Working With Contractors

Welcome to the third installment in a series designed to help you understand and navigate the steps to getting the outdoor living space of your dreams!  If you missed them, here are Part 1 –Design, and Part 2 – Materials.
This week, we will focus a major aspect that can seem pretty daunting – contractors.
Working with Contractors

Contractors installing Fiberon decking material

Unless you are an experienced deck builder, it is highly advisable that you hire a contractor to handle this project. Their experience with multi-level designs, deck board angles, and stair designs can create a dream deck beyond your imagination and do it so that your deck is safe and meets code requirements. As you get started, there are several things to consider as you look for a contractor.

Reputation

Reputation is the most important factor in choosing a contractor to work with on your deck. The easiest way to start looking for a contractor with a good reputation is to ask your friends and neighbors who have decks who they used and whether they would recommend them. If no one you know has a recommendation, services like Angie’s List or online forums that specialize in decking are great places to get honest reviews about contractors in your area.  Additionally, manufacturers’ websites have zip code locators for deck builders in your area and may have a contractor gallery with photos of deck projects.

Once you have a few leads, conduct phone interviews. During the phone call, ask about their availability, ability to handle the size and scope of your project (including experience with your preferred material) and make sure they are a licensed contractor (if your state offers or requires licensing) with liability insurance and workman’s compensation coverage – you don’t want to be held liable for any accidents or injuries sustained while working on your project. It’s also important to ask for references from previous projects. If the contractor cannot or will not provide references, that should be a huge red flag.

Once you have a list of references, make sure to contact them and ask them some pointed questions regarding their satisfaction with the job, the timeliness of the project and the workers, whether or not the workers were respectful of the property and its residents and if you can see either pictures of the job or the deck in person.

Once you’ve narrowed your list of contractors down to three or four, schedule time to meet with them in your home. This will give you a chance to ensure that both parties can communicate effectively about the project – a key factor since you will need to communicate regularly about the project’s progress and any issues that arise. If the initial interview process is strained or leaves you feeling uneasy, it may be a sign that this isn’t the contractor for you.

At this point, investigate the contractor’s background including checking with consumer agencies (Better Business Bureau, etc.) to determine if any complaints have been filed against the contractor, criminal background checks on each individual who will be working on the project and (if it’s a large company) the employee work history of the person that will be supervising your job.

Logistics

In the category of logistics, there are a few things to consider when choosing your contractor. The first is whether or not he or she will secure all the necessary permits to build your deck. Generally, contractors are much more familiar with the various building codes and permits that will be required in your particular case so having the contractor take care of them makes a lot of sense. However, if everything else is pointing you toward a specific contractor, but they don’t take care of permits, it shouldn’t be considered a deal breaker since you can absolutely handle the permit process yourself.

The second thing to consider is your builder’s familiarity with the kind of materials you have chosen. If, for example, you have your heart set on using composite decking, but the contractor has little to no familiarity with the various brands and types, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Finally, it’s important to know if the contractor will be hiring any subcontractors to complete more specialized work and what specifically they will be working on. If there will be subcontractors, make sure to consider them in the background checks.

Cost

The final consideration when choosing a contractor to work with is cost. Because of the potential for vast differences in labor and material costs, make sure to get quotes from at least three contractors for your project. However, don’t automatically decide to go with the lowest price. Consider all the other factors we’ve discussed, and any other criteria that are important to you, to make your final decision.

Working With Your Contractor

A positive, efficient and effective relationship with your contractor will help your dream deck become a reality faster than anything else. To establish and maintain a good working relationship:

  • Communication is key.
    • Meet with your contractor regularly to go over progress and any issues that haven’t already been addressed. In the initial stages of the project, it may be beneficial to meet daily - allowing you to catch any problems before the work is completed - saving you time and money. As the project progresses, you should be able to move to a bi-weekly or weekly meeting schedule, depending on your comfort level.
    • Be clear in your expectations and how you communicate them. One of the biggest sources of stress between contractors and homeowners is miscommunication.
  • Track all changes in writing
    • It is very likely that there will be changes to the initial project as you go along. Ensure that you get to sign off on any change that will add costs to the bottom line of the project and the process will go much more smoothly.
  • Be a good customer
    • Make decisions quickly and ensure payments are on time.
    • Be friendly and accommodating to the workers. One thing many homeowners overlook is designating a bathroom that they can use.

If you follow this advice, the relationship with your contractor will be much more positive.

Stay tuned for our next installment in this series designed to help you navigate what can be another pain point in the deck-building process– Budgeting for Your Deck.

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