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New Construction: Tips for Working With a General Contractor

New Construction: Tips for Working With a General Contractor
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The general contractor is the conductor of your home-building project. If you pick the right general contractor (GC), construction of your new home will be harmonious, with all subcontractors playing their parts in sync. Here’s how to get the band together:

Traits of a good general contractor

Picking a general contractor is a little like finding a mate, a combination of legwork and luck. And since we’re talking about relationships, not every GC and client will click. But there are some general GC qualities that will make the project run smoothly.

Communication: How long does it take for the GC to return your first call? If he doesn’t get back to you within 24 hours — after all, he’s trying to win your business — don’t expect prompt responses after you’ve signed on the dotted line and the work has begun.

Manner: This is personal. Some clients need a lot of handholding. Other clients aren’t looking for a new best friend and just want a straight shooter who delivers information in as few words as possible. When you interview GCs, make sure your personalities match. You’ll be spending a lot of time together over the next several months: Make sure you look forward to the interactions.

Referrals: Ask for at least three, satisfied customers who will take your calls and discuss their experiences with the GC. During your chats, ask what was the best and worst things about working with the GC — and pay special attention to the “worst” category, because that’s what will affect your building experience, too. Ask if the GC stayed on budget and met deadlines. Ask how the GC handled problems and change orders, which invariably crop up during every project. Ultimately, ask if the customer would hire the GC again, a clear sign of support.

Online lists: If you’re a member of a neighborhood listserve, ask the group for GC recommendations. Often, word gets around a neighborhood about who’s good and bad. Also, websites like Angie’s List maintains reviews of GCs and subcontractors.

How to work with a GC

Working with a GC is a partnership that depends on everyone playing their role. A lot of money and moving pieces are at stake, so it’s important to clearly state expectations up front.

Contract: When building a new house, GCs usually work under two types of contracts.

Fixed price: The GC estimates the cost of the project, including their supervisory fee, and you know what to expect from the beginning. Fixed-price contracts usually provide a budget for each part of construction — tile, flooring, plumbing fixtures — that guide homeowner selections.

Cost plus percent: Sometimes complicated designs are hard to estimate upfront. Cost-plus contracts charge clients the actual cost of materials and labor plus a percentage, which the GC or builder takes as profit.

Communication: Nothing is more frustrating for homeowners or GCs than waiting for calls to be returned. At the beginning, exchange phone numbers — cell phone, home phone and work phone — so each is reachable in an emergency. Agree on how often you’ll touch base — daily, weekly? — and when’s the best time to call. It’s a good idea to place a whiteboard and marker on the job site to add questions and comments.

Payment: Every project should have a budget and a payment schedule that’s often coordinated with bank draws. Make sure you agree upfront on how much you’ll pay at the beginning, middle and end of the project. And make sure you keep back 10 percent until all your punch list problems are solved at the end of the project.

Change orders: Some choices seem good on paper, but look terrible in reality and need to be changed. Whenever you change your mind about anything, you should fill out a “change order,” essentially a contract amendment that states the change, how much it will cost and how it might affect the schedule. The order is as mutual agreement that must be signed by both parties. If the change order alters an architectural feature, like room size or shape, attach new blueprints to the change order.

Finishes: Waiting around for clients to pick finishes is a top GC complaint and a schedule buster. Agree at the beginning on a finishes schedule and budget. Many GCs will write into contracts that they will pick finishes if the client doesn’t make timely choices.

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