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How To Choose A General Contractor

Most medium and large construction jobs are handled by a general contractor or “GC.” Other terms often used referring to a general contractor are “builder, building contractor, remodeling contractor, etc.”

A “general” contractor enters into a contract with a homeowner to complete a project and takes full responsibility for planning and tracking the project timeline, hiring all subcontractors, and the purchase of all building materials required to complete the job at the bid price. Subcontractors are responsible to the general contractor, and not the homeowner.

Assume there will be problems along the way. Since no other decision will have a greater impact on the success or failure of your project, select a general contractor who you feel will work cooperatively with you to find the best solutions. Great plans, contracts, and construction documents cannot produce good work from someone lacking in skill or integrity. If you have to pay a little extra to hire the right person, you won’t regret it. The savings from hiring “the low bidder” often evaporate as the job progresses.

SELECTING A GENERAL CONTRACTOR

If you are working with an architect, they will often provide names of contractors with whom they have worked with successfully. The bigger the job, the more effort you should put into finding the right contractor. Problems can range from small annoyances to major lawsuits if things go badly.

Start your search by interviewing your circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as neighbors who have had work done recently. Look for projects similar to your own in size and complexity.

QUESTIONS TO ASK:

  • How many jobs like this have you completed?
  • What is the average per square-foot cost for this type of job?
  • How much experience do you have with energy-efficient construction, green building, passive solar (or whatever your special interests are)?
  • Who will supervise the construction on site?
  • Who will I be working with once the construction begins?
  • What work will your own employees perform (as opposed to subs)?
  • How do you prefer to work: competitive bid, cost-plus, negotiated price, or other?
  • What is your company’s greatest strength?
  • (For remodeling): What efforts do you take to keep the job site clean and safe for children, and to keep dust out of the living quarters?

SUBCONTRACTOR MANAGEMENT

In general, smaller companies rely more on staff carpenters and larger companies rely more on subcontractors to get the work done. Nearly all companies use subcontractors for mechanical trades such as plumbing and electrical, and most use subs for excavation and foundation work, roofing, drywall, and painting.  On smaller jobs, they may do some or all of this work with their own crew members.

A good contractor has good relationships with competent and reliable subs. That means the subs will show up when needed and do good work with minimal supervision. They know what level of work the contractor expects, they know they’ll get paid promptly, and they know that the job site will have been prepared and for their work or installation when they show up.

Some companies use their own crews for framing and finish carpentry, especially  for finicky work such as built-in cabinets or ornate trim and other decorative details. It’s also best to use the in-house crew for special energy details, unusual wall systems, or other details that are not the domain of a specific trade.

THE ROLE OF A GENERAL CONTRACTOR

  • Creates estimates and bids the project
  • Negotiates a contract with the homeowner
  • Interpretes the plans and specifications
  • Hires and negotiates contracts with subcontractors
  • Obtains necessary permits and schedules inspections
  • Establishes a payment schedule based on work progress
  • Negotiates material prices and orders materials
  • Creates a schedule for workers, subcontractors, and deliveries
  • Supervises and coordinates the work of employees and subcontractors
  • Disburses money to subcontractors and materials suppliers
  • Troubleshoots job-site problems
  • Meets with the owners to address their concerns
  • Manages any schedule delay situations

In larger companies, the GC may have a team: foreman, lead carpenter, project manager, or superintendent (in a development), overseeing day-to-day job-site management. In smaller companies, the GC may be on the job site regularly, even swinging a hammer from time to time. Their profit comes from some combination of marking up labor costs, subcontractor bids, and material costs. An excellent general contractor’s margin is well-earned.

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