When choosing a professional contractor, the goal is to hire a professional who will do the work properly to code, stay on budget, communicate with you and provide an excellent finished product. These days just about anyone can build themselves a professional looking website, but you want to hire a contractor who can build quality structures in your home: that takes experience and skill. The information that follows will help you to be discerning when interviewing candidates for your renovation project.
Remember, every contractor has buddies who will recommend him, just to help him out or to return a favour. But you need to discern for yourself who is not just a “buddy” but also a professional.
Conventional wisdom advises homeowners to obtain three quotes if you don’t already have a contractor you know and trust. Start by making a list of 3-5 names, but before making any calls or filling out any contact forms, take a little bit of time to look at their website for photos of their work, and the reviews posted on Google and Homestars. If what you read gives you a feeling of confidence, then by all means, reach out to the contractor about your project.
First Impressions Matter
You can tell a lot about this company’s professionalism in the initial phone call alone.Are they listening well? Are they respectful? Do they seem to be asking you some reasonable questions, such as the timing of your project and whether you already have drawings? If they pass the screening call, then go ahead and schedule an in-person property visit. (Note: this article is written during the Covid-19 shutdown, and virtual property visits are becoming popular, using video technology. This option can give you almost as good of an impression of the contractor as an in-person meeting would.)
First impressions matter. When the contractor arrives at your property, they should present you with a business card and look you in the eye. A professional will be wearing branded clothing and will have a tidy look. This shows courtesy and respect.
Get a Feel for the Contractors Level of Expertise
The main goal of the property visit for you as the client, is to get a clear idea of the contractor’s level of experience and expertise. If you have a clear idea of what you want, then you are in a good position to have a constructive meeting. Many times, clients are looking to the contractor to give them some initial ideas and advice, based on their experience.
Clients often do not know what kind of price range to expect for their project, and this is definitely important to discuss in the early stages.
Have a budget in mind, before meeting with the contractor. This is important because if you do have a dollar figure in mind, you can talk dollars with the contractor and see how he handles the topic. Do the questions seem logical? Do you feel pressured?
A note about budget: if you are moving to a new house and you are taking some equity from the sale of your previous home or if you have a certain amount of cash you are prepared to spend, keep it in mind but don’t let your imagined budget stop you from obtaining quotes from companies you feel good about. Often the quotes with low prices do not include “extras”: these quotes often come from less experienced contractors who are anxious to win your job, however they will often charge you more for unexpected expenses which could have easily been factored into the original cost if they had more experience and knowledge. More about payments later.
Discussing the Overall Project
Let’s say you want to build a basement apartment. During the property visit, assuming you don't already have drawings made, the contractor should share his ideas with you. For example, advantages and drawbacks of different types of layouts can be discussed. The contractor should talk through his basic vision for your space and demonstrate his knowledge and experience with issues like plumbing, bulkheads and their effect on headroom, shadows/lighting, positioning of plugs/furniture, for a start. Also the various flooring options and how they affect ceiling height and room temperature, explaining the risk of flooding or moisture seepage from concrete. An expert will be able to tell you the reasons why your personal vision might not work, and will be able to make alternative recommendations.
Ask the contractor what his process would be, to complete the scope of work. They should have a rough idea as to how long it would take to complete each task as well as the total job. Also what unexpected things might happen and how those events would be handled, and what costs might be involved, for example if there is a delay on obtaining a permit or if there are cracks found in the basement foundation.
An expert contractor knows the Ontario Building Code (OBC) inside and out. Most homeowners don’t want to familiarize themselves with the OBC, however here are some basic code items that inexperienced contractors may not be aware of:
- If you want to put a bedroom in the basement, the OBC says there must be a window and the area of the glass of the window (not including the frame) must be at least 5% of the square footage of the bedroom
- If you have a separate dwelling in the basement of your house, the OBC says you must have 2 separate exits: one option is a stairway leading to a door, another is an egress window, and another is a walkout doorway.
Ask the contractor how the permit process works and if he is willing to apply on your behalf. The facts:
- You don’t need a permit if your finished basement is just being used for extra living space. However if you want your basement apartment to be a legally a separate dwelling, (to increase resale value or for insurance purposes), then it's in your best interest to get a permit at the beginning
- A professional engineer drawing (stamped) is needed to apply for and obtain a building permit from your municipality
- A homeowner can obtain a permit on their own if they can have the drawings made, however every GC should be willing and able to provide this service. A GC not willing or able to do this is not experienced and probably not very reliable. The job of the GC is to make sure everything gets done according to code, properly.
Communication and References
Often overlooked, communication is an important element of a home renovation project. Ask the candidate what kind of communication you would expect leading up to the start date, and during the project. You should already have a good idea about this, since there would have been a couple of communications leading up to the initial meeting.
An expert contractor should be able to provide some references about projects he has completed: what was done, how the project went, how problems if any, were resolved. I tell families I have a number of past clients who are willing to provide a reference for my work. I don't automatically give out their contact information out of respect for privacy.
Ask to see pictures of jobs the contractor has completed as well as pictures of stages throughout the building/installation process.
There are two types of insurance required by law, for every general contractor: Liability (covering your property), and WSIB (covering the workers themselves). The contractor should be willing to provide confirmation that both forms of insurance are active. You can search WSIB converage here.
Paperwork and Payments
The contractor should be willing to present the quote in person and be able to explain what they will be doing and how payments will be made as well. They should also provide receipts to confirm payment. They should provide a warranty for their work: a written document outlining what is covered. The warranty should be at least 6 months for any problems that come up, because if there was potential for failure, it would typically happen within 6 months. The contractor should be willing to answer your questions as well. Agree on a payment schedule, and depending on the budget, be careful about a request for a large deposit, if this company is new to you. Typically for a large project, there is a 10%-20% deposit up front, with milestone payments. Smaller projects (less than $10,000 will usually require a deposit of 50%).
On the Job
When they show up to work do they have their own tools? Are they renting tools? If they are renting ALL their tools, there will be stickers from Home Depot, Lowe's or Stevensons Rentals and this is not a good sign, because it means they haven’t been in business for very long. Are all the tools they bring to the job site newly purchased?Hopefully by the time your contractor has been hired by you, you will not see this. I only mention this, because sometimes you will approach a contractor working at a neighbour’s property, and this is something you could look out for, in terms of initial screening.