Picking the Best General Contractor for Your Remodeling Project

A couple reviews renovation plans with their general contractor

What this article is all about:


How a General Contractor Can Help You

General contractors are essentially construction project managers. They can organize and facilitate all aspects of your home renovation, including acquiring materials, obtaining building permits, scheduling the actual work, and arranging for required inspections at the end. The general contractor hires and supervises the work of any specialists needed to complete your project – often called “subcontractors” – including electricians, plumbers, painters, or carpenters. They’re the primary point-of-contact throughout the project and will communicate your requests to the team they’ve assembled. According to HomeAdvisor, general contracting services add 10 to 20 percent to a project’s total cost.

Not every home improvement requires a general contractor. Smaller-scale projects where only one trade is involved can typically be negotiated and managed directly with the service provider. For example, replacing a worn wooden floor with eco-friendly bamboo may only require the services of a carpenter.

However, many people appreciate the convenience of working with a general contractor and some scenarios make it a wise choice. Projects like a complete bathroom remodel that will engage three or more subcontractors are typically best handled by a general contractor. They will have the knowledge and connections to efficiently schedule the work of each specialist. Engaging a reputable general contractor for large projects also provides a sounding board for your overall vision and plan, and peace of mind that your desired improvements will be made according to local building codes.

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How to Hire a General Contractor

Finding the right general contractor is extremely important. Because they select, schedule, and manage the workers, in addition to advising on project scope and materials, your general contractor has a significant influence on the success or failure of your renovation. Follow these steps to select the best general contractor for you.

1) Identify a pool of candidates. Family, friends, and colleagues who’ve recently had work completed can be a great referral source. You can also search online trade directories like the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) or the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). For consumer reviews of general contractors, try a specialized rating site like BuildZoom. From there, compile a list of general contractors you’d like to investigate further.

2) Verify that your potential contractors currently hold the appropriate licenses. Your city or state may require general contractors to register and in some cases pass skill- or knowledge-based exams prior to operating professionally in the area. The Contractor’s License Reference Site can direct you to the agencies that license contractors near you, if applicable. All general contractors working on homes built before 1978 are required to be certified in lead-safe practices by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If you discover that a candidate does not hold the required local licenses, remove them from your pool of potential general contractors.

3) Look for signs of shady business practices or unsatisfactory work. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) and your state’s Attorney General office are both good sources for investigating consumer grievances against the general contractors you’re considering. While a few disputes are probably not cause for alarm, be on the lookout for patterns of dissatisfaction with particular aspects of their service or significant penalties levied by the Attorney General.

4) Check out professional memberships and special certifications. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of general contractors to a truly reputable bunch, look for special skills or designations that help a few stand out from the crowd. The best-known designations come from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), and range from general remodeling certifications to special endorsements for green building or universal design. Look for skills that are relevant and will add value to your specific project.

5) Interview your top three candidates and request formal bids. Confirm that they do the type and size of project you’re planning, and are currently taking new business. If possible, plan to meet with the general contractors in your home. At the conclusion of a satisfactory interview you’ll want to request a bid for the work, and a tour of the site – a.k.a. your house – is typically required for them to compile an accurate proposal.

Ask each general contractor you interview the following questions:


6) Check references. Your potential general contractors may need a few days to put together a thorough proposal. Ask them to provide references first and use this time to contact these previous clients. Helpful questions to ask include:


7) Review the bids for your renovation project. Assuming you provided the contractors with the same detailed scope of work, including specific materials to be used, you should be able to compare the bids and select a winner. If there are large price discrepancies between general contractors, ask questions to clarify what is and is not included in the bid. A reputable contractor should be comfortable disclosing cost specifics and how they arrived at their estimate.

8) Get your agreement in writing. Once you’ve selected a preferred general contractor, it’s important to put together a contract outlining the details of your project. They should have a contract available, and you should feel comfortable requesting changes or additions to it. In the event that your general contractor doesn’t have a standard agreement that they use, work with a legal professional to draft one.

A basic general contractor agreement includes the following details:

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Dos and Don’ts for Choosing a Great General Contractor

While the best general contractor for you may be specific to your project, these universal tips can help everyone have a positive remodeling experience.

Do get detailed with your payment schedule. A typical down payment for a project with a general contractor will be 10 to 30 percent of the project cost, depending on the size of the project, to be paid upon initial delivery of materials. Remaining payments will be spread out over the duration of the project and are best when tied to specific milestones instead of time-based triggers. Be sure that the final payment is not due until the project is completed to your satisfaction.

Don’t automatically pick the cheapest bid. Try to understand why there is a price difference. Is one general contractor using lower quality goods for areas where materials may not have been specified, for example plumbing pipes? Is the scope of work estimated actually identical across bids? Cost discrepancies could signal differences in the quality of materials or workmanship, or an exclusion of services that will need to be added to one bid and will increase the price.

Do ask for an addendum to the contract specifying what isn’t included. This should outline any assumptions the general contractor made about the condition of structural or decorative materials you’re not planning to replace, or services like trash removal if not included in the scope of work. For example, if you’re re-tiling your kitchen floor the agreement may not have included work on the subfloor if it currently appears structurally sound. This addendum helps you understand exactly what you’re paying for and gives you an opportunity to ask for any surprising omissions to be included in the scope of work before the project starts.

Don’t fall for deals that seem too good to be true. Common scams include door-to-door salespeople offering “free” materials or extreme discounts on labor. These con artists will typically request a large down payment on the project and then disappear before completing the work. Offers that seem too good to pass up may be an expensive headache in the end.

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Resource Center & Glossary

Key terms – in plain English

Change-order clause – This contract language specifies when changes to the work may be made, limitations on the types of changes or required approvals, how changes must be communicated, and the resulting impact on payment or pricing.

Subcontractor lien waiver – This contract language prevents subcontractors and suppliers from putting a lien on your home in the event your general contractor fails to pay them.

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