Tom's Tips for Choosing a Contractor

While fixed-cost contracts are the most common, they are not the only option. Tom Silva, TOH general contractor, prefers to operate on a cost-plus — also called time-and-materials — basis, with a price cap agreed upon with the client. For each phase of the job, he provides a detailed cost estimate that includes his labor; as work progresses, he revises those figures if necessary. "That way, there are no surprises at the end," Tom says. "It gives the homeowner security and confidence in the work, and it gives me flexibility." The key to making this arrangement succeed, however, is finding an experienced professional and being absolutely certain of that person's ability and integrity. Here are Tom's tips for getting the best contractor to work on your job.
• Ask friends, neighbors, and coworkers for referrals. "Word of mouth is the best advertisement," Tom says. A local lumberyard that sells top-grade woods and custom-milled architectural details is also a good place to inquire. "The proprietors of these shops know the contractors who do good work because they are the people who buy quality materials."
•Ask the contractor for references from customers who have projects similar to your own. "You don't want a new-house builder to work on a restoration job," Tom says. And don't be satisfied with a list of names; talk to the homeowners and see the finished product. Visit one of the contractor's current job sites, too, he says, "to see if the site is safe and if the workers are careful with the owner's property."
• Get written estimates from several contractors for the identical project. "These bids should be broken down into stages, such as demolition, rubbish removal, utilities, framing, insulation, and roofing."
• Agree on start and completion dates, and write them into the contract. Tom recommends also inserting a penalty clause that holds the contractor financially responsible for project delays.
• Don't let price and timing rule your selection. "If you are looking to get it cheap and get it tomorrow, you aren't going to find a quality contractor," says Tom. "The best contractors may charge a little more, and they are busy, so you may have to wait." — Amy R. Hughes
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