Selecting a Good Contractor to Build Your Project

Okay, so you’ve designed this fabulous kitchen remodel. It has a curved island, sage-colored back-painted glass doors, built-in espresso machine – the works.

Your clients love the design, they’re ready to go, but you suspect the project may end up costing more than the homeowners are ready for. You usually hire an outside contractor to build this type of project, and the contractor you use would be a great fit – but you know he’s probably going to blow the budget.

So what do you do? You’re leery of hiring an unknown contractor for the work, especially as this is a great client – well-connected, lots of friends, lives in a great neighborhood. You need the job to go well – not just for your client, but for your business, too.

The first thing to do is go to your regular contractor and be totally straight with him or her about what’s going on. Is there any way they can be more competitive; lower their labor rates; perhaps not mark up everything as much as they usually are inclined to?

Can they “value-engineer” the work and find some ways to do the job for less? Perhaps the contractor will suggest a faceted island base cabinet and still keep a curved countertop – sure, a design compromise, but a way to save some money as well.

Not having to go out and risk hire an unknown contractor on an important job is critical these days. If you can make it work with people you know and trust, that road will usually produce a much better result for all involved.


If you do decide to hire a new contractor for a project, here’s what you need to do.

Start by doing your research. Virtually anyone can call themselves a contractor these days – from a handyman who wants to do larger work to a laid-off firefighter who has built a few decks on his days off. So tread carefully!

You may want to start by approaching your local trade organizations and asking them for recommendations for established contractors. In general, you want someone who’s running a bone-fide business; there’s a better chance they’ll be licensed, insured and bonded. This provides at least some protection for you and the homeowner if things go awry.

Designer colleagues can be a good source for new contractors. Call around and see if you can find a professional outfit that’s a good fit for your project. You may run into a reluctance to give away favorite names, but your friends in the business can be the best place to find the best contractors. Ask about the three key things – speed, quality and price – and remember, these days, you’re looking for all three, not just two!

You may also want to ask about final completion – how’s the contractor with punch lists? Those are the picky little things that can leave a positive or negative taste in the client’s mouth after the dust has settled and everyone involved has left the job.

When you’re out and about, keep an eye out for job site signs. Good contractors will usually have their shingle hanging up on the front of their project, so make a note when you see one. If the sign is clean, set straight and level, that’s often a good indication of a good quality contractor – they’re taking notice of the details.

In the same vein, you may not want to hire the company whose job site looks like it’s brimming with trash and debris.


Before you invite a new contractor in, call up the firm and ask for references – homeowners they’ve completed projects for are good, but preferable are other design professionals they’ve worked with more than once. If the contractor doesn’t return your call in a reasonably quick manner (say, within 24 hours), then that’s definitely a bad sign.

It’s good if you can go visit actual works in progress to talk to contractors – that way you can really see how they run things. Is the job organized and reasonably clean? Are people smoking and playing loud music? Is the homeowner’s existing work being protected well?

What’s the contractor’s staff like? This is critical, especially if the firm you’re thinking about having handle your project is more than three or four people. The lead carpenter is a key person, as is the project manager – especially if the job is substantial. Remember that the day-to-day things are often handled by these folks, so they’re really important to the ultimate success of the project.

How is their communication set up? On a very basic level, are they polite? Do they hold regular weekly on-site meetings with all the key players? Are they using e-mail and do they track invoices, payments and change orders properly? Is there a bookkeeper on hand or do they try to do the paperwork at night or on weekends in their back bedroom?

These days, you may also want to know about a contractor’s financial stability. It may seem like a touchy subject, but it’s okay to ask. Do they have a credit line, and are they using it? Does the firm have assets outside of a pick-up truck and a few hand tools? You’re entrusting these people with large amounts of money, and you want to feel safe that they’re going to stick around. Get a bank reference if you’re nervous about them.

Has this new contractor ever had any legal problems? Filed liens? Been sued? Are there any skeletons in their closet? Find out as much as you can about these issues before you hire them!


If you feel good about trying someone new, make sure they have a fair contract. You should ask to see a blank copy of the one they use before agreeing to work with them on the project.

Ask them for a written schedule for the project, week by week; what’s planned for when, what decisions still have to be made, and when those have to occur. You may want to link the schedule into the contact particularly where progress payments are concerned. Don’t let the contractor get ahead of you and your client.

Speaking of money, most people these days want to have a fixed price, rather than a time and materials agreement. The burden is on the design professional to produce a complete set of plans, specifications and scope so that a complete price can be developed. If there are still items to be chosen when the project starts, make sure that the contractor has realistic allowances in his pricing. For instance, $20 per light fixture may be adequate for the garage, but it won’t fly for the master bath.

As the work progresses, you’re sizing up your new contractor for future work and there are four very basic rules of conduct to bear in mind here:

  • Do they show up on time?
  • Do they give common courtesy by saying “please” and “thank you?”
  • Do they do what they said they’d do?
  • Do they finish what they start?

If you have children, you know how important the answers to these questions can be, and it’s just the same with trying out a new contractor.