Finding and Choosing a General Contractor

Archived Q&A and Reviews

How much lead time before building 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

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