If you plan to serve as your own general contractor, identifying and managing your project’s subcontractors, from carpenters to plumbers to electricians, is an art form you’ll need to master to effectively achieve your dream log or timber home (while staying on-schedule and on-budget).
Once you choose your crew, understanding the business they are in will help you to communicate clearly, set expectations, and ultimately, get them to perform at their best. Here’s what you need to know.
How Subs Work
Almost all subcontractors are small-business owners who are in a competitive arena where it’s difficult to make a living. When work is plentiful, money flows; but when the weather is bad or housing is in a slump, jobs may be nonexistent.
Subcontractors bid and schedule more jobs than they can handle in order to be certain they have work every day. Cancellations and delays are common, so it’s important to keep them informed of your progress as their turn approaches on your schedule. You could be lost in the shuffle if you don’t make regular contact.
So if finding subcontractors to bid on your job is relatively easy, how do you identify the skilled, reliable subs from the multitudes? Start with your log or timber company representatives. They should know people to recommend.
Next, search online. Websites, like angi.com, supply contractor names, customer reviews and examples of their work as defined by your geographic area. You also can turn to classified ads and your local newspaper to keep a steady stream of bids coming. Most large chain stores have bulletin boards where subcontractors pin their business cards. Suppliers may sometimes recommend tradespeople to you. Ask them about those who pay their bills on time, buy the best materials and are always busy. These are sure signs of a top-notch professional.
Or, if you find a subcontractor you like, ask where he buys his materials. Then ask his suppliers about him. The supplier will usually tell you if the potential sub has a good line of credit or has been put on a cash-only basis (a red flag).
Another avenue is to visit construction sites. Some subs will put a sign in the yard to advertise their work, or you can take names and phone numbers from trucks you see parked in front of a job. Talk to the crew and collect their information.
Before You Commit
Don’t be shy about asking for references. It’s expected, and it gets your relationship off to a good start. Ask for the names of general contractors the subcontractor has worked for, as well as clients who have hired him. Then actually call these people. If you don’t get enthusiastic responses, take that as a bad sign. Most people are reluctant to say anything bad about someone unless they’ve been harmed in some way by that person, so if all you hear is, “He does pretty good work,” or “I never had any trouble with him,” it probably means he’s mediocre at best. Look for comments like, “He’s the best carpenter in town,” or “You won’t find anyone better in three states.”
Ask about the subcontractor’s reliability. You don’t want your job held up by someone who promises to be there in the morning and then never appears. Dependability should be a key factor.
But the most important criterion is gut feeling. If you just don’t like someone, you probably shouldn’t hire him. Even if the sub under consideration is a reliable craftsman, working with him will be difficult if there is a personality clash between the two of you. Your intuition is a good guide in most cases.
When you’ve selected someone and are asking him to give you a bid, make sure he knows the project is a custom log or timber home. Go over the plans with him in person and make sure he’s aware of exactly what must be done, so the bid is accurate. Then, get the bid in writing, even if it is just written by hand on a sheet of paper. It’s a good idea to get at least three bids for every major portion of the work that will be subcontracted.
If the bids you receive are close in value, select the person you like best. You are not bound to take the lowest bidder. If one bid is a great deal lower than the others, it probably means the bidder forgot something or desperately needs the work. Be suspicious of extremely low bids; you’ll rarely get the quality or service you want, and you may pay more in the end.
Bids should contain a written description of all material and labor to be supplied by the subcontractor. Usually the form used to submit a bid becomes the contract when signed and accepted by both parties.
Think of the contract as a communication vehicle, not a bond to prevent dishonesty. It may not even be legally enforceable in all cases, but it puts the agreement into writing so as to lessen the possibility of a misunderstanding in the terms and extent of the work.
It’s always advisable to consult an attorney before signing any contract. Here are several points to keep in mind:
- Location of the job, names of the contracting parties and the nature and scope of the work to be done. You would be surprised how many contracts leave out some of this information. The scope of work can be summarized in a phrase such as, “All plumbing rough-in and trim-out, labor and materials in accordance with the attached plans.” Then make sure the plans specify the work in detail. Anything that’s unclear or unspecified on the plans should be detailed in the contract.
- Total value and a payment schedule. The total price is an obvious element, but most subcontractors need to be paid in installments to finance materials they’ll be using and to pay their help as the job progresses. These “draws” should be tied to specific milestones, such as “one-half payment when log package or timber frame is fully erected, final payment when job is complete and approved.” Never make the final payment for a job until it is fully finished, inspected and approved by you. Don’t be tempted to hold out $50 from a $1,000 job pending completion of some detail. That amount of money may not be enough incentive, and the job may never get done. Don’t release the final payment until every detail is completed to your satisfaction.
- Start and completion dates. You may not be able to hold fast to these dates, but it’s best to put a start/completion target in place to establish a reasonable schedule.
- Responsibility for damage to materials. There’s plenty of opportunity for costly damage to your building site. Workers will be driving trucks around your lot and handling expensive components. It may sound obvious that whoever breaks something pays for it, but it’s best to have this worded in the contract.
- Permits. The agreement should state clearly who is responsible for obtaining permits from the city or county and who will pay for them. Typically, the cost of pulling permits is outlined in the bid.
- Sub-subcontracting. Make it clear that the subcontractor is not allowed to sub out the work to another contractor without your permission. You hired him for a particular reason, and you don’t want him to give the job to someone you aren’t familiar with just because he has a more profitable job elsewhere.
A lien is a legal claim filed against the value of a property to recover the cost of materials or labor that a supplier or worker feels he is owed. Generally, the ownership of property cannot be transferred unless all liens are satisfied. You won’t be able to mortgage the home or sell it in the future if a supplier or worker files a lien against your property.
To prevent this circumstance, all subcontractors and materials suppliers should be required to present you with a lien waiver before you make the final payment. This waiver will protect you and could prevent you from paying for something twice in order to get a lien released from your property.
When you’re lucky enough to hire superior subs, remember that they respond to thoughtfulness just as you would. Practice good communication with everyone involved in your build by making sure they know how you want things done, when you expect the work to be finished and by letting them know when they do a good job.