Contractors: can't live with 'em and definitely can't live without 'em!

In my business, contractors are a necessary evil. Actually they can be a lot better than that. Most contractors that I deal with nowadays are actually my friends which is really a good place to be, but it wasn't always that way. I had to deal with deadbeats, slow workers, dim witted workers, and the rest, it really can take awhile to get established into an area.

My inspiration for this rant came from my good friend Grant over at The Corner Office Blog who is having some difficulties with the plumbing at his rental property. He is a pretty good entrepreneur and I thought maybe there are other aspiring entrepreneurs looking for some contractor help.

First let's talk about what a good contractor is by telling you what a bad contractor is. A real bad contractor takes your money and runs. They are the kind that starts the work, usually demo work, and asks for a up front payment. Then you never see them again. Or worse, they keep telling you things require more and more money, threatening to leave the job half way through. Avoid these people like the plague. Any actual contractor should be able to cover all the costs of the work until it is complete, if it is a big project expect to pay 75% of the project costs when the work is 75% of the way done. In other words, the project should be close to finish at that point, and hold the last 25% for the actual project completion.

Beyond money, contractors tend to act in certain ways. More specifically, bad contractors will only do exactly what you want them to do, down to the last nail. Some people think that this is great, but really it is working against you. These people are the experts, and if they encounter something that it unexpected (which can happen often), simply following what you want to do may not be the proper option. Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum is the bad contractor that does nothing of what you ask. I have an architectural engineer friend of mine that has specified all the sizing, materials, and locations of the HVAC ducting and plumbing for a new building, and the contractor has followed exactly zero of his requests. It is a nightmare for him because somehow the company paying for the building wants him to warranty the design, but the contractor hasn't followed any of it.

The best contractor knows how to do both, meaning he/she can follow your specifications, but also knows how to effectively handle issues that may arrive. More importantly, if there is a flaw in what you want done, it is their job to speak up and offer other possible solutions. Remember alternatives can be expensive or cheap, but no matter what it is better and cheaper to do the job once.

So what else is good advise? When selecting contractors always speak to friends or even associates that may have had work done similar to what you are needing. If none are available, apply the rule of three. Three quotes for any job that needs to be contracted. Two quotes will give you a high-low scenario, but three will typically give you an idea of what the real costs are, mostly because at least two of the quotes will be similar. If two are high and one low, I would venture that the low bidder is forgetting something. If two are low and one is high, you might want to find out why that one is so high. If they are all over the place, one of two things has occurred. Either you didn't tell each contractor the same thing and thus not allowing you to compare apples to apples, or you may need to get one more quote to see where the real price lies. The whole three quote thing is meant to get you on talking terms with the contractors. Don't be afraid to tell them that you are looking into getting quotes from other companies as well, the best ones will fight for your money. Another good question to ask is for references. Ask if you can possibly see their previous work or at least call the individual that they did the work for.

Another piece of good advice is look for contractors that use union labor. Typically those workers have been through a regimented apprenticeship and even testing on that specialty. This ensures that your worker has the knowledge of the skills needed to do the job and isn't a handyman just because he says so. You don't have to go this way but it typically is a pretty good bet.

Don't judge a book by it's cover either. The best plumber I know looks like a distant cousin of Igor, but does the best finish work I have ever seen. The best millwright I use blinks and twitches a lot, but has built more than 75% of the production area at my facility. These guys are good at what they do, which isn't always appearance.

So now you have hired a NEW contractor and begun the work what else is good to do. Well a mentor of mine has a mantra: be tough and tight on a contractor in the beginning so that they understand the expectations and only then and when you get a feel for their work do you relax on them. After all you pay them by the hour. It's good to show up at the job site each morning and evening, if you can make it there at lunch time that is good as well. The mornings should be basically be a “What do you need from me?” sort of routine and maybe a quick summary of what is going on during the day. Lunchtime is a time for quick questions from them. Also, it is always a good time to look over some completed work and if something needs to be changed or added, it is no big deal then and it isn't not too much work to go a different direction. The evening is the most important time, this should be a time for a thorough walk through with your foreman or lead guy. What was accomplished today, what are you doing tomorrow, what supplies do you need, anything you see that needs to be different, is there some additional costs that will be incurred? This is your best time to go through everything. Basically for a given project you want to get in there and answer/ask questions and get out. They need to do their job and spending time looking over their shoulder only slows them down.

Another couple of rules, the two day rule for small projects, and the three day rule for big projects. If there is major demolition work to be done, then this is for after that work. It can take awhile for someone to gather materials for a project, so you do have give them some time to order supplies. For bigger projects like laying down flooring or putting a doorway in where there hasn't been one, it typically will take a couple of days to line up materials, rental equipment, and extra manpower if needed. But once all the material arrives, these guys/gals need to be working their butts off. Sometimes contractors will order parts and then do demo or sometimes they will begin demo and then order parts, it all depends on the job. So if it is a small job and the contractor hasn't begun work on the second day, start finding out why. Same thing for a big job on the third day, find out why things haven't begun.

Once you get a real feel for their work ethic and style, ease up on your attitude. These guys will be way more likely to bring you ideas once they get to know you and what you are all about. They'll become no different to you than your favorite barber or car mechanic.

I should add this is how I work with contractors, if anyone has some other really good suggestions or lessons learned they want to share, please do. Use the comment box or email me directly and I will post your comments in their entirety.

1 comment:

Grant said...

Best post you've written, MJ. Nice job.