How to Work With a Contractor, Part 2!

Green Architect

Last year during Home Hacks month we wrote a few turorials on working with contractors: How To Find A Good Contractor and How to Work With a Contractor and Not Get Ripped Off. We turned to one of our favorite green architects, Nathan Kipnis, for advice, but as some of you suggested, it'd be good to hear what the contractor himself has to say. So we did!

Scott Simpson is a general contractor who recently completed a LEED Platinum residence in Wilmette, IL and is currently working on another anticipated LEED Platinum residence in Glencoe, IL. He has many years of contracting experience and we knew he'd be the best to turn to for answers to all our contracting questions!

If a client is not working with an architect, how should homeowners know when to DIY or use a contractor? When should they use an architect?
If you are asking yourself “should I get a professional (i.e. tile installer, trim carpenter, architect), you probably should. Hiring one of the professional always takes the project to the next level of quality and aesethetic.

Are drawings necessary, or can a homeowner just do a 'walk-thru' of what needs to be done?
It depends. Your ability to communicate how you want your house to look and feel is extremely important, especially in the early planning stages. Some people gather pictures or clippings of homes they admire, some list out their "must-haves." Whatever your method, the more specific you are, the more we can help you achieve your dream home. Drawings are always a good idea as they get everything on paper so nothing is left to chance.

When is a permit necessary? What if a contractor wants to do it 'under the radar'?
If a permit is called for by the city or village for the particular project you are working on, a permit is always a good idea.

Where should someone look for a contractor?
Friends, colleages, or architects and then talk to other references once you’ve narrowed it down.

What are some good questions to ask a contractor before hiring them?
How long have you been in business? How long is you warranty? Issues always come up during construction project. You're trying to find out how they worked through the issues or problems with the existing conditions or the Owner. Did they stand by their work? Longevity in home building or remodeling is rare. Look for someone who has been around a while.

How to choose between contractors?
You are going to be working with this person or company for a while during and after the project. Find someone you like and feel you can communicate with. Go look at a project or two and look at the details of the trim, tile, etc. If it looks bad to you, it probably doesn’t look so good behind the walls either.

Re-Nest readers tend to be those who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle at home – how can our readers find a contractor who understands green building techniques? Are there specific green contractors? Are there any special certifications to look for?
USGBC, Foresight Design, The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) — all of these are great resources for home owners looking to build sustainably.

Are 'green' contractors more expensive?
Green means many things to many people — it has always meant better quality to me. So yes, green, sustainably built houses if done right will last longer and be built (for the most part) of better materials and most likely be more expensive than traditionally-built homes initially. They tend to be less costly to maintain and utility bills will most likely be less than their less green counterpart.

How does a homeowner ensure that they don't get ripped off during a construction project?
Sign a contract and have a third party read it over. Make sure they are insured and make sure they list you as insured on their insurance policy.

Where can a homeowner find examples of good contracts to use and do they need a lawyer to get involved?
The AIA has many contract options. Good contractors use these or something like it. Depending on the size of the job, a lawyer is a good idea (anything larger than a small bathroom remodel).

Everyone hears the horror stories of workers smoking in the house, using the house bathroom, something is broken, etc. How can this be avoided or dealt with on the job site?
Find a good contractor with good references, go look at one of their recent jobs, talk to more references and sign a good contract. The most gratifying building projects happen when the homeowner and the project manager work well together. For the better part of a year, you and your project manager are going to be partners as you transform your home together. You need to be comfortable with your project manager, you need to trust him, and you need to be able to share a laugh with him.

What if the homeowner doesn't like the work a subcontractor is doing, should they say something or wait to talk to the general contractor? What if the homeowner see something wrong, unsafe or illegal happening on the job site — what should they do?
Communicate a lot with the General Contractor, lay out expectations in the drawings and specifications and contract, and meet at least twice month at a set time. If it is unsafe or illegal, they want to know about it as much as you do.

When is the homeowner responsible for payments? Who decides when the job is substantially complete, and what if there is a disagreement?
You may be so eager to move into your new house that you want to rush your decisions to hurry the project along. Don’t! Hasty decisions cost more money, chip away at morale, and actually slow down the project. If you feel yourself hastily picking out tile for your new bathroom, take a few deep breaths. Your home will be finished on schedule, and picking tile you don’t really like isn’t going to get it done any faster. That said, according to our contract, the room or house is substantially complete when you can use it as it was intended; for example, if the kitchen has working appliances and fixtures.

Thanks Scott!

Read Part One:

Scott Simpson is the owner of Scott Simpson Builders, a family-owned business, specializing in both new home construction and historic renovations along Chicago's North Shore. He has received several awards and distinctions including seven Historic Preservation Awards. Scott Simpson Builder's is committed to eco-friendly building and is currently constructing two expected LEED Platinum residences on the North Shore of Chicago.

(Image: Mica and Frank's Salvaged Storage Shed Renovation)