A Good Contractor is Hard to Find - Here's How to Look

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Let's face it - if you are a meticulous designer, you want your work to be as close to perfect as possible. And for that to happen, you need to put your trust and intellectual property in the hands of other people to execute it. Of course, there are a select few who do their own work, but often clients want to keep these parties separate to avoid conflicts of interest. So whether you are an architect putting your faith in a GC or a graphic designer sending a new campaign off to the printer, your credibility often lies in the hands of others. 

A few years ago, the economy forced a lot of good companies out of business. Rising operating costs combined with fewer clients made it hard to stay in business. As credit defaults increased, small business owners found it hard to get credit and buy new equipment. Expansion was at a standstill. Business owners who had managed their companies for years now found themselves applying for jobs at Home Depot just to get benefits for their families.

Now that the economy seems to have turned a corner, there appears to be huge shortage of skilled labor, particularly for smaller projects. As an architect, I find it almost impossible to find a small contractor who wants to do a budget kitchen renovation or a dormer installation. Anyone still in business is focused on the larger projects, where economies of scale make it more appealing. I recently completed a 450 square foot master suite addition where the job was bid to more than a dozen contractors before we could find one that was qualified with reasonable pricing. So what do you do when you need to find a great contractor who can work on a budget and has decent ethics and values? I have a few suggestions:

1. Form alliances

Just like on Survivor, you need to partner with other companies to make your work more appealing. A contractor might not be interested in your one small job, but he might be interested in the ten jobs you can give him in a year. If they perform well for you, make it clear you will give them all of your work.  

2. Trade time for quality

I know every client wants to be done with a project yesterday, but good work truly can't be rushed. There are a few solo practitioners out there who are 'old school' and do good work but they are generally slower and keep costs down by avoiding too much overhead. These guys also tend not to have web sites but are listed in the phone book.

3. Ask people you trust

It may sound obvious and silly but every community group takes care of their own. Whether it's a church or a school, referrals need not always come from your work colleagues. If you get a referral from the Pastor, it will likely be a solid one.

4. Hang out where the workers are

I have met a lot of contractors at the building department while applying for permits. These guys are the ones doing the work, so they are always good people to talk to when you need a referral. You can also observe how the people behind the counter talk to them and whether they get a "Hi, can I help you?" or a "Hey Steve, how's it going?" I would not however, go to the Home Depot parking lot and look for workers there- unless you don't care about how it comes out. It needs to be a legitimate spot.

Of course, a lot of people search online for people to work with at sites like Angie's List or through LinkedIn. I have personally found that people who are trolling for work online or spending a lot of time with online promotion are generally not out doing work. Or if they have a larger staff, the cost of the work is usually more. Someone has to pay for all that marketing, right? Of course, there are always exceptions, but I find the best contractors are often busy due to word of mouth marketing.

So the next time you need to find someone to build your masterpiece, consider the above and don't give up if it takes a few tries to find the right partner. It will be worth the wait.