10 Questions You Should Ask - Having Trouble Picking a Qualified Builder?

Most Home-Owners go with one of the first Three Builders they See

So you have listed your request for bids on Houzz, Home Advisors, Angie’s List, Thumbtack, or any other of the scores of sites designed to connect you to a builder for your home project.  Once the messages and calls start flooding in what should you do next?  Surprisingly, the process to find a qualified builder (Read: How to Select a General Contractor) is less a qualification interview than a process of attrition.  How many half hour to three hour interviews are you prepared to sit through?

As a business owner, I vet many potential employees for my staff, and even more sub-contractors for my artisan trades roles.  (Read: Sub-Contractors vs. Employees)  Many of the calls I receive are not very promising.  Just because a plumber is good at plumbing, does not mean he is good at selling himself or his services.  It may surprise you that many of my best relationships with my most reliable vendors started off poorly.

Homeowners wanting to retain the services of a qualified and reliable builder face a challenge with which all businesses grapple.  These businesses invest thousands of dollars in personnel departments, processes, and infrastructure to find and retain successful alliances with trades and suitable employees.  The typical home owner wanting improvements to his home is not experienced nor tooled to safely retain a builder.  I have never met a prospective client who budgeted contractor screening into their project budget.  As a result, most projects are awarded to the most effectively presented offer of the first three respondents to an ad.

4,000 complaints and Law Suits against Licensed Contractors each Year

Unlike any other service or product you buy, builders/remodelers go through very little qualification filtering to get into the residential home improvement business.  A strong back, some weekend seminars, and a demonstrable handy skill set is all that is required.  In Austin there is no licensing requirement for builders.  In Houston, where licensing is required, there are more than 4,000 complaints, grievances, and law suits filed against licensed general contractors every year.  The facts I quote here paint a dire portrait of the remodeling/building industry.

There is hope, however.  I screen vendors prior to meeting them.  I cull the weekend warriors, the unemployed former oil-field worker, or the disgruntled ex-employee trying to pay his bills.  I send my prospective trades a brief questionnaire.  The questions below can help you ensure that the three builders who you invite to visit are the right three – not just the first three.

1. What training programs or formal education have you received related to the building industry?

2. How long have you been in business?  Do you have partners?

3. How many projects do you have in process currently? (Addresses for a drive by)

4. Are you insured?

5. Do you use sub-contractors or employees?

6. Do you have a business office?

7. Are you now or have you been involved in legal issues involving you and a client?

8. Who do you have active vendor accounts with and are they current?

9. What is the typical process and length of time required for a project like mine?

10. How do you structure your draw schedule?

Summary: You don’t have to know the answer to use the Tool

Requiring a qualifying questionnaire will eliminate a large majority of the amateurs and opportunists.  Even if you don’t follow-up on some of the due diligence implied in the questionnaire, the possibility that you will do so will dissuade most undesirables.  You don’t have to know the answers to the questions you ask to use this tool.  Use your common sense and logic.

A detailed answer is a good sign you are being taken seriously by a responsible builder.  Even if you are not satisfied with an answer, you may still safely hire a builder.  If he, for instance, offices from his home, it does not mean he is unsuitable.  We officed from my home for a number of years to keep our expenses down to remain competitive.  Conversely, if in the training portion you receive an answer from the builder where he lists several do-it-yourself seminars at The Home Depot on the weekend, this may be a tell-tale sign of the neophyte.

Many times the first respondents to an ad are first because they are not busy with projects.   On many occasions I was busy during the day on numerous projects and had to reply that evening.  In those cases, I missed the top three spots and was never contacted to bid the job.  Give yourself a static time frame for the selection process.

I hope this tool helps you retain a responsible and reliable contractor for your project.  Always include in your qualification process your gut instinct about the person who shows up at your door.  Your project could last months.  Can you get along with that person for an extended time?  Is he driving a nice truck?  Is he wearing a logo shirt?  Is he pushing you for a decision today?  Is he offering you a design drawing with his proposal to clarify that his understanding of what you want is accurate? Is he willing to meet with you late in the evening?  Most working contractors are up before dawn and are unlikely to meet late into the evening.  Their current projects are their most important consideration.  If you have drawings (Read: Your Architect may be the Biggest Obstacle to Your Project) for him, can he read them.  Look for his understanding of the details in the drawings.

Good luck.  Leave your comments if you have further insight or tips for our readers.


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