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Finding the best remodeling contractors for your project

By Annie Schwemmer and Ann Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, July 5 2013 3:40 p.m. MDT

Many of our clients come to us wondering how they can ever find a contractor who can get their job done well, on time and on budget. They have heard countless remodeling horror stories about contractors going MIA in the middle of a project, hiking the bill or botching the work. The skills of most homeowners lie outside the arena of construction, so they realize how dependent they will be on the person executing their remodeling project.

That type of thinking is what spurred more than 2 million inquiries for general contractors in the U.S. through the Better Business Bureau in 2012 alone. The statistics show the horror stories are not as common as we may think with only 5,355 complaints last year. It may be in part that the natural selection process during the trying economy over the past few years has left only the best companies who could weather the storm.

While that may be so, there is still no shortage of contractors in Utah. Defunct firms are starting up again, now that the economy is improving. The bottom line is that each homeowner aspires to select a top-notch contractor for their particular project.

Not every contractor is created equal, so what does one need to know when making this critical decision? First, you need to know that new construction and remodeling are two very different beasts. A contractor that may be a craftsman in new construction may struggle at the jigsaw puzzle that is remodeling.

If you are remodeling a home, it is important to choose a contractor who has experience in the art of residential remodeling construction. If you have an older home — let’s say an antique from the early 1900s — that is a whole other species as well. It takes a specialty contractor to handle the issues that may come with remodeling a historic home — in or out of a historic district.

Just so we are clear here, when we are referring to a contractor we mean a general contractor or GC. The general contractor assembles, manages and directs a team of subcontractors and coordinates and warranties their work on the construction of the home. Contractors are experts in the cost, logistics and methods of building.

Remember though, contractors are about as good at design as architects are at building. If you wouldn’t hire an architect to build your remodel, then you shouldn’t hire a contractor to design it. However, involving the contractor early on in the process helps address construction concerns in the planning stage and can provide critical budget information. Architects and contractors do need each other’s skills for a successful project.

We often partner with general contractors to form a design-build team that involves the contractor from the inception of the project. This is actually a very common way of executing a construction project these days. This method unifies the flow of work and allows each participant to contribute in their area of expertise.

The traditional approach to the building or remodeling process was the design-bid-build concept in which an architect would completely design the project and produce a full set of construction drawings that would then be bid out to multiple contractors. This allowed the homeowners the ability to compare bid numbers, but the project had often been overdesigned, which required serious revisions resulting in added fees, lost time and unhappy homeowners.

Considering the budget throughout the design process is critical to creating a project that can move forward in a responsible and measured way — thus, the advantage of pairing an architect and contractor who know how to work well together.

If you have high expectations for the quality of both the design and construction of your impending remodel, then assembling a competent team is the essential first step of your project. Architects that specialize in residential remodeling will have a good idea of the contractors best suited for your particular job. Similarly, contractors who value good design will explain that they require a good set of construction documents in order to do their job well and should be able to refer a suitable architecture firm.

Once you have the names of several well-referred general contractors, check their background to confirm that they are licensed and insured, interview each of them personally in your home, and check their references. We can’t overstate the importance of selecting a great contractor for your project. It will make a huge difference in your life, not only during the months of the actual remodel, but for decades to come as you live (happily, we hope!) in your "new" home.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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