Choosing the Right Contractor

Advice from a practicing contractor: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of grass cloth

contractor imageSpring is here at last, which means it's time to rush to the local bath and kitchen suppliers, contact your contractor of choice, and begin putting a fresh face on your beloved homes. But before breaking out the concrete saw and making sure that slate from the Ivory Coast is on its way, there are many things to consider.

Eichler homes have infrastructures that defy many common building practices (heating, electrical, plumbing, and framing, to name the most common); and by taking a few proactive steps, one can minimize the 'surprises' that have been the bane of many a contractor and Eichler owner.

By taking time to screen your architect/designer (if applicable to your project) and contractor, planning your project from start to finish, and taking simple precautionary steps, it is possible that the entire process can be painless and satisfying (and occasionally even fun!) for everyone involved.

The first step is to determine if any assistance is needed with design. Ask yourself why the decision is being made to do the work and what need is driving the decision. Generally, when adding square footage, the services of an architect or a good designer are a must. Most building departments require drawings that show the footprint of the existing structure, and details indicating how the addition relates to the existing building. Even though some general contractors offer this service, if you're adding a significant amount of space, it is a good idea to hire an architect experienced with modern and contemporary design in order to preserve the lines of your home.

Also, an engineer may be required to calculate loads; usually the architect is tied to one who can perform these services. If you're adding a small amount of space or reconfiguring a kitchen, bathroom, or interior floor plan, a competent designer with similar experience will suffice.

Always check portfolios and references. Bear in mind that usually someone other than the design expert built the final product that is represented in the portfolio. Therefore it is a good idea to contact the contractor and homeowner involved if you have further questions about a project represented in the portfolio.

When budgeting for a project, it is important to have two budgets in mind: the target budget (the optimistic number) and the outside budget (blowing this would cause life changes that might include writing of clever cardboard signs for display on city streets!). Both will be determined by the scope of work, selection of finishes, and of course, the availability of funds. It is possible to get preliminary estimates without drawings, but it is important to understand that without a scope of work that includes any finish detail, it is very difficult to achieve an accurate final bid.

Finally (and this may seem obvious), if significant changes in design occur during construction, the impact can significantly delay the project as well as increase job costs well beyond the target budget (and possibly the outside budget). With that in mind, try to make the big decisions before signing an agreement. If construction under contract begins, and changes occur, get those changes documented as an addendum to the original agreement.

The process of selecting a contractor is best done by personal referral; reputation check; inquiring with the Contractors State License Board (for complaints and license status: www.cslb.ca.gov) and the Better Business Bureau (for reported complaints and how they were resolved); job pricing; and by judging your level of comfort with the contractor. Having a contractor referred by friends, neighbors, and relatives is a very good method of screening.

It is extremely important that any general contractor you hire has experience with Eichler homes. There have been many instances where homeowners were given personal referrals to otherwise competent contractors who were simply inexperienced with Eichlers. In those cases, conflicts and problems are not uncommon. A contractor's familiarity with anticipated problems typically found in Eichler homes that relate to plumbing, electrical, heating, roofing, and finish materials better suited for the design and construction (as well as what is 'hiding' in the walls, ceiling, and floors) can go a long way towards making wise and efficient decisions prior to your committing to a project.

What also comes with this experience is an awareness of certain windows of opportunity that occur with different scopes of work. These opportune openings allow for improvements and updating of the original design—such as renewing the plumbing and electrical when re-roofing, updating the wiring prior to installing drywall, and pressure-testing and repairing radiant-heat tubing prior to installing new flooring.