How to Choose a Contractor

Our intention at Straw Bale Innovations is to empower and educate people like you with the skills necessary to undertake a straw bale building project on your own. However, if you don’t want to do your own plumbing or wiring let’s say, or if local code prevents you from doing those without a license, it will be necessary for you to hire a contractor or sub.

The task of finding a contractor can be a daunting one. Everyone has heard of a nightmare contractor/client story and the stakes are usually very high. After all, most of the time, it is someone’s home that is on the line. The majority of complaints revolve around poor workmanship and failure to complete the job. But for every frightening story out there, there are hundreds of successful ones. A little work and preparation go a long way in making the choice and the final results pleasant.

In our straw bale projects we have come across a couple of subcontractors that were unwilling to work with us because of the straw bale factor. The flip side of this though is that with a little bit of education, we have been able to persuade almost all subs to work with us. Not just that, but they have been thankful to learn a new skill. If you come across a sub or general contractor that is insecure about working with straw bales give them a copy of our straw bale DVDs. We have had a number of customers who did that with their builder or sub-contractors with great success. It may be helpful to go to your first meeting with some books or printed material about straw bale. A little bit of reassurance may be all that you need to provide.

Here are some helpful tips to guide you down the road to your successful building project.

Word of mouth

This may be your most powerful tool in finding a reputable, professional, and skilled general contractor or subcontractor. Make a serious effort to broadcast that you are looking for a skilled tradesman. Happy homeowners are often the best source of leads.

Real estate offices and local, smaller lumberyards

These are great resources. They often have their fingers on the pulse of who is doing good, honest work in your area and most importantly, whom you should avoid like the plague.

References

Once you find at least 3 contractors that potentially fit your needs, ask for references and don’t be shy to call them. This is a good time to ask specific questions such as quality of workmanship, timeliness in returning phone calls, honesty level, and general mood throughout the project. Any good contractor with nothing to hide will be glad to provide you with a list of 3-4 references. This is standard procedure and they anticipate this step.

Site visit

Ask contractors if you would be welcome to visit any current projects that they are involved in. When there, use this as an opportunity to look for things such as tidiness and general crew mood. Ask if you can talk to the current client and ask for their honest feedback about their contractor.

Choosing based on bids

There is a general recommendation when picking a contractor that states that one should choose the middle bidder out of three. However, don’t be afraid to choose the highest bidder if you feel confident that they will provide you with a superior result over the other two. If cash is tight for you, it may especially be tempting to choose the least expensive bid. Beware that the money saved up front may be nice but that the headaches, stress, and lack of quality work in the end may not be worth the initial savings.

License and Regulation

Be sure to determine if your state requires contractors to be licensed and regulated. In states that offer no regulations for contractors, we recommend that you follow the “three-year-rule” and only hire professionals that have been in business for at least that amount of time under that business name. This can prevent you form hiring someone who has recently changed their business name to sidestep a bad reputation at his/her heels.

Communication, communication, communication

This is crucial. Make sure that you feel confident in your prospective contractor’s ability to communicate and problem solve since issues do come up in any building process. Spend some time conversing with the person and notice how you feel when you are with them. Is there a sense of ease and calm or do you feel tense, rushed, and intimidated to ask questions? You will likely be able to determine a lot about their ability to communicate within the first one or two meetings.

Workman’s comp

Be sure to check that the contractor has the required workman’s comp (if he/she has a crew), property damage and liability damage insurance. If not, the bill could be on you if he/she falls off their ladder on their way up to build your roof.

These are the guidelines that we use in our business and we find them to lead us to professional, reliable, and skilled subcontractors. The attention that you put into the selection process should lead you to a worthy pay off in the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Morrison has a passion for straw bale construction that is matched only by his desire to teach his knowledge to others. He has a wealth of experience in designing and building both conventional and straw bale homes. After years of building, he has moved his practice entirely to consulting and teaching. He shares his knowledge with thousands of people via his DVD series and this website and teaches roughly six-eight hands on workshops each year. For more on his workshops, please visit www.strawbale.com/store/category/workshops.  Andrew received a BA degree from Hampshire College in 1995 for Glacial Geology. He also has a degree in construction technology.

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