How to Find Good Home Building and Construction Subcontractors

If you're an Owner-Builder, you'll need to select a team of outstanding subcontractors (subs). These are going to be the key people involved in building your dream home.

The following article deals with locating, interviewing and obtaining detailed accurate bids from various subcontractors. Start with a list of candidate subs for your project - but choose carefully! Only deal with reputable subs who have something to contribute. Do not get stuck with a bad apple!

Suggestions for Finding Subs

1. Do not use the Yellow Pages.

2. Drive around to subdivisions near where you want to build. Take note of any jobs you really like, and then find out who did the work. Generally, small builders are very willing to lend out their subs (you're only doing one house, and it keeps the sub busy).

3. Attend home and garden shows where you may meet subs that impress you. Some have booths at shows, particularly if they are pushing a new product.

4. Find people whose houses are recent/exemplary and ask them who performed the work.

5. Ask owner-builders in your community which subs they respect.

6. Join the local Home Builders Association as an associate member. Attend HBA functions. Ask generals who they recommend. Get acquainted with subs who participate in the HBA. If you don't join, use the Association's directory of members.

7. Ask the salespeople at the local lumberyard which tradesmen have good reputations.

8. Ask each reputable sub you talk to who he/she respects in the other trades. Framers know good foundation people. Footing guys know good excavators. Finish guys know good framers and so on.

9. Check your names with your state's registrar of contractors and the Better Business Bureau. Begin with several names and find the complaints lodged against them. They all have them. Pre-select the ones with the fewest complaints per year of operation.

How to Interview Subs

1. When you interview a sub, get his/her input on your plans. Doing this will sometimes introduce you to new/better ideas and technologies. Other times, it will help you avoid making mistakes.

2. Use a computer/laptop (etc) when interviewing a sub - make sure you're able to easily capture ideas, names and phone numbers (and that you're also able to organize these notes in a meaningful way).

3. Don't be afraid to interview subs in advance - this will show the sub that you are a conscientious builder. It will also allow the sub to market himself/herself to you.

4. When speaking to a sub, feel free to admit your ignorance on topics that you don't know much about. Subs appreciate that, and your knowledge on the topic will grow.

Detailed, Accurate Bidding

1. Before getting bids from subs, have your plans, specs, and room by room and trade by trade descriptions handy. The more you can show the sub, the more accurate the sub can be when making his/her bid.

2. Ask for detailed bids that provide breakdowns of approaches, materials, and labor steps involved. You want this kind of detail so that you can compare one sub to another. If two subs come back with one sentence bids that say "Concrete: $3,200," you don't have much to go on when you make your choice. You want details, such as:

  • How many yards of concrete at what price are included?
  • How are you going to form the concrete, what reinforcing is included, and how long it will take?
  • What's the start date? (Will the sub commit to one?)

3. Ask the sub if he/she usually supplies the materials. Then have him/her make estimates with materials and labor broken out separately. You need to compare the sub's material costs with what you can get them for yourself. Note: be careful of what the sub is including and what level of quality each component is.

4. Ask for suggestions. This allows you to figure out who really wants the work. It can also help you isolate subs who are willing to do labor-only deals. Ask the sub some of the things you asked in the interview, such as:

  • Which other subs do you recommend?
  • Who would you prefer to work with on this particular project?
  • Are there alternate approaches, new technologies, and/or ways to save time or money that can be utilized on this project?

5. Give the sub lots of time to prepare the bid -- you don't want the sub to rush through the process, you want a thoughtful, detailed and accurate bid. Allow yourself plenty of time so you can follow-up with the sub. Feel free to keep asking questions, like:

  • Why are you approaching this task this way?
  • Why are you charging so much more for this item than this other sub?
  • Can you suggest a place to get good prices on this or that?
  • If I pay you quickly can I get a discount on your bid?

Questions help you get what you want - detailed, specific bids. Make the sub think. This reduces your vulnerability to change orders because of items the sub forgot, or ones that you simply didn't consider at the beginning.

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