Home Improvement

Helpful tips for choosing and working with a contractor

It can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing a general contractor at the outset of a construction project. Not only are large sums of money involved, but also big expectations for the contractor to perform at or above your standards. Here, several local contractors provide tips on how to find someone who is capable, competent, trustworthy and hard-working. 

“The best way to find the right contractor for building new or renovating an existing home, as well as older homes or historical properties, is by word of mouth,” says Beth Delaune, who works in marketing and engagement at JLV Construction. “Good contractors are known in the community, and their reputations often precede them. Additionally, online research will show what their speciality area is and let you know if you’re moving in the right direction. This will also provide reviews with insight into past customers’ experiences. Reviews from independent sources will offer the best insight, and companies can’t remove any that are unfavorable.”

According to Chris Kornman, principal at Entablature Design Build, it is important for the contractor to be licensed, therefore providing homeowners with assurances about the ability of the contractor, and, perhaps even more importantly, providing homeowners with protections and safeguards—as well as remedies for dealing with projects that have gone awry.

“Get your information together—like what you need and want, your budget, how the project is being paid for and any examples,” says Reneau Londot of Londot Design Build.

“A major tip when finding a contractor is to hire an architect and have plans made,” says Ryan D. Mayer of Mayer Building Company. “This will help you to determine the full scope and allow for competitive bidding. It also instills confidence in the bidding contractor that the bid process will be fair (by comparing apples to apples).”

Londot also says to make sure you’re looking for the right type of contractor, whether a general contractor, or a contractor for a remodel, a new build or a repair.

“Be sure to interview several contractors and ask for references from customers with projects similar to what you are seeking—new home construction, detailed and custom work, major renovation, addition or historical renovation,” Delaune says. “Your contractor should specialize in the work you are seeking. Ask if there are any current projects taking place that you may visit. Verify licenses and insurance.”

“Stick to the plan,” says Devon Sweeney, president at Sweeney Restoration. “Limit changes to the plan as much as possible. Changes cause delays and price increases.”

“Screen the contractor not for price but for value,” says Machi Medrzycki, general manager at MLM Construction. “Price is deceiving as it may not represent the service. Add-on value would be project management software, having a project manager assigned to your build, the quality of work, and service and customer support.”

According to Londot, it’s also important to choose a contractor in your area. “Availability and proximity are important to getting the project done in a timely manner,” she says.

“Educate yourself on the costs of labor and materials in your area,” Delaune says. “Know the timeline and if the contractor has the ability to start your project within a reasonable timeframe of your preferred start and finish dates. Allow some flexibility for unforeseen events, such as bad weather.”

“Licensed contractors have to maintain $100,000 in general liability insurance, but the reality is that $100,000 in GL coverage is not enough for most contractors,” Kornman says. “Coverage of $500,000 or even $1 million per occurrence offers a homeowner much greater protection. It is perfectly acceptable for a homeowner to request that a contractor provide proof of insurance. A reputable contractor will not be offended by this request and will be happy to comply.”

“Work with someone you can communicate with and understand what your agreement is for the work and how it will work,” Londot says.

According to Sweeney, homeowners also should exercise patience. “Labor supply and supply chain issues are extending builders’ schedules,” he says. “Also be flexible. Contractors are human. There will be mistakes. They can be corrected.”

“Ask lots of questions,” Delaune says. “Does the contractor provide turnkey services, or will there be items handled by you, such as finish selections? Will you be expected to provide building plans or does the contractor offer design services? Will a deposit be required? How will you receive updates about your project? How will the payment schedule work? If a plan change is required, what is the process? Is there a fee for the estimate?”

Medrzycki echoes Delaune’s advice. “Ask uncomfortable questions when screening a contractor,” he says. “Have you been sued before? How many projects have you left unfinished? Gauge not only their answers but their body language. Lots of times, you will know right away whether it will be a good fit or not. Remember, it’s a short-term relationship that can go really good or really bad. Also find out how change orders will be handled. You want to make sure they are documented and priced, and proposed to the client before any additional work is done.”

Mayer says it’s important to move out during the construction. “That way, you can focus on the project rather than the mess that’s being made,” he says.

Mayer says to also be sure you get a schedule of values from the contractor for billing purposes. This will help to avoid over-billing and to understand your own cost to complete the project.

“Find out if the contractor is willing to provide a comprehensive, line-item budget,” Kornman says. “This ensures that the plans have been properly reviewed and that the estimate is thoughtfully developed.”

“Start looking early—about 10-12 months in advance of your desired construction date,” Sweeney says. “Most good contractors are very busy these days. Depending on which jurisdiction you are in, permitting can take a couple of months.”

Medrzycki also says to find out whether sub-contractors are insured separately or if the general contractor’s insurance covers them. “Verify their work, as the general contractor is only as good as the sub-contractors,” he says.

Kornman says to also find out if the the contractor is a member of trade organizations, such as the National Association of Home Builders and/or the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans. “Membership in such organizations suggests the contractor is interested in meeting higher standards and advancing the reputation of the industry,” he says.

“Share your feelings, goals, small talk, visions and anecdotes with your contractor,” Mayer says. “Have progress meetings, and out write meeting minutes. This develops good communication toward the ultimate goal of clarity between the homeowner and the contractor.”

Kornman says to ask the contractor for a documented process that guides the progress of the project, maps the critical path and identifies key deadline dates. Find out if the contractor will engage you in the process by sharing a written or graphical construction schedule with you that includes regularly scheduled onsite owner meetings.

“See if the general contractor is awarded, and how long they have been in business,” Medrzycki says. “Find out about the bandwidth of the company, how many projects they currently have and what is the typical project amount for them. Find out about payment terms. If the contractor will request a 30 percent down payment on a $200,000 job, run away. Find out if they have bonding capability, which will illustrate financial health of the general contractor.”

According to Kornman, all homeowners should find out how the project will be managed. “Technology has vastly improved the project-management field,” he says. “A construction project involves countless details, frequent communication and myriad documents. There are several platforms, such as BuilderTrend and Co-construct, that have brought a whole new level of efficiency, transparency and effectiveness to the management of all this data. If a contractor is using one of these platforms to manage projects and keep customers informed and involved in the process, chances are the contractor is dedicated to managing projects professionally and delivering an exceptional experience to customers.”

“Once you’ve chosen a contractor that meets your needs, sign your contract and plan to stay in touch frequently and just enjoy the experience,” Delaune says. “The journey may take months, even as much as a year or longer, depending on the size of your project, but, when it’s complete, it’s your home. The reward will be worth the effort.”

According to the Associated General Contractors of America, Louisiana lost 16.1 percent of its jobs in the construction industry from February 2020 to September 2021—the highest percentage of jobs lost in the industry in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, Louisiana added 6,100 jobs between October 2020 and October 2021. The New Orleans area added 200 jobs over that period, while Lake Charles saw its job count rise by 800—the most in the state.

According to data from the Associated General Contractors of America, the producer price index for new nonresidential building construction jumped more than 21 percent from October 2020 through late last year. Prices for steel mill products swelled by 142 percent; aluminum mill shapes increased by 37 percent; and plastic construction products surged by 30 percent during the same time period.

According to Payscale, the average salary for a general contractor is $57,500 in New Orleans.

The Louisiana Homebuilders Association aims to provide Louisiana with quality housing that is safe and affordable. The association represents the homebuilding industry before state and regulatory bodies; serves as the chief advocate of private property rights; educates the general public as to the advantages of utilizing licensed builders; promotes professionalism in the homebuilding industry; and promotes economic development and quality of life in Louisiana.

According to the Home Builders Association of New Orleans, in 2020, the estimated one-year impacts of building 100 single-family homes in a typical local area include: $28.7 million in local income; $3.6 million in taxes and other revenue paid to local governments; and 394 local jobs.

The Louisiana Homebuilders Association has a special Disaster Relief Fund dedicated to assisting communities and citizens within disaster areas recover and rebuild. The fund provides disaster relief assistance to home builders in areas declared by the federal government or the State of Louisiana to be disaster areas to allow them to stay in business and begin to rebuild these areas; assists communities and citizens located in these disaster areas in rebuilding efforts; and educates citizens about proper recovery and rebuilding procedures, and the prevention of contractor fraud.

The Louisiana Homebuilders Association recently influenced a legislative measure (SCR 4, effective as of May 17, 2022) that repeals administrative licensing requirements for residential specialty classifications, including: pile driving; foundations; framing; roofing; and masonry/stucco.

A warranty is a promise, either written or implied, that the material and workmanship of a product is defect-free or will meet a specified level of performance over a specified period of time. Written warranties on new homes are either backed by insurance companies or by the builders themselves.

The Homebuilders Association of New Orleans will hold the New Orleans Home and Garden Show March 24-26, 2023, with an Ask the Expert booth, a Lifestyle Appliances Cooking Stage, Bayou Battle of the Build (in which area high schools plan and build a project that is then judged by the building industry), a Bark Park with adoptable dogs, and an Orchid & Tropical Flower Market.

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