Thank you to everyone who entered the 2017 Castle Home Tour Sweepstakes and participated in the Home Tour this year!
Here are the winners:
Grand Prize Winner: Ken Cassibo
Our grand prize is a $5000 certificate to put towards a future remodeling project of your choice.
Second Place Winner: Russell Evans
Second Place Prize – Bathroom Vanity Replacement with up to 5′ Waypoint vanity. Includes 10sf Cambria countertop with Kohler sink ($800 list allowance) and faucet ($300 list allowance). Includes design help and demo and install labor from Castle. $3,500 total value.
3rd Place Winner: Brian Woods
Third Place Prize – Field Outdoor Spaces $1,000 Landscape design services (Entries to win only available at Field landscape projects).
4th Place Winner: Nicole Wahl
Fourth Place Prize – Warner’s Stellian – Gift Card $1,000.
5th Place Winner: Chris Melius
6th Place Winner: Katie Knott
Sixth Place Prize – Mercury Mosaics – $750 In Backsplash tile (2″x4″ Subway Tile or Morrocan Fish Scales)
7th Place Winner: Everyone who attended an All Energy Solar project on the tour.
These prizes must be redeemed by October 25, 2017.
When you enter for our grand prizes you are also automatically entered for all of our door prizes. Contestants have a total of 26 entries for all prizes, if bonus punch locations and Field Landscaping projects are visited. Once a contestant has won a prize they are no longer eligible to win any other prizes. Castle holds the rights to deny any individual a prize at their own discretion. All prizes worth $1,000 or more must be redeemed by October 25, 2017. If winning prize is not claimed within 15 days of winning it will be awarded to a new person. Questions, comments and concerns about your winning prize may be directed to Colleen Bursaw, email@example.com.
but wait, there’s more!
- 8. Castle Salvage Room – $500
- 8th Place Winner: Leah Vogel
- 9. Cutting boards from Woodshop of Avon
- 9th Place Winner: Adrian Perryman
- 10. Kohler Ladina white undermount bath sink 2214-0 ($321.60 retail value).
- 11. Kohler K 8206 CM1 Cairn Under Mount Single Bowl Matte Black Kitchen Sink with Basin Rack 33 1 2 X 18 5 16 X 9 1 2 ($479.25 retail value).
- 11th Place Winner: Jon Messier
- 12. $100 Gift Certificate towards House Numbers or Switch Plate Covers from Clay Squared.
- 12th Place Winner: Katherine Meyer
- 13. 6 Yard Dumpster from Premier Waste.
- 13th Place Winner: John Friel
- 14. 3 Yard Dumpster from Premier Waste.
- 14th Place Winner: Sarah Voorhies
- 15. Warners’ Stellian Grill Tools Set ($125 value).
- 16. Menards – $100 Gift Card.
- 16th Place Winner: Julie Morphew
- 17. Cambria Wine and Cheese Basket.
- 17th Place Winner: Michael Jendro
- 18. 12′ Lightweight Multi-Purpose Aluminum Folding Ladder
- 18th Place Winner: Cal Schmidt
September 30th – October 1st | Noon – 5 PM Daily
Castle’s Educational Home Tour is only 2 weeks away! Mark your calendar!
Preview our Guidebook and get all the details at castlehometour.com
2017 Castle Educational Home Tour Details
What is the Castle Educational Home Tour?
The Castle Educational Home Tour is designed to help people understand what a realistic remodel involves as well as, but not limited to, what is achievable within their budget to create a project that provides both an ROI (return on investment) and ROE (return on enjoyment). Our goal is to show more typical remodeling projects that the average family is more likely to complete.
The tour itself will feature 13 down-to-earth remodeling projects by Castle Building & Remodeling, 3 solar projects by All Energy Solar, and 3 amazing landscape projects from our sponsor, Field Outdoor Spaces.
When is the Castle Educational Home Tour?
Saturday, September 30th and Sunday, October 1; 12 pm – 5 pm daily.
How is the Tour Different From Other Tours Happening Around the Twin Cities?
Because of the costs to remodelers to participate in other tours (about $1,000 – $2,700 per home) they tend to only show their largest and fanciest projects. Our goal is to show more typical remodeling projects that the average family is more likely to complete. This event is different because it is all projects completed by Castle or our partners. It is a weekend to showcase our best work to the public and educate them on our services. This weekend is also unique because while it is designed to help inspire attendees for their future remodels, it is more importantly designed to educate attendees on their future remodel.
Enter To Win $10,000 in Remodeling and Other Fantastic Prizes:
We want tour goers to get something more than inspiration after seeing all of these great remodeled spaces. So, we’ve decided to offer up some BIG prizes! Each home you visit on the tour gives you an additional chance to win (2 stops are bonus punch locations!). Make sure to pick up an Entry Pass at the first home you visit, fill out your information and have that pass punched by the host, at the next house you visit have that host punch your pass and so on. At the last home you visit, deposit the pass in the envelop near the door to be entered. You can also enter the contest once on the website.
Visit our Website for More Details:
Come Check out these great projects and more throughout the Twin Cities. We have a variety of projects on tour, including our first tiny structure!
H2 2504 34th Avenue NE
H3 2922 Armour Terrace
H5 1665 Juliet Ave
H6 1680 Wellesley Ave
H7 2109 Wellesley Ave
H8 3856 39th Ave S
H9 3853 Columbus Ave
H10 4832 15th Ave S
H12 5505 Columbus Ave
H13 5940 Russell Ave S
H14 150 Louisiana Ave N
H2 2504 34th Avenue NE
H6 1680 Wellesley Ave
H8 3856 39th Ave S
H10 4832 15th Ave S
H11 1609 E 53rd St
H14 150 Louisiana Ave N
ADDITIONS / UPPER LEVEL /
H6 1680 Wellesley Ave
H10 4832 15th Ave S
H11 1609 E 53rd St
H14 150 Louisiana Ave N
SHE SHED/ ADU/ TINY STRUCTURE
H1 2939 Benjamin St NE
H15 1400 Hartford Ave
H16 1946 Dayton Ave
H17 957 Goodrich Ave S
H18 1745 Lincoln Ave
H19 4543 17th Ave S
H20 4529 Beard Ave S
Click the map to get up to date directions!
In an effort to save on printing expenses associated with guide books, we’ve built an app for The Educational Home Tour. The app features directions to each home, a photo gallery, updates and more! Download the app today on Google Play and iTunes:
Visit CastleHomeTour.com to enter to win prizes and for more information on the 2017 Home Tour.
What happened to all the trees!?
Emerald Ash Borer is set to wipe out thousands of trees in the Twin Cities. Studies have shown that cities like Minneapolis have already lost 50% of the tree canopy compared to 50 years ago. Add the 2011 tornado that destroyed a wide swath of North Minneapolis and we are in the midst of an urban forest epidemic.
What are we doing about it?
A group of business owners calling themselves the Autonomous Collective, is jumping in to do something about it. Consisting of 10 local small landscape, arborist and remodeling firms, each in the business of building and improving houses and landscapes, the group is spearheading a direct approach – LET’S PLANT MORE TREES.
The Autonomous Collective reached out to Tree Trust in the spring and the two groups are working together on a project called Trees for NoMi. With cash donations from the companies as well as clients and friends, the Autonomous Collective has collected over $20,000 and will plant over 125 trees in private homeowner yards in North Minneapolis on October 6th. Hanes Brands Inc. has even donated brightly colored t-shirts for volunteers to wear, to keep them safe and identifiable. Tree Trust is running the logistics including soliciting planting locations and running workshops to make sure each tree gets in the right place and is cared for afterwards.
Autonomous Collective founders, Jason Rathe from Field Landscape and Jim Walsh from Vineland Tree Care, say they just wanted to do something simple and effective. Jim says, “We were talking over a beer about how somebody should really do something to make sure that we re-tree the urban forest… and realized that we were that somebody.” Jason has been amazed at the response from other businesses. “Pretty much all of the companies we talked to have been enthusiastic and jumped in to start donating and help with the planting. That isn’t surprising though. Contractors are really “let’s-just-get-something-done” kind of people.”
Local developer, Schaefer Richardson, has generously donated $5,000 to help set up donation matching for people interested in helping out (and will be participating in planting). Larkin Hoffman law firm is donating time to help the Collective set up non-profit status and consulting!
How to Get Involved:
- To donate to this cause, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/TreesforNoMi
- If you live in NoMi and are interested in getting a tree for this program, please visit http://treetrust.org/nomi-free-trees/
- To sign up to volunteer and help plant trees on October 6th, please visit https://tinyurl.com/vol4NoMi
- To learn more about the Autonomous Collective MN, visit https://www.facebook.com/The-Autonomous-Collective-MN-149348155639767/
We’re partnering with MetroIBA to host a networking event at the new 4th Castle location, September 5th, 2017.
Connect with other Local Indie Business owners and Buy Local supporters when you attend a MetroIBA networking event. Casual and comfortable even for those who don’t like networking, enjoy light refreshments, great conversations and opportunities to promote your business. Your MetroIBA co-members are a great resource – come and connect!
Guests welcome – no RSVP needed
- Tuesday, September 5, 2017
- 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm
4020 Minnehaha Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55406
The Natural Built Home Store will be converting to a 4th Castle BRI showroom, effective 9/1.
Three years after acquiring The Natural Built Home Store, Castle Building & Remodeling has
completed the integration of the store’s eco-friendly products and processes into its project
standards, and has therefore decided to convert the store into a fourth Castle showroom.
The transition in signage and hours will take place on September 1st, 2017 and will allow Castle to
focus on its goal of being the most professional and best value design/build remodeler in the
Twin Cities. The change will also allow Castle to serve the South Minneapolis and the
Longfellow neighborhoods with better proximity.
Castle Building & Remodeling will continue to offer eco-friendly remodeling, inclusive of all the
products from The Natural Built Home Store, in remodeling projects. Castle will no longer offer
material-only sales, flooring install-only services, or countertop-only replacements. This change
will allow Castle to focus on the continued growth of design/build remodeling services, which
centers on kitchen and bath remodeling. The widespread availability of eco-friendly building
materials at most retailers has made it tough to compete on this specialization alone.
A list of eco-friendly retailers that carry similar products and offer similar services is available at naturalbuilthome.com. As of 12/31/17 The Natural Built Home Store brand will be decommissioned with the website and Facebook pages will be taken down. All educational classes for the remainder of 2017 will continue as planned.
Castle Building & Remodeling, Inc. is a professional design/ build remodeling company that
specializes in residential remodeling. Castle is a second-generation family business, founded in
1977, which has served over 3,200 past clients in the Twin Cities area. Its four unique design
studios in Minneapolis and St. Paul allow Castle’s professional team to help clients plan any
project. Castle Building & Remodeling strives to help clients get the best value and helps them to
get a designer look on a budget they can afford. Castle’s detailed planning process allows a
guaranteed favorable experience by ensuring there are no unforeseen costs and by providing a
guaranteed completion date. Its professional design team and convenient showrooms sets Castle
Building & Remodeling apart from the average remodeler. Visit us at www.castlebri.com to find out more.
Castle Building & Remodeling Increases Company Minimum Wage to $15/hour
Castle Building & Remodeling is committed to growing a progressive company and making the community it serves, a better place to live. In support of the recently approved Minneapolis $15.00/hour minimum wage increase, Castle has proactively formalized its own $15.00/hour company minimum wage policy, effective immediately. It believes that in order to provide a professional service with the best overall value, it needs to invest in its employees by paying a living wage. The company wholeheartedly agrees with the city increase and will not wait for the ordinance to take effect in 2022 to meet this standard.
Castle hopes to be a leader in this change, encouraging other small businesses to adopt the increase as soon as possible. It would like to thank the roughly 400 clients who enabled this substantial investment in its people, and pay a living wage to its 40 employees (over $2 million in projected wages in 2017).
Castle is currently recruiting experienced tradespeople to join its team and plans to add 3-5 skilled carpenters, tile installers, drywallers and painters in 2017. Interested candidates can find out more about joining the Castle team by visiting the Work@Castle page at: http://www.castlebri.com/workcastle/
Castle Building & Remodeling, Inc. is a professional design/ build remodeling company that specializes in residential remodeling. Castle is a second-generation family business, founded in 1977, which has served over 3,200 past clients in the Twin Cities area. Its four unique design studios in Minneapolis and St. Paul allow Castle’s professional team to help clients plan any project. Castle Building & Remodeling strives to help clients get the best value and helps them to get a designer look on a budget they can afford. Castle’s detailed planning process allows a guaranteed favorable experience by ensuring there are no unforeseen costs and by providing a guaranteed completion date. Its professional design team and convenient showrooms sets Castle Building & Remodeling apart from the average remodeler. Visit www.castlebri.com to find out more.
Many consumers have had issues regarding the definition of clean-up as it relates to the construction project. Some contractors assume you don’t want to pay carpenters wages to have someone clean up the construction site. Some contractors clean up at the end of each business day and use terms like “broom-swept clean” to describe the amount of cleaning, and some do an extra clean-up at the end of the week. Some contractors provide a maid service to clean the whole house when the project is done. Some projects can look pretty unorganized if not downright dangerous. Some jobsites never have anything left out of place. It is usually never the condition of the project as much as it is the expectations. If the homeowner assumed one thing and the contractor provided another thing, there could be problems. Included in the contract should be clear statements stating what the contractor will and will not do along the lines of clean-up.
Construction is messy, smelly, and can affect other areas of your property that are not under construction. What precautions will be a part of the contract in regards to the rest of the house, the yard or the homeowner’s bathroom? For instance, if the contractor needs to do some excavation work, wouldn’t you like them to be careful with their equipment around that new shrubbery you just planted? If you are reusing appliances, wouldn’t you like the workers to be careful carrying that stove through your house? The key to minimal disruption is in the procedures and processes followed by the contractor to keep the mess, noise and smell to a minimum. The key to not having a problem is clear communication regarding these issues and trying to anticipate all of the possible conditions.
Unacceptable: Clean-up of any kind is not a part of the contract. You never know what you will find when you come home from work. It is not clear what is debris and what might be used tomorrow for the project. Your family’s well-being is at risk.
Good: The amount of clean up included in the contract is clearly spelled out.
Everyone is clear about who will handle what.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor never leaves the job site with a surprise for the consumer. The contractor has a checklist of all of the things that will be done at the end of the day by the last person leaving the job site.
Best: The contractor has a written agreement with all of his trade partners and suppliers that cover his expectations about clean-up. Everyone in the company works to back each other up if there is a problem, rather than having the attitude that it is someone else’s problem.
Some companies pay a lot of attention to your home’s details. They are concerned about matching the details of the trim, the windows or the species of the wood. Every house is unique in some particular way, especially if you live in an older home. Do you want some thought given to the project and these details? Do you have some details that you would like to respect and copy in the new parts of your project? Craftsmanship and attention to detail are not developed overnight. They are developed over many years of working in homes like yours and gaining experience. Here is another instance where looking at past jobs helps you determine the capabilities of the prospective contractor. Attention to detail is also a personal trait. A carpenter may be perfectly capable of quality craftsmanship, but his personality will decide whether he has an eye for detail. The same can be said about companies. Will the contractor put in the extra time necessary to achieve the final look desired? Will they support this endeavor or will they cut corners to get the job done?
You can tell a lot about the quality of the carpenters and their attention to detail by observing how they work. If their tools are just thrown in the back of the bed of the truck, causing the carpenter to spend a lot of time digging around looking for a tool, if tools aren’t sharpened or cared for on a regular basis or if materials are left all over the job, your project will likely look and be organized in the same fashion. These skills are acquired early in life, and are not changed overnight. Skilled craftsmen have already made the dumb mistakes that all inexperienced tradesmen have made in the past. They have learned the good, better, and best way to complete a project. Don’t pay someone to learn on your project!
Unacceptable: The crew is short on experience and has limited skills in limited areas. When asked for solutions to problems, the worker is short on experience and can’t even make a recommendation.
Good: The contractor has experienced employees. He matches their skill level with the tasks at hand. You are comfortable with the level of craftsmanship as evidenced by the daily progress and the finished product.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor cares about the architectural details particular to your home and your project and has all of the resources to complete the task.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor has been in business many years and has found many trades people with the special skills and talents to help him produce anything required in any project.
Guarantees & Warranties
There is often a lot of confusion about guarantees and warranty work, both on the part of the homeowner and the contractor. Many contractors fail to be clear about the guarantees they make about their finished products. In response to this, the State of Minnesota has a law that says the dwelling shall be free from major construction
defects due to noncompliance with the building standards for a ten year period after the warranty date. Defects caused by faulty installation of plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling systems have a two-year warranty. Everything else has a one-year warranty. All projects are subject to this condition and warranties survive passage of title.
A guarantee is an assurance that certain conditions will be fulfilled, especially that a product will be of specified quality or last a certain period of time. A warranty is a written guarantee promising to repair or replace an article if necessary within a specified period of time.
The clarifications that need to be done in the contract can often be many and complicated. What is guaranteed? Who is making that guarantee? Who will service that guarantee? If a product fails, is the work or labor to replace it also a part of the guarantee? A reputable contractor guarantees his workmanship and services, and in addition guarantees all of the work, services and products provided as a part of the project, whether provided by him, his employees, his trade partners or his suppliers. Many times the manufacturer of a product makes guarantees and these become an important part of the equation. For home improvements, the warranty begins when the project is completed, so it is important to know what defines completion.
Some contractors have been known to puff up their warranty or offer longer guarantees as a sales incentive. It does not matter how long the warranty is nor how it reads if the contractor never intends to do any warranty work. This goes back to past issues about the contractor’s stability. Will your contractor be in business as long as necessary to honor your warranties? The homeowner can take action against the contractor for breach of warranty and may recover damages up to the amount necessary to fix the problem.
Unacceptable: The contractor doesn’t have a written warranty. His verbal guarantee is vague and he is hard to nail down on the particulars. His guarantees sound too good to be true, are much longer than anyone else in the industry or seem puffed up.
Good: The contractor has a written warranty that is a part of his contract and it satisfies state law requirements. The obligations of the consumer and the contractor in regards to guarantees and warranties are clearly stated.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor has provisions for providing to the homeowner in an organized fashion all of the manufacturers’ warranties for products used in the project. It defines clearly the nature of the warranties for labor, if different than the warranties for materials.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor has a process of notifying the consumer a short time before the warranties are due to expire to see if there are any issues that need to be addressed.
So many times projects cry out for creative ideas that will help the project really reach a satisfying level. A professional contractor will be able to contribute many creative ideas that will enhance the project. A professional contractor has professional relationships with a wealth of designers, architects and other creative people often necessary to your project. So many times, these elements are overlooked by less professional or inexperienced contractors. Ask your prospective contractor enough questions to find out if he is in a position to contribute these services.
Ask your prospective contractor if he has a designer or architect on staff or if he has a working relationship with an architect or designer. Does he work with a particular interior decorator or interior designer? Has he run into problems like yours before? Do any solutions come to mind at this time for this particular problem? Usually, if something has been a problem and needs a solution, it is of particular interest to the consumer. It might even be the main impetus for the whole project. Can the contractor give this the necessary consideration and help solve this problem?
A creative contractor can help you work within your budget by suggesting alternative materials or plans that achieve the look you want with less material and labor cost. A creative contractor can also let you do some of the work or show you what parts of your project can be completed later. Every project has a budget which requires many skills to meet it.
A professional contractor with a lot of experience garnered from many years of working on projects has a wealth of experience. Over those years of experience, many ideas, concepts and solutions have been talked about and advanced. He has gotten a chance to be a tremendous resource for your project. Being able to tap into this experience can add tremendous value to your project.
Unacceptable: The contractor has no concept of creativity. If he offers a solution, it seams more like a shortcut or trick to deal with the situation.
Good: The contractor has many ideas for solutions to the problems. If he can’t come up with a solution readily, he says so and offers to work on it.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor has many people on his team that he consults on a regular basis to bring a wide range of ideas and solutions to the table. These ideas are openly shared with the consumer. This experience and knowledge and the willingness to share it adds value to the project and enhances the relationship.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor understands the value of working in a collaborative fashion. Everyone on the team has a unique contribution, and his ability to draw the ideas and creativity out of the members of the team greatly enhances every project and adds value to the relationship.
A contractors’ business has to exist someplace. A contractor can’t operate in a void or with complete disregard for the community it serves. That same contractor is dependent on a healthy, thriving community, and it is significant if a contractor plays a vibrant and supportive role in the community. What role does your prospective contractor play in your community? What organizations does he support? Of what groups is he an active member? Does he attend neighborhood meetings? Does he go to church in your community? Are his children in local schools and is he active in their education? Does he sponsor a local sports team? Are the employees involved in community groups and organizations? Many times, the importance of participating and giving back to the community is overlooked by disreputable contractors and their employees, but appreciated by professional contractors.
Community involvement often shows a respect and understanding of the community at large. They are familiar with community issues and local problems. They are also familiar with the age and type of architecture in the area. Involvement shows commitment to the community and its people. You can often find this information in community newspapers and at community meetings.
Is your prospective contractor active on the larger city-wide level? Has he played a role in local elections, served on the school board, held office or volunteered for community functions? Many neighborhoods and communities have home tours or home improvement shows. These are usually set up to support some segment of your community. Has he participated in these? Is he active in the governance of the community? Ask him these questions and afford him the opportunity to share how he participates.
Unacceptable: The contractor does not participate in any community activities. He has no understanding of the history or culture of the community. He doesn’t have any connections to civic-minded groups in your community.
Good: The contractor takes an active role in the community. You meet him at numerous community gatherings. He understands the value of community and has an overall understanding of the community values and priorities.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor has taken the time to serve in different community organizations. He knows other leaders and is comfortable in leadership roles. He understands this service makes him a valuable asset in the community.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor is a key player in the community. He has served for years on the Board of Directors of local organizations. He knows their mission and values their contributions to the community. He has given his time and money to community functions. He can be counted on as a staunch supporter of community endeavors. A lot of his employees live in the local community and he does business with many of the local businesses.
In the same sense that you will talk about a doctors “bedside manner,” many contractors are rated on their customer service. So many factors can contribute negatively or positively to a consumer’s perception about a contractors’ customer service.
Does he believe the customer is always right? Does he emphasize service and value a trusting relationship with you? Does he listen to and understand your needs and wants and works with you to ensure that the plans accurately reflect your expectations? When you discuss your priorities, does the contractor show enthusiasm for your ideas and suggest ways to make them work within your budget? Professional contractors can make suggestions or give examples of how their company has solved similar issues for other customers. They take the time to establish a personal rapport with you.
Does the contractor engage in high-pressure sales tactics? How do you feel about working with this person? Is he honest, trustworthy, sexist, racist, chauvinist, ageist or judgmental? In short, do you feel comfortable with the person? It is next to impossible to have a healthy, constructive working relationship with someone you dislike. The construction process can be tough enough by itself, without adding some of these painful dimensions. This is not saying you have to be friends with the person you are asked to deal with, but shouldn’t there be mutual respect and a good working relationship?
A remodeling project that is not carefully planned can cause real headaches for the customer in terms of mess, delays, and missed deadlines. You will have to work with, spend time with and interact with the contractor on a regular basis throughout the duration of your project. It is worth a little time at the beginning of the process to choose a contractor that provides great customer service, has a sense of all of the elements needed in the relationship and with whom you get along.
Unacceptable: The contractor is rude, does not listen well, interrupts often and is trying to control the whole relationship. There is uneasiness about all of the interactions you have had with him.
Good: The contractor understands that he has been asked to make an improvement on your home and is very appreciative of the opportunity to work with you. He takes the time to get to know and understand you and tells you who he is so you can visualize your future working relationship.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor finds out how you make decisions, what your taste is, what your long-term commitment to the house is, what your values are and what your budget is in an effort to better serve you and create a successful project. He understands how to be in relationships and he values what good relationships contribute to the process.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor has programs in place and ongoing training for all employees at all levels so that this kind of customer service becomes a part of the company culture. These values have been clearly communicated to the trade partners and suppliers also.
Source of Business
Talking to a contractor about where the bulk of his business comes from can tell you a lot about the company. Some contractors don’t know where their business comes from and have never bothered to figure it out. Some companies only have a couple of customers and all of their business comes from them. Some companies have a lot of past customers and their business comes from past customers or referrals from past customers. Some companies advertise all over the place with big splashy ads and must rely on a lot of new calls. What about repeat business? Shouldn’t a contractor who does quality work eventually not have to advertise as much as a new contractor due to repeat business and referrals from past customers?
Every successful contractor, without exception, has satisfied customers by providing a good value. Providing a good value should lead to referrals and a consistent base of customers. Good leads are the lifeblood of every company. Without this base, a contractor cannot succeed. Most established contractors’ primary source of new customers is word of mouth. While every contractor has occasional customer problems, if a company gets too many unhappy customers, no amount of advertising dollars can overcome this situation. Unsatisfied consumers tell too many others of their misfortune.
Unacceptable: The contractor does not know where his business is coming from. He does not know why you called him or where you got his name.
Good: The contractor understands the importance of the lead source. He tracks leads and knows where his leads are coming from. He values leads that come from one source over leads that come from another source.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor tracks leads and has a lead qualification system that helps him understand better which leads are right for his company. He knows the percentage of leads that convert to sales calls, the percent of sales calls that convert to sales, and works leads based on the anticipated fruition.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor focuses his marketing and advertising strategies to attract the kind of leads that best suit the company. He has come to realize that everything he does creates a perception, and he is careful that the perception he creates is aligned closely with the direction the company wants to go.
Communication with the Homeowner
So much of the success of a project can hinge on the communication skills of the people involved in the project. There are so many details, decisions and factors to consider, and all of them are usually significantly affected by time. The construction process usually goes through phases, such as design, estimating, bidding, contract negotiating and production. The success of all of these phases is greatly dependent on the communication that takes place in each phase, while subsequent phases are dependent on the communication in previous phases.
What if you are unsure if it is OK to ask questions? What if it isn’t clear who to ask? What if you find yourself always waiting for a return phone call or an answer to your e-mail? What if you find yourself passed to a new person or new phase every time you just get comfortable with someone? What if there is a salesman for sales, a designer for design, an estimator for estimating, a production manager for production and no real connection between any of them? What if the process isn’t clear and always seems to catch you off guard or surprise you? What if you end up feeling like you have to figure out the right question to ask before it is too late to ask it? What if everybody you are dealing with only seems to know about their particular small part of the project and no one can answer the broader questions? What if every question you ask leads to the discovery of a problem in the whole project? These are serious early signs that communication will be an issue in this project.
Communication is a skill no less important than floor sanding or electrical wiring and can be the glue that holds a project together. You should feel that the contractors’ job is to answer every question openly and honestly. You need that kind of information to make good decisions. You have a sense about another person that tells you if you like and trust the way that person answers your questions and communicates with you. Trust that instinct. If you are having trouble with the communication process early in the relationship, the chances are very good that you are not the only person that is going to have communication problems with this person or this company.
Unacceptable: The contractor has poor communication skills. He does not answer questions directly, the answers are evasive or the answers confuse more than help.
Good: The contractor understands the value and importance of clear communication.
He values your questions and practices clear communication.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor makes sure there are no misunderstandings and asks for feedback on a regular basis about the communication and understanding to date.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor has attended workshops or classes on communication to improve his communication skills. He has learned some public speaking skills and keeps those skills sharp by offering to speak publicly on a regular basis.
Does Your Contractor use Employees or Trade Partners?
It seems to matter greatly to some consumers whether or not a contractor will use his own employees or use trade partners. There are several legitimate issues associated with this question, but it really is not an issue in most cases. It just seems consumers have been warned against a contractor who mostly uses trade partners. Understand that the contractor is just as responsible for the trade partners as he is for his own employees. It is solely the responsibility of the professional contractor to decide how and by whom the work will be completed. The contractor needs a wide margin of flexibility in this area because problems may arise and he needs to have the ability to solve the situation in a timely fashion. Some aspects of the remodeling process can only be legally completed by trade partners while some can be completed by just about anyone, but it is only the person performing that task all day, every day that becomes proficient and is cost-effective.
Contractors who have their own employees tend to be more stable and in control of all aspects of the project. It takes a steady flow of work and a steady flow of projects to effect steady employment for quality carpenters, leaving them engaged and satisfied. The carpenters tend to control the flow of the day-to-day operation on the job and guide the trade partners in the absence of the contractor himself. Having the same workers there every day leads to better projects. A contractor is familiar with his own carpenters and their strengths and weaknesses.
Contractors who subcontract all of the work lose some of the control of the whole process and spend a certain amount of time trying to anticipate everything that could happen. Contractors spend a lot of effort conveying to the trade partners how the work should be done and what has been sold to the consumer. The longer a trade partner has worked with a general contractor, the more these things happen without intervention. Trade partners may send a different crew each time, creating the necessity to stay on top of the project better so everyone is “on the same page.”
Unacceptable: The contractor hires carpenters and other workers on an hourly basis from a day labor work pool. No one on the job is in charge. Every worker is doing “his own thing” and no one is supervised. There really is no plan. Workers come and go in an unpredictable fashion.
Good: The contractor has had the same group of employees for years. These employees understand the general contractor’s systems and every one is working together with clear communication between all concerned parties.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor has invested time and money for his employees’ continued education. Many of the employees have taken classes or participated in ongoing education to further their knowledge and understanding of their trade. They take great pride in their contribution to the project as a whole.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor knows the strengths and weaknesses of all employees and has good personal relationships with all of them. The carpenters have secure jobs and they know it. There is room for advancement in the company and the company encourages and supports the growth of all employees.
There are many areas where the schedule affects the satisfaction of the project. Did the contractor take too long to get the proposal done or to get back to you with answers to your questions? Did the contractor promise to bring over samples and then have to be reminded? Is the contractor too busy to give you the attention you want? These kinds of things could be early warning signs that schedule may be an issue throughout the project.
If you missed all of those early warning signs and signed the contract, schedule still has a real chance of adversely affecting your satisfaction with the job. Did the contractor say he could fit you into his schedule and then something changes at the last minute? Was the permit pulled before the work started? If special materials were needed for your project, did they get ordered so the workers would have them when they needed them? Were trade partner agreements negotiated in a timely fashion? If there were delays, did the contractor anticipate them, have an acceptable alternate plan and inform you of the anticipated changes?
In general, scheduling are either always an issue for a contractor on every job or are rarely an issue. Companies have systems and habits, and they seldom do things differently.
Do you have special scheduling considerations? Do you want to have your new living room done for Christmas? Do you want this work completed while you are on vacation? These are extremely important considerations since many contractors schedule work many months in advance and many jobs have several elements to coordinate. Find out how you fit into his schedule and be upfront and realistic about a timeline.
One of the things that happens most often in remodeling projects is that the scope of work changes by Change Order but the contractor didn’t make it clear that the additional work would add to the timeline of the project. There are many subtle things that can change the flow and progress of the work. The more experience your contractor has, the more these things can be anticipated. The kinds of things the contractor can’t anticipate are how long it takes you to make decisions, how long it will take you to visit showrooms and pick out products or how long it will take you to do your part of the project.
Unacceptable: The contractor has no sense about how long the project will take. He can’t count on his trade partners or their schedule.
Good: The contractor gets back to all clients in a timely manner. The contractor provides a job schedule to the clients prior to commencement.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor posts the schedule on the job, the lead carpenter is always managing the job on a daily basis and all changes are communicated to everyone who is affected by the changes.
Best: In addition to the above, the schedule for your job is on the contractor’s web site and everyone who is affected by the schedule has access to it on the web site. The schedule is regularly updated. All scheduling concerns are addressed in a timely fashion and to everyone’s satisfaction.
Quality of Trade Partners
Trade partners are specialty contractors. They have one set of trade skills. They are required to have special licenses for their particular trades, i.e. electrical, plumbing, heating or stucco. In some cases, general contractors are not allowed to perform the work of the trade partner because they are not licensed to do that work. Trade partners are a very key element in almost every project and can make or break them. They are not employees of the general contractor, so the contractor literally has no control over their schedule or how they do their work. If he did, they would be his employees, losing their independence and creating tax ramifications. The relationship between a professional contractor and a trade partner is nurtured over many years of concerted effort on the part of both parties.
It is important on every project to identify the key trade partners that will be involved in the project. Your task is to determine what kind of relationship your prospective contractor has with his trade partners. Has he worked with them for years? Has he ever had a problem with a trade partner that was not resolved satisfactorily? Do any of his subs have a history of not showing up, not following through or not taking care of warranty work in a timely manner? The trade partners are essential to keeping the job running smoothly. Your general contractor is always only as good as the others on his team.
The cost of your project can be greatly affected by the cost of the trade partners’ contributions. When a general contractor is bidding a project, there is always a great temptation to find a cheaper trade partner in order to bring the total cost of the project down and have the bid be more competitive. This practice can compromise the project and begs the question about price, bids and the overall cost of the project. There is a correlation between the quality of work and the cost of the trade partner. I think some consumers fear that a general contractor will give a lump sum bid for the job and then use the cheapest trade partners and the cheapest products to produce the project, leaving the most profit attainable left for the general contractor. There are ways to structure the bid so that the homeowner gets what is bid and pays for what they get. Some contractors use allowances for the costs associated with the trade partners, sharing the trade partners’ bids with the consumer.
Unacceptable: The contractor hires the cheapest trade partner every time so his bid is the lowest. The jobs suffer for the lack of professionalism.
Good: The contractor has a working relationship with trade partners and shares the names of those trade partners with the prospective clients.
Better: The contractor has evidence of long, healthy working relationships with professional trade partners and involves them in the project early.
Best: The contractor has developed a core group of trade partners in the various areas that he always uses. He knows their workers and managers and how to get a hold of them. Expectations are clearly spelled out in a separate Trade Partner Agreement written up and signed by both parties outlining all policies, procedures and safety issues.
14. Size of the Company
Consumers believe that size mattered in their failed relationships with contractors. They complain that the contractor was a “one-man operation” and that he took forever to complete the job. Some may also feel that they were dealing with a huge operation and never talked to the same person twice. They experience contractors being “in over their head”, or get handed off to the next division of the company so many times they lose track. All of these experiences relate to size. All of this could have been avoided if the consumer had asked simple questions and the contractor had made simple disclosures on the front end. Do you want to work with a huge company or a small, specialized company? As a rule, a smaller company does fewer jobs and can devote more personalized time to your project. Conversely, large companies typically have more efficient systems, a greater division of labor and are capable of a far greater range of projects. Normally, when working with a small company you will have one or two points of contact versus a large company where you may have more points of contact and a greater chance for miscommunication. Is there a part of you that “likes to deal with the owner?” Is there a part of you that needs to have a relationship with the person doing the work? Is there a part of you that likes to give the business to the little guy? It is just as much a mistake to ask a large company to replace your storm door as it is to ask a handyman to put on an addition or do a whole house remodel.
Many companies change size over time and this usually affects the type of work they do and the size of projects they take on. Many small companies are flexible, have fewer rules and are more unpredictable. What you see is what you get. Larger companies have put systems and best practices in place because they can’t leave outcomes to chance. For many years, our industry tended to be more of the small companies. They were good tradesmen but often lacked the business skills to grow the business or be financially successful on a consistent basis. In recent years, the industry has changed greatly. National companies have put franchises in place. Many TV shows feature home improvement and design. The housing stock is getting older. The workforce is changing drastically – the trade schools have all but disappeared and young workers growing up in the trade are a thing of the past. These, and many other issues like the internet, have changed our industry greatly.
Unacceptable: The contractor doesn’t understand what his capabilities are. He doesn’t understand the relationship between size and capabilities.
Good: The contractor has an understanding of the size of the workforce it will take to complete a project and he does not make commitments he can’t meet.
Better: The contractor has a careful hiring process and only hires when he feels that the quality of work will be improved. The contractor has a tracking system so he knows the amount of work on the books and the backlog of work sold. This enables him to clearly communicate his job schedules to his customers.
Best: The contractor has a carefully-projected growth strategy for the next 10 years. The contractor has divisions of labor and people are hired for their overlapping skills. The contractor has working relationships with many other contractors, trade partners or labor providers so that his work force can expand or shrink as work load dictates.
There are many projects that require some level of design. Almost every job that needs a permit needs plans. Some jobs require structural engineering or a registered architect. Some customers want an interior designer to help them with the features of the project. Design can play a small role in some projects and a very large role in others. Design is the process of creating a plan or drawing to show the appearance and workings of something before it is built. There are different levels of design detail in every job and the trick is to match the design skill level of the contractor with those required by the project. First, determine at what level design will play a role in your project. Do you have special features of your home that you would like to match or replicate? Are there special challenges that need sound solutions? Will parts of the project need to be calculated by a structural engineer? Are there special elements that only experts understand and handle? Second, determine what design skills will be required for the project. Do you need a draftsperson, an architect, a structural engineer or an interior designer? These are all people that possess special skill sets that contribute to the overall design of the project. Third, determine if your prospective contractor offers these skill sets and is able to provide the necessary design to have a project that is satisfactory to you. Does the contractor offer these design services? Does the contractor have these people on staff or does he have working relationships with them? Can he show you projects and explain how all of these people collaborated on other projects he has completed for other customers? Do you want to be on the design team and does this fit with the contractor’s practices? How does the contractor balance cost with design?
Some contractors and some consumers just don’t value design. They don’t believe it contributes significantly to the project and they are unwilling to provide it or to pay for it. Some consumers and some contractors are very highly motivated by good design. The trick is to match the consumer’s level of desire for design with the contractor’s level of capability to provide design. The benefit to finding out the consumer’s desire for design and the contractor’s level of ability to provide design is to match the levels. There is nothing more frustrating to both parties than a mismatch. Ask questions to find out if the contractor you are considering is a good match. They will seldom change into something more satisfying after the job has started.
Unacceptable: The contractor pooh-poohs the need for design. The contractor represents themselves as a designer or an architect when they don’t have the credentials or skills to back it up.
Good: The contractor understands and has respect for the relationship between design and construction. These services are talked about and decisions are made to incorporate these services into the project as needed.
Better: The contractor has a designer on staff and can offer design services. The contractor knows when to involve other professionals in the project. The contractor has many good ideas, can share solutions that he has used in other projects and is willing to work collaboratively with a team.
Best: The contractor has an architect on staff, or a working relationship with an architect and knows when to involve them in a project. The contractor does mostly projects that are design-driven and has a reliable reputation.
12. Professional Associations or Affiliations
Some contractors find little need to belong to organizations, while others are “joiners.” There are many obvious benefits to belonging to organizations, yet some contractors seem to belong for all of the wrong reasons. Many businesses belong to the Better Business Bureau because it looks good and consumers expect it of them. Some contractors belong to an association to project the image of professionalism. They do it to buy credibility. The trick is to ask enough questions to determine which kind of contractor your prospective contractor is.
Local, state and national organizations help to keep their members informed about new products, construction techniques, business practices and industry issues. Through certification programs, these organizations confer designations on those who meet the requirements. Ask your contractor what, if any, associations or organizations they belong to. Ask them about the length of time they have been members. Ask them about what level of participation they have taken in these organizations. Do they go to meetings, seminars, conferences and trade shows? Ask them if they have taken any classes to further their knowledge of the industry or if they have held any leadership positions in these organizations. Ask them if they hold any designations or certifications, have won any design or construction awards or are members of a specially designated group in their industry. Membership should be a given, participation is expected (you only get what you give) and active leadership should speak volumes. Call these organizations and associations and verify the contractor’s claims with the office personnel.
Seek referrals from local trade associations, such as your area’s local Minnesota Builders Association, National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) or local Remodelers Council.
Participation demonstrates a contractor’s commitment to professionalism and the industry. With all the recent changes in materials and techniques, membership in a professional association is the best way for a contractor to keep up to date and informed through publications, seminars and annual trade shows of professional products. These organizations and associations exist to promote these businesses and have a vested interest in your satisfaction with their members. Peer review and peer pressure is one of the most potent motivators in a contractor’s business experience. These associations are one of their most valuable resources to obtaining professionalism.
Unacceptable: The contractor does not belong to any professional association.
Good: The contractor is a member and has paid his dues on a continual basis. He attends some meetings and seminars.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor participates on committees and assumes leadership roles. The contractor enters design and/or construction award competitions and has received industry recognition.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor is an officer and/or has assumed other responsibilities in associations. The contractor has a list of recent awards and is quoted in industry publications. The contractor is featured in local publications and is a resource to others in the industry.
Organization on the Job
Many professional contractors are very proactive about the type of organization they are. They have determined whether they want to be large or small. They have chosen whether they want to be a corporation, a limited partnership or a sole proprietorship. They have decided if they are a general contractor (performing many if not all services) or only provide a specialized service. They have a target market and know they only work on residential, commercial or industrial projects. Some companies only work in certain areas or on certain types of structures. Some only perform certain types of projects (additions, second stories, kitchens, restorations, or insurance work). Some companies seem to have a labyrinth of organization and others seem to operate by the “seat of their pants” on a day-to-day basis, reacting to every situation as it comes along. Which type of company are you most comfortable with? Their level of organization will play an important role in the day-to-day interaction they have with you as a customer. Do they complete most of their work with their own employees? Do they subcontract a lot or all of the work? Do they have standards that they share with you outlining their expectations for their employees, their trade partners and their suppliers? Ask to see a job in progress to get a feel for how a contractor does business. Try to imagine the work site in your home. Would this drive you crazy?
Many times, a professional contractor will pass on a certain kind of lead, a type of job or a certain type of customer. The longer most contractors have been in business, the better they know what kinds of jobs and customers are right for them. Often it is hard to explain to a consumer why a contractor is passing on a lead, but usually it has to do with incompatibility issues that center around the type of organization the contractor has put together. Sometimes they know their organization isn’t set up to do that kind of job efficiently. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable asking their workers to do that kind of work. Sometimes they have a past experience with a similar situation that makes them reluctant. Sometimes they are unfamiliar with the work. Some contractors will pass because your house is too old, too new, too messy or too clean. Some contractors will pass because your job is too complicated, too simple, too big or too small. Realize the best situation is a good match. Both the contractor and the homeowner have to ask enough questions to determine if it is a good match.
Unacceptable: The contractor has no real organizational structure. His lack of organization and scheduling delays jobs. His poorly-maintained tools lead to poor quality work. Good suppliers and trade partners have severed working relations with him.
Good: The contractor maintains no formal organization, but gets the job done.
Seldom, if ever, is there an issue with the workmanship.
Better: The contractor has systems and processes in place for all parts of the projects. These systems and processes allow the owner to complete more projects, satisfy more clients and grow a successful organization.
Best: The contractor can document and follow all areas of the project at any time. The contractor is able to take on any size job under many pre-existing conditions and has the wherewithal to complete even the most challenging projects. This is not meant to convey that bigger is better.
Some companies don’t have any history and some companies have a short history. Some companies have a very long, well-documented history. Some companies have changed over the years. Their focus has changed as well as the type of work they do. How they service their clients has changed. Some companies have experienced quick change every year they have been in business and find it hard to predict where they will go next year. Quick growth can put many strains on a company. Unless a person has served a strong apprenticeship with another contracting firm, it will be almost impossible for an individual to rapidly put together a company and make it grow in an organized fashion. It is difficult to develop a system that ensures great work while a company changes rapidly. Longevity suggests financial stability.
There is a fine balance of skills that a successful contractor must have. He must understand both the business end and the building end of the business. The business won’t be successful unless he can at least deal with both ends. For instance, he may have been a talented carpenter before he started this business, but does that mean he can keep the books in order and do payroll for his workers? There are a lot of hats a contractor must wear, and the success of the business depends on his understanding and ability to handle all of these functions.
Ask your prospective contractor enough questions to determine where he is on the continuum. There are a lot of acceptable places to land, but many homeowners seem to end up feeling blindsided if they find out later that there was something about their contractor that was different than they had assumed. Many older companies describe periods in the past that had specific characteristics – when they were a small company, when they had one location, when everything was run by the one owner, when they only did a specific type of job or a time before they had a successful business organization. Some companies never seem to change and they are still doing business the same way they did thirty years ago. How will these issues play out in your working relationship with this company? Are the decisions they made that make up their history acceptable to you? Do you think they made good decisions?
Unacceptable: The contractor has worked for or started several failed businesses. He has multiple bankruptcies in his history. He has a very short history with this particular company.
Good: The contractor is willing to openly share the history, structure and workings of his business. He may be young, but he takes on jobs he is capable of handling.
Better: The contractor has systems in place to ensure the proper functions happen for each job. He manages work flow efficiently.
Best: The contractor has office workers dedicated to managing specific areas and has delegated authority to competent people. His employees have job descriptions. He has had slow, steady growth over a period of years. He is willing to share the history of the company and can be proud of many of the accomplishments the company has made.
It seldom occurs to homeowners to ask a contractor for professional references. This is an entirely legitimate question and concern. A professional contractor brings many business enterprises to the table to help complete all of the work they perform in a year. Their performance on your job is dependant on the level of the other professionals they have on their team. They can only be as good as the weakest link in their chain. What if their cabinet maker is less than adequate and the custom cabinets they are proposing for your job are a very important element of the whole project they are proposing for you? Does the contractor possess a trustworthy reputation among peers, suppliers, trade partners and other people involved in all aspects of the industry? Ask the contractor for references from his associates. If there is a large element to the contract that you are particularly concerned about, ask to meet and visit the trade partner or suppliers’ facility. Ask those other professionals about their relationship with your prospective contractor. If you determine there might be a strained relationship or worse below the surface, you could become the unfortunate benefactor of that relationship failing. All professional contractors have a reputation in the industry. You need to ask enough people to find out what that reputation is before you are in the contractual relationship. The length of the relationship is generally accepted as the best indicator of the success of the relationship. Just as in marriages, it takes a lot of concerted effort to stay in a relationship and make it work over the long haul.
Another type of professional reference should be from the financial industries associated with your prospective contractor. A professional contractor should be willing to provide enough financial information so that you can determine the stability of the company. In general, banks will not share any information because of privacy issues, but if a contractor offers financing, it is fair to trust your prospective contractor’s relationship with the lender.
If a supplier will not do business with the prospective contractor, why would you? Chances are, when a supplier will not do business with a contractor, that supplier has not gotten paid for products or services. Let something like this speak very loudly to you that this contractor is not a good character.
Unacceptable: The contractor has burned a lot of bridges with trade partners and suppliers and has a reputation amongst trade partners and suppliers for being difficult to deal with. He won’t give any references. He is on a COD basis with some/all suppliers and trade partners. He has no established credit.
Good: The contractor is willing to share the names and contacts of all of the members on the team. He has a good working relationship with them.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor shows evidence of long, healthy relationships with trade partners and suppliers.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor will show testimonials from trade partners and suppliers on their team. The contractor will help you visit or talk with all other important team members so you are assured of the compatibility. The contractor is willing to speak openly and honestly about the professional relationships he has fostered over the years. The contractor might even have won industry-wide recognition for his professionalism.
Many times, unsatisfied customers have made the statement, “I just could never track him down.” Does your contractor live in the community? Is it easy for you to determine this contractor’s business location or address? Be sure to watch for those who have no verifiable address or phone number or that just have a P.O. Box number for their address. It is important to a lot of people to keep their business in the community. It is important to a lot of people to know how to contact the people with whom they are doing business.
There are a number of great reasons to choose a local contractor. Local firms are compelled to perform satisfactory work for local homeowners in order for their business to survive in the community. Local firms can be easily checked through past customers. Because they are tax-paying members of your community, they care about the community.
Also, it is much easier for the contractor to stop by and check in on his workers if he works/lives nearby. Many jobs fail because of lack of supervision. Considering the time it takes to check a job, the travel time is a definite factor in choosing a contractor. In addition, he will be more familiar with the styles of housing in the area, local building codes, soil conditions, common building practices, the age of the construction and may even be familiar with the people who lived in or around the home before you did. In addition, he must do a good job because he feels that the neighbors are watching and scrutinizing his every move. His chance for a positive referral from you determines his future in his community. If he is local, this is his neighborhood too and he wants other work in this community.
Unacceptable: The contractor has come in from out of state, possibly chasing a hail storm. He only has a PO Box address, so you don’t know how to find him.
Good: The contractor has a central location from which he does his business.
Better: The contractor has a local office location with a sign up. It is clear that his business is a member of your community. Good neighborhoods need viable businesses and professional businesses need thriving neighborhoods.
Best: The contractor has a place of business with a showroom that displays past work. He is open regular business hours. You can make an appointment to visit the showroom. The contractor is called out many times over the course of a year as a supporter of local sports teams, local churches, local neighborhood efforts and other community-minded endeavors.
This discussion about referrals will have two different but related elements. The first part will talk about asking your contractor for referrals and the second part will talk about asking acquaintances for referrals to help you find a professional contractor.
One of the most widely used and trusted practices in checking out a contractor is talking to past customers. These are people who have had first-hand experience with the contractor you are considering. It is always important to ask for and check out referrals from past customers. These referrals should be current and should be for a job similar to the one you are considering. The referral should be willing to answer all questions openly and honestly. Ask your prospective contractor to give you references of similar past jobs they have completed.
When you contact another homeowner, ask them questions about the contractor and their satisfaction with the job. Would you hire this company again? Did the company maintain a reasonably neat and safe jobsite and haul away debris? Did the company keep labor and material delays to a minimum so that the job could be started and completed on time and within budget?
One of the best ways to find a reputable contractor is to hear about him from someone who has had a working experience with him. Seek referrals from friends, family, neighbors, coworkers and others who have had remodeling work done. Contractors love to be referred to future business. Many have systems in place to encourage referrals. Having a referral gives the contractor a “leg up” on all of the other contractors you might be considering. Ask a lot of questions. Was the work done on time? Were any delays for good reason? Did the crews conduct themselves properly? Were the lines of communication open and clear? Were the materials and workmanship as specified? Did all work pass the first inspection? Did the firm make timely callbacks? Have you had any unexpected problems since the completion of the work? How were warranty issues handled? Was the job completed within the original estimate? Would the customer use the firm again?
Most firms are consistent. If others with similar tastes and budgets were happy or unhappy with the services provided by a contractor, most likely you will receive the same results.
Unacceptable: The contractor can’t or is unwilling to give you referrals. He pooh-poohs your requests for them, or says he will get you some and then forgets.
Good: The contractor has referrals and is willing to share them upon request.
Better: The contractor has a list of recent referrals for your type of job and provides names, addresses, phone numbers and/or email addresses so it is easy to check out the references.
Best: The contractor has testimonials from recent past customers for your type of job. The contractor has a history of completing successful projects on time, on budget and meeting all customer and code requirements.
Level of Experience
Many seasoned contractors will denigrate the “new guy on the block,” but all of us were new to this industry at one time. Whether new or seasoned, the contractor should be willing to share the level of experience they have in the industry and in particular to the job you are asking them to complete. A higher level of experience contributes greatly to the job.
There are many questions you can ask to better understand the contractor’s level of experience. How long has he been in business? Has he performed a number of jobs like the job you are considering? Ask to see examples or pictures of jobs similar to yours and to visit past and current jobs. Talk about the quality of the work and decide if it will meet your standards. Interview past customers who had jobs like yours completed by the contractor. An experienced contractor should be able to offer a wide array of options, thus demonstrating knowledge of and experience with a variety of products, materials and techniques.
Does the contractor have a working knowledge of the many types and ages of homes in the area? Knowing what is likely to be behind a wall or under a floor helps the contractor provide reliable estimates. An extremely low bid may indicate lack of experience or an inability to later cover the actual costs involved in the job.
If a contractor underestimates costs of too many jobs, they will ultimately go out of business. Nine out of ten businesses in our industry fail in the first five years. Little or no experience is the most common cause of business failure. If your contractor goes out of business halfway through your project, it will be very difficult for another contractor to take over where he left off. The first contractor may have used materials or techniques that are not familiar to the second contractor. Plus, unless there are very specific drawings, the second contractor may not understand your wishes in the same way that the first contractor did.
Unacceptable: The contractor hasn’t picked a niche yet because his business is too new and he is inexperienced. This contractor will go on every lead and take every job and then figure out how to do it.
Good: The contractor’s business is developed enough that he knows his core competencies and only follows leads that his business can handle.
Better: The contractor has picked a niche, is very focused on what his business does and knows they are good at it. The business has lead qualification systems that help the contractor rate and determine if a particular lead “fits” their company.
Best: The contractor has a clear picture of his niche, brands his business in this niche and works to develop a public image within this niche.
After all decisions have been made, the design has been completed and the negotiations have taken place, the contractor of choice is usually asked to put together a contract. The contract should be in writing and, at a minimum, should include (1) a summary of work; (2) provisions for permits; (3) estimated start and completion dates;
- provisions and procedures for handling Change Orders; (5) the schedule of payments; (6) a Lien Notice; (7) the Notice of Cancellation and (8) Warranties.
A “summary of work” can take many forms. Some contractors list all work included in the proposal, some have an estimating system that breaks the work into categories to share with the owner, some write a detailed description of all of the elements involved in the project, some refer to the drawings or plans for the details of the project and some use a combination of the above options. The intent is to convey the scope of the work as clearly as possible so all parties understand what the finished project will look like. Some contractors also go out of their way to list the things that are not included in the proposal, further eliminating the possibility of a misunderstanding. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to review the contract and have a clear understanding of its contents. If something is unclear, take the time to ask the questions and clarify all aspects of the contract.
The provision for the acquisition of permits should include an understanding of who is responsible to pull the necessary permits and call for the required inspections. There are only a handful of small jobs that do not require a permit. Check with the governing bodies to determine the thresholds in your jurisdiction. The person or company pulling the permit is responsible for all of the permitted work. If a contractor is unwilling to provide the permit, it could be an indication they are not licensed or are unwilling to do the work in a manner that will pass code. If you agree to pull the permit, you will be held responsible for all of the work being done to code and you will be responsible for additional costs of anything required by the inspection process.
The starting and completion dates should be a part of every contract. Delays can and do occur, so a statement allowing for reasonable delays is a good idea.
The provision for Change Orders is a necessary clause in every contract. This is an agreement that the contract cannot be modified without the written consent of both parties.
The schedule of payments is an area that often comes into play with unsatisfying relationships. The payment schedule should be tied to performance and risk exposure on the job. A down payment is customary, but should not be more than a small percentage of the total job. There are situations where a large order of custom cabinets or special order of windows (as examples) can affect the amount of the down payment. Any contractor who insists on a large down payment, with no obvious explanation, should be avoided. On the other hand, many contractors are small businesses with the need for cash flow to buy materials and pay wages. In this case, you should set up a schedule that reflects the work done to date. The ideal is to have an even balance between what has been accomplished and what you have paid. The situation to avoid is one where the contractor has collected the bulk of the money and has little or no incentive to complete the project in a timely manner, especially if some things have started to go wrong. There are many fair ways to schedule the payments that satisfy both the owner and the contractor. Some contracts have a “holdback clause.” This allows you to withhold a final payment (usually about 10%) until sometime after the job is completed, allowing you to inspect the work. If there are any problems, this can serve as incentive for the contractor to remedy them.
The contract should outline all pertinent information about guarantees and/or warranties. A professional remodeling contractor guarantees all workmanship for a specific length of time and extends the warranties offered by the material suppliers and the equipment manufacturers. Every state has laws regarding the length of time certain warranties on workmanship are in effect. Do your homework and understand fully the extent to which your project is covered by warranties or guarantees.
The above outline is intended to capture the most essential elements needed. The time it takes to have a sound understanding of what is outlined in a well written proposal is time well spent. No one wants to argue over petty misunderstandings and create an adversarial relationship.
Unacceptable: The Contract and Change Orders are verbal, rather than written. Nothing is documented. Any one of the above elements is missing or dismissed as unimportant. Issues are poorly covered in the document. Statements are vague and confusing.
Good: The contractor produces a proposal that includes all of the above elements. Any blank spaces to put in dates, amounts, or choices are filled in so nothing is left to chance later.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor has formal, complete and professional contract documents and explains all of them thoroughly, creating a complete understanding of the project and all related elements.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor has systems and procedures that they follow for every element of the contract process. This attention to detail and thoroughness makes every part of the contract relationship predictable. In the end, all of the contract documents are positioned to eliminate misunderstandings or surprises.
Completeness of the Estimate
One of the most confusing stages of dealing with a contractor can be “getting bids.” Different people attach different meanings to words, and it can be very confusing to consumers and contractors alike. There are subtle differences between the words bid, estimate, proposal and contract. A bid is an offer to do something, with certain conditions, for a certain (usually) lump sum price. An estimate is a calculation or judgment – a written statement giving the likely price that will be charged for specified work. A proposal is an offer, a proposition (price) for something, i.e. for this money, we will do this work. Some proposals include an allowance. An allowance can be a lump sum number, such as “$8000.00 for appliances.” An allowance can also be for a unit cost of material, such as “$4.00 per square foot material cost for ceramic tile.” An allowance is usually given because an exact product, process, or type of material has not yet been determined. A bid or estimate is usually the first step in determining the conditions of a project, and all it tells you is the projected cost of the project. The bid or estimate is usually followed by a proposal. A proposal outlines all of the other terms and conditions that will be included in the final agreement between the parties. The contract is the final agreement between the parties. The next section of this paper is devoted to the things that should be in the contract.
Homeowners are always cautioned against accepting a verbal bid. Many contractors will verbally tell you what things cost, pulling these numbers from experience or price books they have acquired over the years. The caution applies to accepting a verbal quote as “the contract.” Always do business with all elements in writing in a binding contract. Verbal statements never hold up in court. That is where the expression “he said, she said” comes from. A judge has a hard time knowing who to believe or who is telling the truth. Beware of contractors who refuse to give a written estimate or contract.
A reputable contractor will not give you a sketchy proposal on the back of an envelope. He prepares a comprehensive set of material and labor specifications, carefully estimates costs and offers you a detailed proposal, at a package price, covering every aspect of the job from removal of existing materials to a thorough clean-up when the job is done. Some contractors choose to leave certain items out of their proposal, either because they do not choose to perform that line of work or because they are trying to make their proposal less costly.
Homeowners are always encouraged to obtain several bids, and most contractors will give homeowners an estimate of what they think the project will cost. It isn’t until all of the details have been determined that a contractor can give a firm bid on the whole project. The smaller and less complicated the project, the easier it is for the contractor to put together an estimate. When the project is more complex, involves design and/or has unique specifications, many contractors charge for estimates. Nailing down all of the details, getting bids from trade partners, finding products that satisfy the customer and designing the details of the project take a long time and involve a lot of work. Assuming that all contractors are supplying the same quality materials and performing the same labor, there shouldn’t be big differences in the bids. Even allowing for shrewd buying and greater efficiency on the part of one contractor over the others, there shouldn’t be more than a 10%-15% difference between the high and low bids. View bids from contractors that are way higher or way lower as bids that might be suspect or need extra understanding to explain the differences.
Unacceptable: You are sure to have trouble if you accept verbal estimates because nothing is documented and everything is left to chance. Be cautious if a contractor leaves whole areas of work out of the bid. Some contractors put in very small allowances for things like fixtures or appliances. Again, this could be to keep their bid the lowest. Some contractors minimize the job on the front end and then write a lot of Change Orders for extras, making the project cost a lot more than initially expected.
Good: The contractor listens carefully to the customer’s wishes, offers good suggestions and produces a bid that includes all the elements of the project for which the homeowner asked.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor has a system for checking off all the elements that are necessary to complete this type of project. The contractor produces a document that makes it clear what the estimate or bid is based on, shows you samples, has you pick out elements of the project at showrooms or on websites and helps you understand what you will get for what you want to spend.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor specifies in detail the make, model, and color of the pieces of the project. He keeps the design and estimate reflective of each other. The contractor usually has a way to show what the parts of the project cost, i.e. with a line-item estimate, so that the customer has a clear understanding of the elements that drive the total costs associated with the project. The contractor is willing to share constructive ideas with the customers about decisions that will help the project meet budget. The allowances in the proposal are adequate to purchase the products desired in the project.
A contractor’s reputation is one of his most valuable assets. A good contractor is very willing to share his reputation with his future clients. Does the contractor have a record of unresolved complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or other associations, like the City License Bureau, the State Department of Commerce or with any of his clients or competitors? These agencies investigate complaints from consumers alleging violations of laws and rules, and when necessary, take disciplinary action against a contractor’s license.
How does the BBB work? When the BBB receives a complaint, it presents the complaint to the business and requests its assistance in working out the problem with the unhappy customer. Most companies are grateful for the opportunity to resolve problems with their customers since it often means their patronage will be preserved.
- members agree to respond to consumer complaints presented by the BBB, and lose their membership if they do not. Most other companies, regardless of whether they are BBB members, also cooperate with the BBB because the BBB can still report on a company if they are not a member. Your local BBB is listed in the telephone book and online at Minnesota.BBB.org.
A reputation is something that sticks with a contractor for years. It takes years of reliable work, many satisfied customers and enduring relationships with suppliers to build up a good reputation. Conversely, it takes years of shoddy work, unsatisfied customers and adversarial relationships with suppliers to create a bad reputation. If a trusted friend, colleague, family member or supplier tries to steer you away from a contractor or is vague on the details, listen to your gut! Since contractors don’t receive report cards, this is a very important part of finding out about them. Every contractor has a reputation.
Unacceptable: The contractor doesn’t have any references that he is willing to share, or hasn’t been in business long enough to have any references. The contractor has a history of being in small claims court with customers or suppliers. The contractor has a reputation of not paying his subs or suppliers timely or at all. The contractor doesn’t have a standing in the community, no one has heard of him, no one knows of the company and no one has had a relationship with him.
Good: The contractor will give references upon request. These references may or may not be recent and may or may not be related to the project you are considering.
Better: The contractor has a list of references for recent jobs that are like your job and willingly shares them with you.
Best: The contractor has many references, has testimonials from past customers who had projects like yours and exhibits a history of pleasing his customers and completing his jobs in a satisfactory manner. Any problems that may have arisen have been resolved in a positive manner. People in the better or best categories understand the idea of reputation and are proactive in maintaining a good reputation.
The other piece of advice given most often to consumers is: “Get several bids to compare prices.” It is important to understand the pitfalls of only considering price. In order for you to accurately compare price, all bids must be for the same project, products, specifications and quality of work. This is almost impossible to realize. If you took one small, easily definable part of the project and asked a couple of contractors how much they would charge for that element of the project, most contractors would try very hard to give you what you want at the price you want to pay. They may even find cheap products and inexpensive trade partners to help you meet your budget. Remember that the bid is only the starting point in your negotiations with the contractor.
Keep in mind that the lowest bid may not necessarily be the best bid, and that an unusually low bid may be cause for alarm. Perhaps the contractor did not fully understand the project’s scope. He may be inexperienced and underestimated the amount of labor and materials required or may be planning to cut corners by using inferior materials, low-paid, inexperienced workers, or by not following local building codes. Contractors may play a little game, giving you a bid for something that is slightly different from their competitor’s so that you can’t compare evenly. A good contractor will listen to you and be respectful of your budget. He won’t try to sell you things you don’t ask for or that are different than what you want.
Unacceptable: The contractor gives you a dollar amount on the back of a business card, or hand-writes a one-page proposal that is short on details. The contractor presents a very low bid (to get the job) and then adds in extras which weren’t included in the original bid or are upgrades from the allowances.
Good: The contractor prepares a complete proposal that refers to plans and gives you a “Notice of Cancellation” and a Lien Notice.
Better: The contractor has a presentation that breaks down different areas, allowances are clearly spelled out, options are clearly outlined, plans accompany the proposal and the proposal names specific brands and models.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor has a system for design and estimating and presents all costs associated with this process. He helps establish a budget with which you are comfortable, shares design ideas with you, provides a line-item estimate, and helps you understand how your decisions affect the cost.
Licensed, Bonded, and Insured
Consumers are often advised to “make sure your contractor is licensed, bonded, and insured,” but bonding or insurance requirements must be fulfilled in order to get licensed. The real question should be, “Are you a licensed contractor?”
In order to obtain a license in Minnesota, contractors must (1) Have an owner or manager pass a written exam on technical and business matters, (2) Provide proof of Liability and Property Damage Insurance as well as Workers’ Compensation and Unemployment Insurance, (3) Disclose the organizational structure of the business, (4) Pay a license fee and contribute to the Contractors’ Recovery Fund, and (5) Obtain seven hours of Continuing Education Credits each year.
How do you verify that a contractor is licensed?
Minnesota law requires residential contracting companies (not individuals) working on 1-4 unit family dwellings to be licensed and to display this license number on all advertising. Ask the contractor for his state license number. Next, call the Minnesota Department of Commerce at (651) 296-2488, extension “4.” They can tell you if the contractor is licensed, if he has been involved in any legal actions and if there have been any complaints filed against him as well as the general results of any actions. Licenses are extremely important to good contractors and they go to great lengths to keep their record clean. There is no recourse against an unlicensed contractor, but remember that a license is not a guarantee of any kind.
How do you find out if a contractor is insured?
Ask the contractor for the name of his insurance provider and the insurance agent’s name and phone number. Call the insurance provider directly and ask them to send you a current Certificate of Insurance. This will tell you what kind of insurance the contractor has, what levels of coverage exist and when the policy expires.
What is the Contractor’s Recovery Fund?
The Contractor’s Recovery Fund exists to compensate consumers for losses incurred due to a contractor’s fraudulent, deceptive or dishonest practices, conversion of funds or failure to perform. All licensed contractors pay an annual fee to the fund. Be advised that the total amount that can be paid out against any one licensed contractor is $75,000. If multiple claims are filed against the same contractor, each claim is prorated and you may not be able to recover your entire loss.
Unacceptable: The contractor doesn’t have insurance, a current license, or the license exists in another company’s name.
Good: The contractor has all necessary insurance and a license. He shares his insurance company’s name with you so that you can follow up on proof of insurance.
Better: In addition to the above, the contractor shows you a copy of his State License and his Certificate of Insurance, taking care to provide you with a current copy.
Best: In addition to the above, the contractor will make all arrangements to have a copy of his Certificate of Insurance made out and sent to you. He helps you understand the insurance and licensure process, explains the value of the process and shows you how you can check out any contractor with the state. The contractor has a higher amount of insurance coverage, which demonstrates stability. He carries an umbrella policy and liability insurance and has a system in place to check that his trade partners are licensed and have the necessary insurance. He has a current Certificate of Insurance on file for all of the firms with which he is working.