Choosing a General Contractor

Contractor drawings

Finding the right person for the job


If you’ve decided to undertake a renovation to your home, there’s a lot more to think about than laying a few drop cloths. The keystone to any successful renovations is a good contractor with whom you can work. But where do you start? What criteria do you use? Here are a few pointers for finding the best general contractor for your project.

Plan Your Project in Detail

Before you start to search for a contractor for your renovation, it’s important that you properly scope out that project on paper. For smaller jobs such as a bathroom renovation, this can be a fairly simple document (i.e. remove and reinstall tub, pedestal sink and toilet, install tiling in tub surround…etc.) but for much larger jobs – say adding an additional story or an extension to your home – your list will be quite involved. For larger jobs, it’s likely you’ll have the assistance of an architect or designer, but the point is to make the description of the work as detailed as you can, so that both you and your prospective contractors have a complete picture of your objective. This document will allow your shortlist of contractors to all bid on exactly the same job elements.

How to conduct your search

When you begin your search, use any and all resources at your disposal. Start with referrals from family, friends and even neighbours who have had similar jobs done in the past. Use internet resources such as Homestars or TrustedPros to view lists and descriptions of various contractors. You may also find a provincial association for general contractors through which you can make a selection. Members of these umbrella associations commit to operating under a code of ethics that ensures quality workmanship. Make a list of your top 10 choices and start to engage them through telephone interviews. You’ll want to know if they’ve done this type of job before and when, how long they’ve been in business, and get a general feel for their communication skills.

Ask prospective contractors if they will provide a list of references to you, not just a couple, so that you can choose who to speak with, and not have them cherry pick known positive references. You will also want to ask how they generally structure their payment schedule for such a job. Payment for most renovations jobs is structured over the course of the project. Not every renovation requires permits, but yours may, so ask if they will be responsible for obtaining the necessary permits for the job. It’s preferable to have your contractor navigate this red tape since they will no doubt be more familiar with the process than you. Finally, ask them if they are fully licensed and insured and ensure that they use subcontractors who are similarly licensed and insured. We’ll look at why this important in the next section.

Red flags at this stage:

  • Those who don’t provide references or only one or two references they’ve specifically chosen.
  • Those who haven’t completed jobs of this scale in the past.
  • Those who request a deposit to “buy materials” or have no structured payment schedule.
  • Those who indicate in any way that cash payments would be best or might garner a discount
  • Those who claim they’ve operated for years without a license.

Subcontractors, Licensing and Insurance

When it comes to a renovation that will involve multiple trades, you want a general contractor with, at a bare minimum, a bona fide business license and preferably some certification. Ask your prospects what training or certification they have and check your city or municipality for what licensing requirements you should be looking for in a contractor and verify the information any candidates provide you through the same authorities.

Only a properly licensed business will have business insurance and this is extremely important to you as a homeowner. If, in the course of their work, they cause damage to your home, you must have some recourse for compensation. Prospective contractors will be able to indicate the insurance coverage they carry and that it is sufficient to cover possible damage to your property. Additionally, they need to insure any direct employees through the province’s Workplace Safety Insurance Board. If they do not carry this insurance, an employee could potentially sue you if they are injured in your home renovation project.

Your contractor may or may not have some employees of their own who do general carpentry, dry walling, painting, etc. But for other areas of a job they will subcontract specialized help. For instance, you will need a licensed plumber to complete plumbing work and a licensed electrician to ensure any electrical work is installed to code. Make sure your contractor will only use licensed subcontractors for your project or the end result may not pass inspection or worse, could be illegal. Again, check with your city or municipality to verify license details.

Short Listing Your Selections

Of the 10 or so professionals you speak to, you will probably come away with a list of 5 or 6 that you feel would best suit your job. These are the individuals you will ask to submit a bid or quote for the job and will check their credentials with greater detail. If they’ve not already done so, have each contractor tour your home to see the physical jobs they’ll carry out. Provide each contractor with the same list of project details for them to take away and construct their bid for the job. Assessing quotes and bids will be much easier if everyone is working from the same information. Ask each contractor to include license and insurance information (including WSIB information) as part of their bid package so that you can verify this information as part of your assessment.

Final selection

If you have carried out your selection process as described, your final selection will be a combination of the information the contractors provided and your gut feeling of how you’d get along with this person. Your assessment of the bids should look at project length, cost, start date availability, and you should have a generally positive feeling that this person can lead a team to meet your objective. Those whose estimates of cost and time involved seem wildly high or equally, too low, should be discarded. Make your choice from those individuals who satisfy all your criteria and whose estimates are congruent with the project and some of the other quotes.

Embarking on a home renovation can be stressful. Making a confident and well-researched choice for your general contractor can alleviate some of that anxiety, putting you at ease that qualified, experienced individuals will be completing the work. If everything goes according to plan, your only job will be to write the cheques.

Look for Part 2 of this article – Blueprint to a Successful Renovation, right here at MyResolver.

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