10 Tips for Finding the Perfect Contractor

Contractor and homeowner shaking hands over finalized house plan
With February being the month of love, it’s fairly common to find the spotlight on couples — from tales of their romantic connection to wistful musings on their perfect pairing.
When it comes to the design world, the harmonious pairing of homeowner with contractor makes the difference between blissful building and renovation remorse over a project gone wrong. Finding that special someone to handle the job is possible when you set realistic expectations and communicate your needs effectively.
“As the homeowner, it makes sense early on to check references of a contractor that you’re considering for a project,” says Steve Markey, a senior associate with Atlanta’s Harrison Design Associates, which creates luxury custom residences, townhomes and specialty commercial projects. A few steps beyond reference checks, “visit the reference houses if at all possible to see the finished work,” Markey suggests. “Don’t be embarrassed to look closely at the details. If some workmanship looks bad to you, then your bar may be higher than someone else’s. You need to find a contractor whose standards can meet your own.”
 
A match made in heaven
Homeowners Alan and Shirley Raby wound up with their renovation match made in heaven, thanks in large part to designer Jill Weber, founder of Kitchen Connections LLC in Alpharetta. The couple remodeled their 1970s-era home, tackling major changes to the kitchen, the downstairs hallway and two bathrooms, as well as updates to their existing family room.
Raby says he and his wife found a successful partnership with Weber—a designer who, following the Raby renovation, received her contractor license—in large part because of her tell-it-like-it-is approach.
“She’s very honest, very upfront,” he says. “She was extremely concerned that our project would be done right. She had genuine care for us. It wasn’t just strictly business. She wanted everything done to perfection. She never misled us in any way.”
He says they played a part, too, by making sure to ask questions and to speak out when they had something different in mind for what was planned.
“Once the project starts, you shouldn’t get in the way and slow them down,” says Raby. “But, by the same token, you should go in there and look every now and then and see what they’re doing.” He continues, “You need to state your case in a strong way.” 
The bottom line, handle it gracefully, he says.
 
Better the second time around
While an instant cupid’s arrow strike wasn’t in the cards for homeowner Cheryl Beverly and her husband Rich, the couple did wind up with a happily ever after of sorts.
After searching for their dream mid-century modern home “that would lend itself to the design that I was looking for,” says Beverly, the duo found and bought their home in Smyrna.
“When I saw this house—yes, it was old and rundown—it was a dump—but it had all of those characteristics that I was looking for for a super-good remodel,” she says. “This style is really what they call California contemporary; this is really hot right now with the mid-century modern ranches being redone.” 
Beverly and her husband moved into the home before renovations got underway. They were excited to finally begin work on their project and prepared an ample budget to do so. They ended up paying around double that amount by going with a “close family friend who had done smaller projects” for them over the years. “We trusted him to take on this larger project.”  
Unfortunately, Beverly says that the contractor became undependable as he worked erratically throughout the home without successfully completing any one area. They went through their budget and still faced major expense to wrap up the remodeling project that Beverly laments “dragged on for seven months.”  
From March to September 2015, “it was a little bit of a nightmare,” she says, with the exception of one reliable subcontractor that the previous contractor had brought on board. That was the one good thing, she believes, that came out of the association with her original contractor.
In October, the couple signed on with a new contractor, Atlanta-based Just Call Jeffrey, who had been referred by friends. Now, they are on track to complete their project by the early part of 2016.
It includes the installation of a new master bath, kitchen and guest bathroom. Other renovations include an additional 1100-square-foot deck that wraps around the side to the back of the home, California-style landscaping, a waterfall in the atrium, industrial-grade windows, new hardwood floors, natural slate tile in the kitchen, dining room and bathrooms and installation of designer shades and fixtures. There’s also cable fencing around the deck, metal fencing and a metal roof.
“I’m not sure we would have done it had we known what it was going to cost upfront,” Beverly reveals, “but now we’re glad we’ve gone through it. We love it. We’ll grow old here. It’s exactly what we want.”
If she were starting all over again, Beverly says she’d make sure to check references for the contractor as well as insist upon “a really good contract that had a timeline on it and a way to enforce that.”
As the president and design director for her own home-based company, Ridge Creative Inc., Beverly also acted as design architect on the project, but says going forward she’d hire a design team.
“I think I would have hired an architect to help buffer some of that,” she notes.
Still, today Beverly can smile about it all. She says, “This project ended up being everything we thought it would be and much more.”  
 
Set up through friends
After 16 years in their home and with two growing children (ages 12 and 15), Andrew and Ashby Webber decided it was time to finally make the improvements they needed. The Webbers began renovations on their 1970s-era home in fall 2014, and the work lasted through April 2015.
They partnered with Donnon Builders and architect Dave Price to add 1,600 square feet onto their existing footprint. The project allowed them to increase and update their kitchen space as well as add a new master suite, family room and screened-in porch.
The Webbers attend the same church as Price and were familiar with his work, while the recommendation of Donnon Builders came at the referral of friends. A.T. Donnon, the company’s owner, was one of three builders the Webbers considered upfront. Ashby Webber recommends that homeowners looking to hire a contractor should “talk to a lot of people. Have a plan. Literally have an architect draw what you want. Do your homework prior to starting. Have a budget in place. Have a schedule as to when it should  be done and when things are due.” She believes that good communication between client and builder (and architect, in their case) helps to build up a 
trust level. 
This is a serious relationship to develop. A home is not only a huge investment—it’s the center of family life for most homeowners. Keeping an open dialogue with the contractor and renovation team helps a project partnership thrive.
 
10 Tips to Help You Make the Right Connection
• Ask for referrals from trusted sources (friends, family, neighbors, etc.) who have first-hand experience working with a contractor. When driving around town, take note of projects you like and get contact information for those professionals.
• Interview several contractors, then narrow down your selections to three or four contractors to evaluate pricing. It takes at least three to make a solid judgment about the range of numbers presented. 
• Assess how many jobs the contractor takes on at one time and ask how often he/she or the foreman will be present on the job. Make sure they have completed several jobs in similar scope to what you are planning and call those homeowners to discuss their projects. 
• Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, meet any foremen assigned to run your specific project. These are the people who will coordinate with you on a daily basis.
• Find out how many subcontractors the contractor plans to use and discuss the techniques for managing different teams on the job. 
• Check all the contractor’s references and ratings with the Better Business Bureau. Peruse consumer websites for comments or complaints about their work.
• Review their state licenses to see if contractor licenses are current and valid. Once you get serious about a few, ask to see insurance and Workers’ Comp certificates.
• Pick someone with whom you feel comfortable and expect to pay a fair price for that work. Communicate your expectations clearly and give regular feedback as the job progresses. Respect the opinion and experience of your work team. 
• Get a detailed contract with a project outline, specific timeline and payment schedule. Check to see if it includes charges for permitting, trash disposal, portable toilets, cleaning services, etc. Make sure the work is guaranteed and discuss the warranty policies. 
• Keep track of your budget and allow for contingency expenses, which can average about 7.5 to 15 percent over the total project cost. Discuss the contractor’s policies for change fees or additional work orders. 
 
The Homeowners' Emotional Remodeling Roller Coaster
Highs and Lows Chart of Homeowners' Remodeling Emotions
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