Seven things you need to know before hiring a contractor.
By Kelly Phillips Badal
If you’re planning to build your dream home, a general contractor is a key member of your construction team. This is the person in charge of day-to-day operations, quality control and deadlines at your building site. And this is who turns the visions and renderings of architects, engineers, interior designers and others into reality.
As you can imagine, the bigger the build, the more complex the role. So to break down exactly what you should know about the work a general contractor handles, when to hire one and what to expect, we turned to James Corr, the founder and owner of Corr Contemporary Homes (CCH). He’s an Irish builder who’s been in business in L.A. since 2007—and is now one of the city’s top contractors for high-end custom homes. CCH builds the city’s mega-mansions and giga-mansions found in Bel Air or Beverly Hills, so he’s constructed massive in-home ballrooms, jaw-dropping infinity edge pools, luxe home cinemas, living-room-sized dressing rooms and even some highly specific ‘Botox rooms’ for wealthy clients.
In short, Corr and his team have seen it all. And he’s definitely got a thing or two to say about the best practices for hiring and working with any general contractor.
What Is a General Contractor?
In short, general contractors coordinate and execute the construction of larger home projects. This person, team or firm enters into the primary contract with a property owner, and bears the responsibility of overseeing the project. A general contractor is the construction manager, responsible for daily oversight of the site, the management of all vendors and subcontractors and the primary communicator to everyone involved during the course of a building project. Contractors almost always are licensed by their state, and must ensure that their work meets code requirements.
As far as Corr’s work goes, his firm’s projects are among the largest and most complex builds. Nothing is cookie-cutter, nearly every detail is customized, and in a way, much of his work is spec—meaning that it’s somewhat experimental either in size, placement, systems and more. “If you want to build a 10,000+ square-foot house from start to finish, we're the team you call, “ he says. “We specialize in custom projects. It would be very unusual that we do a remodel.”
When Should You Hire a General Contractor?
“My advice is always to hire a general contractor as early as you can, and bring them in to do pre-construction services such as budgeting and scheduling,” says Corr. “Then, if there are any major issues, like, the pool is going to blow your budget out of the water, you can modify your plans. Because maybe the pool isn’t as important as your kitchen or your master bathroom, and you’d rather spend your money there.”
Corr’s company offers pre-construction contracts and pre-construction services primarily to keep their clients’ plans grounded in reality. “There's nothing worse than seeing someone design their dream home, get their permits in hand, and then come to the realization that they can't afford to build it. And I’ve seen that happen many times,” he says.
If you bring a general contractor into the process from the get-go, that person should be able to give you a realistic idea of where any issues lie, lay out where you’re spending your money, and roughly estimate what the total project should cost, he explains.
That is, if you stick to the plan. “Which is another thing entirely,” Corr says with a laugh.
Hiring a Contractor – What To Look For?
If you’re hiring a contractor to build your dream house, it pays to do your research. Look at a contractor’s portfolio as well as where they’ve worked, Corr advises. “Working in Bel Air or Beverly Hills is very different from working in Venice,” he notes, citing different area rules and regulations that contractors should be aware of. Think about the quality, and also consider your expectations, right down to how involved you’d like to be at reviewing costs and when you’d like to see invoices.
Asking about a contractor’s organizational and billing structure is something that’s rarely addressed right off the bat, and it should be, believes Corr. “With large-scale projects, you've got 40 or so different entities that you're dealing with between subtractors and suppliers on average, and if your contractor doesn’t have a technical system of how to manage them, that can lead to problems,” he says. “The more complex the project, the more sophisticated your contractor’s back-of-house organization needs to be.” For instance, Corr estimates that his team is currently tracking four or five different containers on their way from Greece and Italy, and amending their schedule based on when each is expected.
More than anything else, experience counts. “None of what we do is cheap, but we try to make sure that we give a very high value to our clients,” Corr explains. “If you’re spending $400,000 on cabinets, we’ll make certain we’re flushing out the shop drawing process so that the outlets are in right places and the lighting is exactly the right warm color and the whole package is usable. That takes a lot of experience to be able to go through that and do it the right way.” Keep in mind too that a time-tested general contractor like Corr, or nearly any experienced contractor of high-end residential homes, will also have dealt with more experimental builds, which positions them to be better at addressing any out-of-the-box issues that arise.
What Are the Licensing Requirements & Qualifications?
Most states require contractors to hold a license by law. In California, you can incur several penalties for unlicensed work (and even serve jail time), and all contractors working on projects valued at more than $500 require licenses, with only a few rare exceptions. To become a general contractor in California, you must meet multiple requirements set forth by the California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board (CSLB), including education. More details on requirements, education and licensing exceptions are listed on the CSLB website.
Contractor vs. SubContractor —What is the Difference?
Subcontractors typically form agreements with a general contractor, rather than a homeowner or client directly. And often these “subs” specialize in one specific area of construction. And who are they, usually? Per Corr, “You have your typicals, your framers, your concrete guys, your pool guys,” he says. Tiling, drywall, insulation, electricity, plumbing, masonry, and roofing are also regular jobs of subcontractors for most new construction builds. “As your spec gets higher, you start to deal with more specialty subcontractors, like for glass walls of swimming pools,” Corr adds. “A company out of Vegas is the only one that can do that at an appropriate cost.” Subcontractors form relationships with contractors that often span years and dozens of projects, so again, with experience also comes knowledge of the best in the field—even, like Corr’s example, if the pros are out of state. General contractors are also ultimately responsible for their subcontractor’s quality of work, efficiency and behavior.
Subcontractors should be insured and licensed, as well as highly qualified and experienced in their trade. If you choose to work with a subcontractor directly, check their qualifications and if possible, get estimates from several to get the best value proposition. Just keep in mind that when working with specialty contractors without a general contractor, the role of managing schedules payments and budgets falls to you.
What are the Types of Contractors?
Beyond general contractors, contractors fall into six general categories: electricians, plumbers, heating and ductwork, drywallers, painters and finish carpenters. But from there, the list of speciality contractors goes on to include pool builders, masons, roofers, excavators, landscapers, cabinetmakers, and dozens more.
While many contractors have skills in different areas—general contractors are often carpenters by trade, for example—union regulations often prevent them from working in more than one field. On a construction project, the coordination between these different trades is the responsibility of the general contractor.
What Is a ‘Bonded’ Contractor?
In general, if a contractor is considered “bonded,” it means that the homeowner is financially protected if the contractor doesn't complete the job. Or, if the work is poorly executed, the bond pays out to finish it properly.
Bonded work is not something Corr is typically engaged with. “In custom homes it's quite hard to do that; the cost is prohibitive,” he explains. “Custom homes tend to be design-builds with cost-plus contracts [where contractors are paid for incurred expenses and more, versus negotiated fixed-cost contracts]. It's often impossible to put a number or a clear definition on the scope of the work right from the start.”
Whether you choose to hire bonded contractors or not, Corr advises working with a general contractor who’s able to actively manage your budget in real time, provide multiple reasonable bids from subcontractors and will update your budget each time an invoice is issued. “If you're kept in the loop and you can see that you're running over budget and need to change tact, you can do it there and then,” he says, “rather than realizing right at the end that you can't afford to finish it correctly.”
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Follow James Corr of Corr Contemporary Homes on Instagram @jamescorrla