Hiring a builder/contractor

Ready to start building? Here's how to find a builder or contractor

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What if your budget doesn’t include wiggle room for architect fees? If you have a clear vision of what your cottage should look like and how it should function, then signing on with a contractor, rather than going the architect route, may be worthwhile. That’s because some contractors (or builders, as they’re often called) are also skilled designers, and can provide design and planning services in addition to construction work. The crux is they may not be licensed to draft plans. If this is the case, you can still work with the builder to devise a concept that is then drawn up by an architect, an architectural technologist, a designer, or an engineer to ensure it complies with building codes. People generally hire contractors to execute an already existing plan, from a new build to smaller projects, such as adding a winterized verandah, or to carry out a specific task, such as changing the roofing.

Some owners know before they start the design process who they’ll hire to carry out the construction or renovation of their cottage. The McHardys, for instance, had worked with a meticulous contractor on their 1999 addition, and when the time came to implement architect Craig Elliott’s design, they didn’t think twice about calling the same builder. “We knew what to expect,” says Lori McHardy.

Get at least three references and check them

Not everybody does. Renovation newbies may not have contacts in the construction business, and even if you’ve taken the reno route before, a contractor who’s crafted an elaborate fence isn’t by default skilled at drywall installation. As with finding an architect, choosing the right contractor is no small feat. Sarah and Stuart Robertson learned that the hard way. The couple bought a four-bedroom fixer-upper on the Joseph River in Minett, Ont., and planned for renovations to take place over five years, starting with sprucing up the front entrance and adding a staircase, flooring, and carpet. Stuart hired their new cottage neighbours’ relative (thinking that the fact they were neighbours was as good as a reference check), gave him a deposit, and went on vacation. When they came back, nothing had been done. The Robertsons retained another contractor, but only after checking references and completed work. This time around they set a payment schedule and a deadline, signed a contract, and gave him a deposit. Months passed by and nothing happened. “We had to call him every morning to get him to do the job,” says Stuart. The builder completed 85 per cent of the contract and then vanished. “We sent him a deficiency list and told him we wouldn’t pay the last installment if he didn’t finish. We never heard from him again.” Stuart had to finish that first job himself, with what Sarah describes as “blood, sweat, and my tears.” But after speaking to colleagues and neighbours, at home and at the cottage, the couple eventually found a thorough and trustworthy general contractor to build a new roof and a new fireplace.

Damien Stokholm, a builder based in Bracebridge, Ont., suggests getting at least three references and checking them as well as completed projects and works-in-progress. “A contractor’s success is built on reputation. I had an ad in the phone book, but the only calls I received were from companies hawking their products. I get my work purely through word of mouth,” he says. A contractor’s good name makes every bit of difference in securing new clients, especially in a small community where everybody knows one another. That’s why Dan Sayers, a building inspector in the Municipality of Dysart et al in Haliburton County, recommends searching for trades close to your cottage. “It’s better to hire local contractors because they have more at stake,” he says. To ensure a job well done, Sayers suggests telling the contractor — regardless of where they’re from — that you’re withholding final payment until you receive a favourable report from a building inspector. It all comes down to trust and cost. Stokholm says that sometimes you might feel more comfortable hiring a trusted professional with whom you’ve previously worked, even if the contractor is based in the city, but warns that they may not have the local connections with subtrades and lumberyards that a cottage-country builder would.

The best client-contractor relationships build on frank and open communication (of course, this applies equally to the client-architect tango). That includes being honest about the budget. “It’s surprising how many people feel apprehensive about revealing their budget,” says Stokholm. “But you don’t walk into a proctologist’s office expecting to keep your pants on. If the guy who’s designing the place doesn’t know how much money you’re willing to spend, how is he going to design it?” Stokholm believes owners worry about paying more than the going rate. The only way to find out is to get several quotes on a project. Jutta Court recommends putting the project out to six or seven tenders. “One or two will likely not respond, and a couple may be way outside the budget, which should raise a flag,” she says. “You may end up with three reasonable quotes. That’s enough to gauge whether you’re getting a fair price.”

This article was originally published on April 8, 2008


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