Local Landscaper Offers Tips on Selecting a Contractor

by Mike Isbir

If you have decided to build or renovate your home or business, then you must make the difficult decision of selecting the right contractor for you and your project. Below are several tips and questions you should address before choosing a contractor.

Your first step will be to find a contractor who specializes in the type of project you have in mind. What percentage of the contractor’s business is the type of work you need to have done? If a contractor spends 95% of his or her time installing windows and you need to have a concrete driveway installed, you should look elsewhere.

Is the contractor trained or certified by a manufacturer or supplier of products he or she installs? Many manufacturers and distributors hold seminars to train contractors in the proper methods to install their products. Ask for certificates of completion for these courses. Remember that just completing these courses by no means ensures that he or she is an expert, years of experience combined with these certifications make for competent contractors.

Not all contractors install products with manufacturer certifications. You should ask questions such as the number of years they have been doing this type of work and if they have any other formal education in their field. If they do, this shows a desire to install quality projects. Many industry associations also offer training courses that are attended by contractors.

Does the contractor belong to local and national professional associations specific to their field or to the development of their business? The Regional Chamber Alliance and the local Chambers of Commerce of Southwestern Pennsylvania are great local examples.

How is the professionalism of the contractor’s business? Does someone answer the phone or does he or she return phone calls promptly? If they don’t call you back, they are probably not interested in your business. Are the company’s vehicles clearly marked? Do the employees wear uniforms or matching work wear? When employees look professional, their attitude is professional. Does the contractor have several jobs going on at once or does he or she complete one job before moving on to the next? Some contractors have several projects going on at once and spread their resources too thin. Projects take longer to complete and customers wonder why there is no progress on their project.

Does the contractor have a photo book or web site that contains before and after pictures of their completed work? Can they provide client letters and testimonials? Look over jobs that were completed several years ago to compare how well their work has held up over time. Try to visit a job in progress to see how the contractor completes his or her work as well as visit more recently completed projects. A company web site is a great source of valuable information about the contractor.

Be sure to ask for references and call them with specific questions you might have about the contractor.

The contractor should also have a permanent business location, good reputation, and good credit standing with local banks and suppliers. Ask for references from these businesses as well if you have any questions. Suppliers know who does good work and who has a stable business. They see dozens of contractors every day. Talk with local contractor supply stores for their recommendation on choosing a contractor for a particular job.

Does the contractor have general liability insurance and workers compensation insurance? If they do not and someone gets hurt on your property, your insurance could end up paying for it. Ask to see a copy of their insurance policy. Some deceitful contractors will obtain insurance coverage just to get a copy of an insurance certificate. They will then drop coverage and their premiums will be returned to them. They can show unsuspecting customers the invalid certificate. If you are unsure, request a certificate of insurance from the contractor’s insurance agent with yourself named as certificate holder. This way, if the contractor drops coverage, you will be notified.

Are you signing a detailed written contract and drawing? Payment, start and completion dates, as well as all specifics about the project should be written to avoid ambiguity later. Make sure you get a copy of the original signed contract agreement. You should also ask how change orders are handled and this should be included in the contract as well.

Any warranties or guarantees should also be written in the contract. They will be very difficult to prove later if defects are found.

Is the contractor requiring a down payment? Can his or her company complete the job without asking for additional cash? A payment schedule should be agreed upon and written into the contract. A typical payment schedule is: 50% due at contract signing and 50% due upon satisfactory completion of the job. Another is “1/3, 1/3. & 1/3” for longer projects. 1/3 of the contract price is due at contract signing, 1/3 is due during the project, and 1/3 is due upon satisfactory completion. There are many ways of paying for a project, but by no means should you ever pay more than 50% up front or pay the contractor the final payment before he or she has completed every last detail of the project. If you do, you may never see those final details get completed.

For larger jobs, competent contractors will add up costs to arrive at an estimate; however, some contractors will throw out numbers with little thought behind them. This is a sign that the contractor does not know what they are charging you for or paying for themselves. They may even try to add additional charges later. Avoid these types of contractors.

Avoid high pressure sales people that try to force or intimidate you to sign a contract. Quickly let them know that their tactics and attitude are not acceptable and ask them to leave.

The largest factor of many projects comes down to price. Be wary of contractors who work below the “going rate”. These contractors are normally unaware of the costs of doing business and may not last in business. This will leave you out of luck if you have problems later on. A reliable, competent, and professional contractor will want to be paid a reasonable amount to complete a job. He or she must pay overhead expenses such as utilities, advertising, and taxes as well as materials and labor. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Hire a professional contractor to do the job at an accurate and calculated rate. Good contractors know that price is all about value. They want to build relationships with clients who understand quality and trust and who will refer them to others.

It all boils down to feeling comfortable with a contractor and being able to communicate with him or her. You are making an investment in your property and you will want to seek advice and recommendations from them. If you have negative responses to some of the ideas addressed in this article, then you should look for a different contractor. Call the Better Business Bureau if you are still not sure.

(The author is President of Isbir Construction & Landscape Corp. Isbir specializes in retaining walls, paving stones, drainage systems, excavating, and landscaping. His company follows all of the principals addressed in this article. If you would like to talk with Mike Isbir about a project or the information in this article, please call 412-751-4359 or visit http://www.isbirconstruction.com.)

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Published in the February 2005 Issue of RBA Action!

A newsletter focusing on the business and employees of the Mon Valley. The Regional Chamber Alliance is a partnership of six Chambers of Commerce including: Clairton, Duquesne/West Mifflin, Mon-Yough, Valley, West Jefferson Hills, White Oak.

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