How to hire a contractor

After hiring an architect, choosing your contractor is the next biggest step in the process and one that often makes people rather nervous. After all, whomever you select is responsible for spending your money to make your new home or office turn out just as you and the architect have planned. You need someone you can trust to spend that money wisely on materials and labor and communicate with you and your architect.

Folks often ask us when they should start interviewing contractors. Like most architects, we have a list of contractors with whom we have worked and built great relationships. We are by no means limited to this list, but, since we know and trust these people and have seen their quality of work, we like to recommend them.

Traditionally, we suggest people start interviewing three to five contractors as soon as we have some schematic designs down on paper – i.e. the elevations and floor plans. This allows the contractors to better understand the scope of the project and therefore show the clients similar work they have done and talk about what kind of work is required for this kind of project. We generally try to avoid discussions of “How much will it cost to build my home?” at this point – other than throwing around a general estimate of $x-$x per square foot – as the drawings are in too rough of a form at this point for any contractor to provide an accurate bid.

Instead, we recommend the clients do one of the following once they have met with a three to five contractors.

1. The Design-Build Option

Establish a firm budget for the home, if this hasn’t been done already. Then, select one of the above contractors, discuss the budget, and move forward with the project as a Design-Build contract. This means we will work hand-in-hand with the contractor, feeding him drawings on a monthly basis so he or she can price it as we go. This way, if the home is starting to creep above the budget, we can tweak the drawings to bring it back in line. At the end, the client has a set of prints that they know are in budget.

2. The Lowest-Bid Option

Whittle down the contractor list to the top three but do not price the home until the very end. The pre-selected contractors bid for the work with the lowest price winning the project. This situation works best when the client’s budget is flexible and it is more important for them to get the house or office they want rather than to hit a specific budget number. Sometimes the bids come in surprisingly low and sometimes they come in much higher due to price changes for materials and labor or other unexpected factors.

No matter which option you use, selecting a contractor doesn’t need to be a nerve-wracking experience.


* Talk to your architect first,

* Get plenty of other independent references,

* Tour recent homes the contractors have completed.

Note that no contractor should ever charge you to meet with you or bid your plans and that ever state keeps a record of complaints against contractors so it’s worth checking to make sure they are licensed and have a good, clean record.