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Guidelines to Hiring General Contractors

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

The Napa Valley just witnessed the destructive side of Mother Nature. While some are at home, slowly decompressing from this experience, others are facing the daunting task of rebuilding their homes. Such a task can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances let alone under enormous grief and stress. Add piles of cleanup, insurance claims, permits, and pressing time frames, and these dire circumstances are nearly paralyzing. It is for these residents, in particular, that I’ve written today’s centerpiece. While hiring a general building contractor is further down the road, I hope today’s information will help you when you get there. Contact details for every agency mentioned are listed at the end.

If you haven’t already done so, check with the County of Napa’s Building & Development Division. It may have a copy of your architectural plans (blue prints). Or, if you know the architect who designed your home, contact him/her directly. Verify that these plans pass current building codes and regulations. If you cannot secure plans, engage an architect to draw new ones. No matter the case, think about improvements you’d like to make such as re-positioning the front door, moving or adding windows or doors, enlarging the master bath, adding recessed lights, etc. You know what your old house was like and now you can make it better. I guess this is the silver lining. But before planning on any changes or improvements, check your homeowners insurance policy to see what it covers.

Once you have your plans, look for a general building contractor. He/she will organize and supervise the entire project, hire and oversee sub-contractors, and pull necessary permits. Choosing the right contractor is crucial. A good and qualified contractor will support you, your goals, and deliver a successful result. The wrong choice can create more stress and financial loss, prolong timeframes, and deliver an inferior result – if one at all. I also caution against contractors who advertise as being immediately available or guarantee the lowest bid.

The best way to begin your search is to ask family, friends and neighbors for recommendations. Also ask local businesses related to the industry such as lumber yards, plumbing showrooms, tile stores, and paint suppliers. Ask tradespeople like tile setters, framers, cabinetmakers, and stone/quartz fabricators. Call the Solano-Napa Builders Exchange. Get at least three recommendations.

It is strongly advisable, (in fact, a law in California), that your general contractor be licensed. He/she should also be in good standing with the Contractors State License Board, a California Department of Consumer Affairs. This agency can confirm a contractor’s status using his/her personal name, license number, or company name.

Make sure the type of license a contractor holds is for the type of work you need. During your initial meeting, ask the following: what work they will personally do and what will they delegate to sub-contractors, how many other jobs will they be doing while doing yours and, if they take on subsequent jobs, how will they prioritize yours. Ask if they carry workman’s compensation insurance (this is mandatory) and general liability insurance (not mandatory but advisable). Ask for names of previous clients - and then call them.

Don’t be shy in asking these questions. They’re not only important and telling, but the manner in which a contractor answers may be an indication of how cooperative and caring he/she will be during the job. Even though these are extraordinary times and contractors may be busier than usual, do not let your eagerness to secure help skip important conversations and vetting. Reread this last sentence. In the long run, a good relationship will help save you from further harm.

Before a contractor can write an accurate contract and bid, you have more homework to do. You need to choose roofing materials, flooring, windows, doors, millwork, cabinetry, countertops, tile, hardware, plumbing and lighting fixtures, appliances, all finishes, color palettes, and more. Your architect may include or recommend some or all of these materials. Or, you can do the leg work yourself or get the support of an interior designer. Contractors also have opinions but remember that their expertise is construction, not design or aesthetics.

As you make your selections, keep records of brands, model numbers, colors, sizes, styles, and available warranties. Look for energy-efficient or “green” appliances and materials when possible as utility companies may offer rebates.

Once you have completed as much of this design process as possible, present it to your contractors. Under normal circumstances, it can take a week or two for them to produce their contracts. Today, it may take longer – ask them approximately how long. And, ask them to honestly tell you if they’re interested in undertaking your job. You don’t want to waste precious time waiting for a contract that will never appear. When you receive bids, you may or may not choose the lowest, but you want to see if each is competitive or unrealistic.

While you’re waiting for bids, you might visit any of their current job sites. Note how clean and organized they are and the general spirit of the crew. Of course, you don’t want to interfere with their activities, but a good contractor will be proud to welcome your visit.

When you receive a contract, make sure it includes everything agreed upon by you and the contractor. It should identify him/her by name, address and license number as well as the names and license numbers of all sub-contractors to be hired. A contract should state approximate start and end dates, necessary permits, and a detailed scope of work along with your chosen materials. It should address debris removal, cleanup, and where materials and tools will be stored. (If remodeling an existing home, the contract should address protecting pets and unrelated areas such as floors, walls, and landscaping. It should also address the use of bathroom facilities).

A contractor’s fee is usually based on a percentage of the total job cost. A payment schedule should be included. You will be expected to make a down payment but it should not exceed 10 percent of the contract price or $1,000, whichever is less. Never get ahead of payments and do not pay the balance until all work is completed and has passed building inspections.

A good contract also has an arbitration clause and notices about mechanics liens, allowable delays, and the right to cancel once work has begun. You might check with your own insurance carrier to ensure that the insurance covered by the contractor is adequate. Make sure you understand the contents of the contract before signing and never sign a blank or partially blank contract. Check the terms and number of days you’re allowed to cancel, before work begins, without penalty. Take a copy of the contract as soon as you sign it. You may also wish to have an attorney or the Solano-Napa Builders Exchange review it.

It is likely that you will make changes to your home’s design or substitute materials at some point. These changes require a written “change order” that notes costs, labor, and/or materials. After a change order is signed, it then becomes part of the written contract.

No matter how wonderful a contractor is, or how well you have prepared, there will be glitches along the way. Honest communication, site visits, and attending building inspections will minimize these glitches.

My last message is, while checking references and active job sites, also take a quiet moment to check your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it might not be, just as someone who “seems nice” may not tell the whole story. There are, without a doubt, good, qualified, and talented, local contractors. I’ve worked with them and have seen firsthand that they not only care about the quality and integrity of their work, but also care about the welfare of their clients.

Agency information: County of Napa, Building & Development Division, 1195 Third Street, (707) 253-4417, Solano-Napa Builders Exchange, 135 Camino Dorado, (707) 255-2515 Contractors State License Board, (800) 321-2752, Better Business Bureau, (866) 411-2221,

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