Finding and Choosing a Contractor

Archived Responses: 

How much lead time before builing begins?

June 2007

We are working with an architect now to design an outdoor porch, remodel our kitchen and add on a room. We would like to find and hire an builder to work with the architect during the design phase so we can determine the most cost efficient way to do various things. What I am wondering is how much time will it take to find a contractor and how far in advance do they typically book projects. Is now too early to book a contractor if we would like to start construction in fall of 2008? Anon

Hi, My husband is a general contractor and his rule of business is that when you provide a deposit and the contract is signed--you go on the calendar. Hence, if you have a specific timeframe that you want to work within, the earlier that you get into contract and give a contractor a deposit, the more definite the work. And most contractors schedule at least a few months out. Good luck with your project! Abby

Contractors & Workers' Comp Insurance

Sept 2006

Recommendations have been made here for a few general contractors working in the East Bay. I got bids from a couple of them but while the bids were all substantially lower than others none of them had legitimate workman's comp insurance. They all claimed to have it but when I asked to see documentation it turned out to ''have expired the month before'' or some other excuse. Another had a large liability policy but even that would not provide compensation for a worker who became disabled. Make sure any contractor lists their employees on the State Contractors Board website. If they claim no employees there they are probably lying or exclusively using subcontractors which would make them very expensive (not inexpensive) I didn't want to risk my house!

Contractor's mark-up fee for sub-contractors

Nov 2004

Our contractor is charging us a 20% contracting fee when he brings in a subcontractor (plummer, electrician). Is this standard? Thanks, jen

Yes, it is standard for a general contractor to mark up subcontractor's bids. The rate of mark-up varies and should have been discussed and agreed to before hand; 20% for a small, residential project is (on the high end of) standard. The General Contractor, in exchange for the mark-up, is taking responsibility for coordinating the sub's work (i.e. making sure that the plumber doesn't put a pipe where the heating sub needs to put a duct...), paying the subcontractor, negotiating extra charges and/or credits, verifying insurance coverage, and dealing with the subcontractor if something gets screwed up (it's the general contractors and subcontractors problem if the wrong sink was ordered after you provided the correct information. If you were hiring the plumber directly, it's YOUR problem and the subs problem.) As a general contractor myself, I can say that sometimes 20% seems paltry! Alysson

Licensed contractor vs. contractor

March 2004

Reading the post about problems with a ''contractor'' who had been recommended, I'd like to say a few words about Contractors, & ''contractors'' (I'm a Contractor myself).

A ''contractor'' is only a Contractor if they are licensed by the State of California Contractors License Board. A properly Licensed Contractor (LC) is required by law to give you a written proposal & contract with a full job description, any terms & conditions, & dates of work. It also must include specific legal language that protect both the homeowner & the Contractor. To become a LC, you must have proven experience in your field, & pass written tests on contract law & your own specific trade. An LC is also likely to have Liability & Workers Comp Insurance. Anyone who does a job of $500. or more is required by law to have a Contractor's License.

Many people present themselves as contractors who are not licensed. Homeowners may be attracted to these people because they think they will get a better deal, which is not neccesarily so. As the poster said, she is now having to pay someone else to fix the bad job she already paid for. The great majority of LC's give a warranty on their work. Plenty of the unlicensed people charge as much as LC's, they're just pocketing more profit since they aren't paying insurance costs, payroll costs, & maybe not even taxes.

What looks like a bargain isn't necessarily a bargain! Not all LC's are good, or even honest, but if you have a proper legal contract, that is quite specific with little room for misunderstandings, you have legal remedies if there are problems (so does the contractor if she/he does the proper job and you don't pay for it). Never trust anyone who tries to rush you into a project, & have as much discussion as needed to be sure that you understand exactly what is to be done & with what materials before you sign anything and/or put down a deposit. Cecelia


I would encourage everyone to be very careful about hiring people who are not licensed, bonded, and insured. If they mess up your house (break your window, disappear in the middle of the project, etc.), you have little or no recourse. Finally, the state contractor's license board has an 800 number you can call and punch in the contractor's license number to check if there are any complaints or actions on a certain contractor (ANY type of contractor: general, earthquake retrofitters, painters, landscapers, etc). I think this is a good idea. Laura Beth

In response to recommendations for house bolting contractors, check ValueStar M-. website:

They are a certified independent company that rates over 250,000 local services and professional companies from accupuncture to wireless services.

Their website says: Pick the best one for your needs. Check the status of a company, how the ratings are performed, answers to most asked questions, a comparison with the Better Business Bureau and yellow pages. Trish

In response to the advice to check out Valu-Star for bolting contractors, I don't think you can expect to find unbiased opinion there--since those who are rated must first pay to be checked out by Valu-Star. Their fees to merchants are approximately $900.00 initally and then they charge something like $300.00 annually to those businesses who wish to keep their names in the Valu-Star directory. If a reputable company stops paying it's membership dues (or never joins) to Valu-Star, then you're not going to hear about that company there....Start your search with the Building Education Center (Berkeley), and the city should also direct you to good resources. Check out some good real estate offices also. And your local library...and search on-line. Maura

re: Valu-Star
My husband is an owner of a local small business and I strongly second this comment. His business cannot afford Valu-Star's fees (at least not without passing that cost onto his customers), and he feels as though those fees represent a very minor form of extortion. It could be argued that Valu-Star is simply a business which makes it's money advertising other businesses--just like the Yellow Pages. My 2 cents... Catherine