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Musings of an Energy Nerd

The Perfect Contractor

I set off in search of a unicorn, a mermaid, and a perfect contractor

[Stock image - public domain]

I’m an experienced builder who owns a lot of tools, so I can handle most residential remodeling and maintenance chores. But like all builders and homeowners, I can’t do everything—so sometimes I have to hire a contractor.

Articles in Fine Homebuilding, the Journal of Light Construction, and Green Building Advisor often provide business advice to contractors. You’ve probably read some of these articles—the ones with advice on attending educational workshops, returning phone calls promptly, keeping good records, and developing consistent office systems. Homeowners who read these articles often develop a mental image of the Perfect Contractor—someone who has read and absorbed the lessons in these advice columns.

This contractor must be out there somewhere, right? From the viewpoint of a homeowner, the Perfect Contractor is someone who:

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  1. GBA Editor
    MIKE GUERTIN | | #1

    Wow, spot-on article Martin.
    I scan socal media focused on my local area and see dozens of homeowners asking neighbors for recommendations to contractors for a range of projects. Homeowners seem desparate to find someone and take any contractor they can get. One qualification many of the homeowners are looking for in a 'Perfect Contractor' - something you didn't include in your list - is their 'Perfect Contractor' must be "cheap", "reasonable rate", "decent price" and other descriptors along the same line.

    I think your next article should be about the 'Perfect Client.'

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #2

      I had already thought about the characteristics of the perfect client -- makes decisions quickly, has a spouse with the same opinions, lets contractors use the toilet, offers lemonade, doesn't request change orders, and pays invoices promptly...

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #3

        - Doesn't stand over your shoulder from the moment you arrive in the morning until you leave at night.
        - Doesn't engage you on a time & materials contract but secretly have a fixed price they want to hit.
        - Understands that "throwing something in" is the same as the contractor taking out their wallet and giving them cash.

      2. severaltypesofnerd | | #7

        - Tells you about (fill in the blank from your horror stories) in advance.
        - Knows and describes up front what their goals are.

    2. Expert Member
      Joshua Salinger | | #5

      Ha! Mike-- I love the 'Perfect Client' angle. We spend a lot of time interviewing our clients before agreeing to partner with them. Oftentimes our work will be more money than the Client has ever spent in their lives and since you are working in their home it can be emotionally fraught, even in the best of circumstances. It is like a slice of life condensed into 6 months- there are high 'highs' and low 'lows'. Kind of like a marriage. The marriages that work are the ones where both partners compromise, listen, express their needs and approach difficulties with best intentions and open minds, roll up their sleeves and problem solve. A good partnership with one's Client/Contractor should be framed this way.

      Martin, you mentioned a common "rule" that one should get 3 bids prior to choosing a contractor. I think that this needs to go the way of the Dodo. Especially for larger, more complex projects. This simply leads to a race to the bottom. There is no way anyone knows what a project will cost until it is done! How could someone be expected to get all the numbers right and agree contractually to it when this work had to be done for free and in a short time period. Something has to give when choosing based on 'estimates' and it usually has an outcome like a bad marriage. See above.

      I think interviewing 3 or more contractors is a great idea. In fact, interview architects at the same time. Choose both at the same time based on their knowledge, experience, past clients referrals, how they work together and importantly-- your gut. Oftentimes the relationship or feeling one has about someone is the best us humans can do, damn any empirical studies!

      If one creates a team of good people they will work towards a common goal. They will work towards finding cost effective solutions and delivering quality and will meet the expectations of all. This doesn't tend to happen when one gets 3 "bids".


      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #6

        My mention of "wanting at least three bids" was, of course, somewhat self-mocking. The anecdote I shared proved that my desires were clearly unmet. Having played the role of the "homeowner in search of the perfect contractor," I ended up at a different place than I aimed.

        Of course getting three bids is not only difficult to achieve, it's unfair to contractors -- as I hope my essay made clear.

  2. Expert Member

    You are much less likely to find that ideal contractor in boom times than in a downturn. Part of that is the power imbalance when one side holds all the cards. It's also because everyone moves up the food chain a bit, so that in building booms the contractors whose skill levels were adequate to build small renovations are doing full houses, leaving the small jobs to those who shouldn't be employed at all.

  3. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #8

    Tom Greenleaf from Jefferson Maine is pretty damn close to a perfect contractor.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #9

      Congratulations, Tom!

  4. P606 | | #10

    MAW Chicago is the closest in my book; Mike Nagel, Scott Sevon, and Jan Sevon. In my experience as an architect, the best contractors have a partner where the strengths and weaknesses are balanced and shared. One person won't have it all for all client types, but a good partnership can more easily have it all.

  5. dankolbert | | #11

    That's a great list, and I think there are plenty of contractors who certainly hit most of those notes. For those in the Northeast, the NESEA listings are a good place to find them -

    Re: multiple bids - I wrote a piece for JLC years ago that still pretty much sums up how I feel. Bottom line - it doesn't provide anything useful for the client, the designer, and certainly not the contractor. And the clients who do hire the contractor are subsidizing the free estimates to those who don't.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #12

      Thanks for the link to the article on bidding.

      I'd also like to second your recommendation of NESEA contractors -- it's a great list. (That said, the list probably won't help homeowners who just need to hire an excavator, plumber, or HVAC contractor.)

  6. CarsonZone5B | | #13

    You guys aren’t leaving many options open to a home owner. If it’s true that no one can predict costs, and the home owner has no way to determine local rates other than bids, then the type of custom home building often proposed on this site is really only for those than can afford an unbounded contract, and likely only for those building second homes. Those of us with fixed incomes and mortgage payment maximums can’t just absorb unknown cost and time for builds. Another reason most homes are tract builds I guess.

    1. hockipuck | | #14

      Carson, in part you're right. Going in with just a contractor you may miss design options on many fronts from other specialties. Rarely, like you mentioned, can projects exist where specialists are brought in for every aspect. However, a homeowner can put together a priority list of what they want and a budget that they reasonably can apply. They can then partner with a builder and designer to work through their desires and planning process. Many architects/designers can't have a perfect idea of costs as the construction isn't their forte. Working with a team (builder/designer/engineer/landscape/energy/etc.), even in part, can lead to a project that is buildable, enjoyable, meets the budget, and hits as many of the homeowners priorities as possible.

      Many times we think we can't afford an architect or designer and we end up with less than ideal designs. Or we go straight to an architect and end up with a design that we can't afford. Working with people with whom we are compatible, and trust, allows for honest conversations and realistic solutions.

      1. CarsonZone5B | | #15

        hockipuck, a priority list and a pre-construction phase with a builder and architect sounds great, and that is the same pipeline I went with. My comments were directed at the above comments about owners getting multiple bids and contractors not being able to set a price until the project is finished. That's simply not an option for us ignorant home owners with fixed budgets as we need some way to gauge the market locally (and hopefully not just go with the lowest bid) and need fixed costs and time lines in contract. Perhaps that's simply the reality with custom home building, which would be most of the articles on GBA in my area, but would dramatically shrink the already small pool of potential home builders.

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