to learn about you, your priorities, and how you see the project. The way they demonstrate their interest in you can be an indicator of what it would be like to work with them and how well you will collaborate in a future relationship.

The answers to your questions are important, but so is your overall feeling about the interaction.

Choosing the Right Contractor to Build Your Home | Tip #3 – Confirm Your Tentative Conclusions with Proof

It is easier for a contractor to make a positive impression while answering your questions than it is to provide actual examples that illustrate the truth of their answers. You will want to see the finished work and some work in progress from any contractor that you are seriously considering for your team.

  • Tentative conclusions matter –
    • If you have reservations about working with someone after the interview or interviews, it may not be worth your time to visit their completed jobs or jobs in progress
    •  There are a number of contractors in our area who are capable of building fine homes and you should be able to identify one or more with whom you are comfortable
  • Site visits have multiple objectives –
    • When visiting completed projects you want to confirm your expectations regarding the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and overall quality of the work
    • At jobs in progress you will also want to meet job site supervisors, observe the work being done, confirm the record keeping, and note the job site organization and cleanliness
    • The contractor hosting you should be pointing out details, well resolved elements, and connecting what you are seeing to previous conversations about your priorities, concerns, or your project
    • You can be making observations and asking questions that put you in a better position to make decisions about your own project
    • You are also looking for ideas and/or elements that you had not considered but may fit into your plans
    • If you have not yet been to the contractor’s office you may also want to include a stop there in order to meet the inside folks and confirm your impressions about the culture of the firm
  • This is an important decision for you, do your homework
    • Spend time on the contractor’s website… get an impression of their work, culture, priorities and professionalism
    • Ask for and make contact with references
    • Ask for contact information and speak to sub-contractors

I hope this was helpful… feel free to leave a comment or question below, and I would be happy to respond.

Choosing the right Contractor to Build your Home

-Jay

  1. Thank you for this thorough, useful information — and for including the link to E4TheFuture’s paper addressing the “health benefits of energy efficiency” with its literature review of studies. For more information about the health benefits, also see Can Energy Efficiency and Health Industries Bring Momentum Mainstream? http://bit.ly/2jfcO6O

  2. Choosing a contractor early on is definitely a useful tip for people like me; I tend to look last minute. That’s not something that one should do when finding a contractor for their new home. I know that I’d want someone with the most experience if i decided to build a home.

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