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How to find a great custom residential contractor

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Cost, Quality, Schedule? Which is most important?

First of all, this post totally doesn't apply to people moving into cookie-cutter development homes. Those track builders do an amazing job of cranking out houses and their systems have a totally different focus than ours. The decision points they offer to clients differ greatly than what a we as a custom home builder can offer. This blog is for people more interested in a unique home with individualized patterns and finish selections.

The 3-legged stool

I started my 'career' as a consulting civil engineer. I was feeling the pressure from a client regarding a project as a junior engineer, when my first boss introduced me to the reality that everybody wants the same thing: Low Cost, High Quality, Rapid Completion.

He said, "Cost, Quality, Schedule: those are the 3-legged stool in every project. But here's the thing...everyone wants all three (3) but in reality you can only ever give them 2 of 3. The tasks will be the same; it's our job to figure out which of 2 are most important to our clients. When we give them those 2 in an excellent manner, they will be happy."

This might sound like an odd way to determine how to find a great contractor, but most times I've learned the 'greatest' contractor you can find is one who aligns with your 2 priorities.

Figuring our Your Priority

First of all, you need to know that it's OK which two you care most about. I've experienced hundreds of clients following my lowly junior engineer days, and my theory is that too often people mistake which 2 priorities they actually care most about.

I'll keep the names anonymous, but here's an example:

The Jones family bought an old house in Raleigh, and after a terrible experience with an unlicensed contractor, hired us to do the renovation. They were already tens of thousands of dollars in the hole, and this project had been delayed for quite sometime due to previous efforts. For months, they pushed us toward meeting a schedule, and we tried hard to meet their requests. Frankly, we made them a company priority and bent over backwards to try to respond. Our labor budget was greatly diminished too early in the project as we tried to throw manpower and accelerate the schedule. But then...

(there are always the but-thens in life when you actually learn something).

But then, after our large carpenter team was onsite to finish the trim, the tile guys were coming that morning ready to lay tile, and the siding crew was filling up on coffee, the home owners showed up at the house.

"We feel like we want to make some changes," is how they started the conversation. The siding? Don't like the color actually, and want to change it up. And also...the tiles at the front door...(those tiles we had scrambled and made an expensive special order to get, and personally driven to Charlotte to pick up)...the owners saw the boxes onsite last night and laid a few out. In the nicest way (really) they informed us that the tiles clashed with their wood floor selection, and they wanted different ones.

"Please will you see about getting some additional samples of these tiles," they nicely asked.

"And for the wood bench we talked about? We want the top to be finished hardwood, instead of painted white."

I realized then that schedule wasn't #1 priority. Neither was it priority #2.

They definitely cared about cost, but really, their #1 priority was quality and classy appearance. That's totally fine for them to have these priorities, and actually the finished result was honestly like an HGTV makeover. The problem was that we all thought that the priority was schedule, and much frustration was experienced by all involved (us, the owners, the subcontractors, the suppliers) because we didn't recognize it earlier. In fact, they had "tricked" even themselves into believing that schedule was most important because of the lengthy delays already experienced.

When we clarified that their new selections would hold everything up at least 2-3 weeks, of course they expressed disappointment, but remarkably they were OK with it. From their perspective, " the bigger picture we just know that we will be most happy with those things, and it's worth waiting a couple weeks for."

So how do you put this advice into practical usage?

1. Determine what TRULY becomes your observed top priority when a decision MUST be made. For example, if you must lay tile down: MUST it happen tomorrow? Is it simply too expensive so tomorrow's not urgent? Can you live with what it looks like, or is it simply too horrid? Which of the 3 can you live with. Be honest with yourself and list your priority.

2. Accept that in the scope of the project, priorities often change. Be sure to know which priorities are important at each stage.

You are not crazy if you change your priorities at different stages of the construction process. One client TOTALLY cared that his foam insulation was 7'-1/2" thick everywhere, even though the code required less. That's speaks to Quality as a priority. However, when we got to installing his floor base trim, he got the cheapest kind possible, thereby communicating that Cost was his priority in that area.

Word of Caution: do try to be consistent with your priorities as much as possible and communicate them before the task is started. Most contractors like to do a good job, and rework always feels messy. If you realize that quality is your priority and you are modifying selections from good to great, be attentive to the reality that hourly costs can add up if decisions change repeatedly.

3. Ask questions of your potential general contractor to see what his "tilt" is.

There are tons of contractors who can do a good job. In practice, contractors too usually end up operating according to their top 2 priorities. So find out. Describe what you want to get out of the project. Do you feel like he aligns with your 2 typical most important priorities?

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