Tips for Hiring a General Contractor or Remodeling Specialist for Your Home


The media has been particularly harsh on residential general contractors over the past ten to fifteen years. The reputation, reliability, and confidence of General Contractors have all taken hits in the media. As a Homeowner, you should know this first and foremost.

There were three home improvement shows on television 15 years ago:

This Historic Home
-New York’s Yankee Machine Shop
Return to Bob Villa’s House

A wealth of information, advice, and wisdom offered on these three shows gave Homeowners a unique “inside” view of the building industry. I can see why DIYers, tradespeople, and weekend warriors would-be fans. However, it failed to capture the interest of the public. After all, not everyone cares about finding the most excellent router bits or learning how to cut Crown Moulding.

Then HGTV’s Holmes on Homes came along. The show’s idea was built upon exposing the wrongdoings of shady, unethical, and unprofessional contractors while making the homeowners look like they were taken advantage of. Mr. Holmes arrives to right all wrongs and save the day.

ISSUE: Have incompetent, dishonest, or unethical contractors entered the market? HECK YEAH! On the other hand, one can wonder if incompetent, illegal, or corrupt attorneys are operating today. Doctors? Officers of the law? Estate Brokers? Brokers of Mortgages? Accountants? What else? SURELY there must be! The good, the poor, the middling, the fantastic, and the horrendous may be found in any field. Such is life; such is humanity.

This program implicitly told homeowners that Mike Holmes was good and other contractors were terrible. He is financially savvy and adept at self-promotion. That’s great news! But his show has unfairly ruined an entire industry’s reputation, done a tremendous service in confusing homeowners, and kicked off a widespread tendency of “contractor bashing” that has persisted ever since. Interestingly, for all his discussion about “License, Insurance, and permits,” Mike Holmes isn’t authorized to do the work he did on the show without a license. Mr. Holmes is NOT a licensed Carpenter, despite the Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs’ stated responsibility for licensure. Whenever he changed a structural wood component of the house or advertised carpentry services without the proper licensure, he was breaching the law and putting himself in the same gloomy category as the other contractors he so casually dismisses. Hypocrite.

While it’s true that many of the homeowners featured on the show were effectively ripped off, deceived, or defrauded, the reality is that most of those Home Owners were complicit in their misfortune. How am I to know? I’m willing to bet that most of those homeowners were motivated primarily by cost when selecting a contractor. The irresistible flavor of a “good deal” is always alluring. The show would never provide such information, though. The “victim” narrative dies a quick death.

The fact that Mike Holmes typically destroys most of the work, rebuilds it the right way and then goes above and beyond to make it seem even better is something they rarely touch on in the show. What nonsense; in the real world, that translates to money signs. It’s nice that they’re “giving” the homeowners nice things like glass shower doors, bespoke cabinets, granite worktops, heated flooring, marble flooring, etc., but they should probably mention that somebody had to pay for those things. In this instance, the producing business perhaps benefited from sponsorships by receiving free goods. But it is deceptive to take a remodeling in which the Home Owners had a $20,000 budget, dump what would equal $150,000 in real life into the home, and then stand back and declare, “There…that’s how it should have been done.”

A new wave of television shows carried on this tendency. You need to know that ALL of these shows have commercial support. Most of these programs center around the premise, “Look, we did all these renovations, and it only cost us $X.” They don’t say, “Oh yeah, we got 50-100% off on all the stuff through our sponsors, and we’re not figuring the labor realistically. Put aside the fact that they most likely did not obtain the necessary permits for the job, that Workers’ Compensation Insurance covered no one, that no one had Liability Insurance, and so on.

Remember, guys, that television is entertainment, and the networks and production corporations behind it couldn’t care less whether or not the material presented on the show was confirmed.

Now that we have rehashed the media’s prejudice and the years of false information that Home Owners have been subjected to let’s get down to business. How do you find your way to a qualified expert?

The good news is that you can pick from various trustworthy contractors. The media ignore them. Most contractors are pretty good, despite what the media would have you believe. Starting with a broad search is the first step in discovering the right one for you. The online world seems like an excellent place to begin.

Explore the available contractors’ online portfolios right away. Remember that it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to locate a reliable contractor, so be ready to put in some effort. Since most renovations are a sizable investment on top of your greatest asset (your home), you would be prudent to take your time at every stage, beginning with a “broad search” for the ideal contractor. By perusing the numerous online portfolios, you may get a sense of the quality of work each firm represents. Some contractors specialize in “High end” renovations, while others stick to the middle and higher middle classes. Still, others have made a name for themselves at the low end by specializing in quick and easy renovations (such as new floors or bathrooms) that appeal to the broadest possible audience.

Eventually, you’ll find only five or ten contractors whose work you like and aesthetic matches your own. That is to say, their services appear to align with the standards of excellence you’d like to see implemented in your work.

Don’t go into a Ferrari dealership looking for a Hyundai price tag. On the flip side, there is little purpose in visiting a Hyundai store in search of a Ferrari. Neither is inherently wrong, but you should focus on YOUR needs and budget constraints. If your intuition tells you that your renovation budget is limited, don’t contact a contractor that seems to specialize in the “High end” market of homes in Forrest Hill, Rosedale, Bridle Path, Lakeshore West, and similar affluent areas. Those properties often cost over a million dollars (sometimes reaching the tens of millions). In most cases, even a modest kitchen remodel will cost well over $100,000. In general, the cost of a renovation doesn’t exceed 10% of the home’s value. For instance, the central kitchen of a $20,000,000 mansion will not have IKEA cabinetry. You also won’t find a kitchen with handcrafted cabinets worth $150,000 in a $400,000 house.

Now that you believe you have located a select few contractors who “fit the bill,” it is time to investigate them. You can learn a lot about them by looking them up on their website or doing a quick GOOGLE search. Based on this information, shortlist three potential contractors who seem to fit your project well.

THE NEXT PHASE…DESIGN – A detailed “plan” should be drawn out before beginning any kind of remodel. There are multiple options to consider when developing a plan’s strategy. You can design the room yourself if you’re confident in your abilities or hire a professional. You can hire a Design/Build firm, an interior designer, an architect, an engineer, or a designer with a BCIN license. Everything hinges on the nature of the project itself. Most construction projects require a permit at some time. Construction drawings (CDs) are necessary for obtaining a building permit and are distinct from conceptual concepts. Creating “concept drawings,” or a visual depiction of the desired “concept,” is often the first step. Once you’ve settled on an idea, you may move on with refining the drawings, filling in the information, sourcing the materials, and honing the details until you have a nearly finished CD. Each designer’s approach has perks and drawbacks, but they all have something to offer. If cost is your primary issue, a Design/Build partnership may be your best bet. Since they are also the builders, a D/B firm can begin pricing the project and constructing a budget right from the

conceptualization phase. They are the ones with their “finger on the pulse” of the project’s costs, as they are the builders. If the overall design is the most critical factor, however, hiring an architect is the best option. An architect has unparalleled expertise in all things related to design and construction. The “look” of interior furnishings is of primary importance to an interior designer, as the term suggests. Materials such as furniture, wall coverings, floor coverings, fixtures, and more are chosen for each customer individually to create a stunning visual effect. Engineers are experts in long-lasting structures that can withstand the test of time. If you are on a tight budget and merely need a construction permit, an A-B alternative that is both quick and affordable is to hire a BCIN-licensed designer.

As you can see, each approach has advantages and disadvantages, and each provides a unique perspective on the issue. Your choice of design professional should be based on whatever criteria are most important to you.

Contractor involvement in the design process is essential if you employ a third-party designer (interior designer, architect, BCIN registered designer, or engineer). Keep your final three contractors updated on the design’s development, even if you’ve already chosen one. They can probably start estimating costs for the job, and their input is invaluable.

On the other hand, when you hire a Design/Build firm, you can adjust your spending plan as you go along with the design process. This choice benefits from value engineering.

CONTRACTORS CANNOT provide an “estimate” without seeing functioning drawings; THIS IS A MYTH. This is something that I keep hearing. “Get X bids from contractors and compare them. Without construction blueprints, how can cost estimates be made? The project’s materials and scope of work are outlined in the working drawings. It’s like contacting a car company and asking, “How much for a car?” before seeing any drawings. For instance, the price may range from $15,000 to $100,000 if you contact Ford. You’re doing yourself more harm than good.

If a contractor you contact gives you a “price” before seeing designs, he is either 1) trying to mislead you into hiring him or 2) not qualified to complete the job.

The cost of a remodel might range widely. The cost to remodel a bathroom can range from $2,500 up to $100,000 or more.

What should you do now if you don’t believe a building permit is necessary and don’t need working drawings? I mean, come on. Give the contractor your total budget, and he’ll let you know what’s feasible within that amount. The contractor can usually offer a rough estimate of whether or not your budget is reasonable. But keep in mind that this is still only someone’s guess. Every budget has moving parts, and the more you know and have planned ahead of time, the more likely you are to finish on target financially.

THEN WHAT? You’ve narrowed it down to a shortlist of three prospective builders; you’ve established a sensible budget, and you’d want to meet with them, drawings or not. Pictures on hand will make your first meeting with contractors go more smoothly, but don’t let that stop you if you don’t! Most contractors will still meet with you even if you don’t have drawings. This leads us to the next stage.

While most contractors will provide free in-home estimates, others will charge a fee for the initial consultation. Which one is superior? The answer to that question is, of course, up to you. The contractor will typically measure and photograph your home during a paid site visit. He will make notes from the material you submit and offer an initial project evaluation. He will return to your home to review the preliminary appraisal after he has gone back to the office, designed one or two concepts for the renovation, and constructed one or two budgets, allocating “allowances” for the unknown portions of the work that cannot be figured out at this point (such as the finishes, fixtures, and other accessory materials). Compared to a “free estimate,” this one is far closer to correct. Any “Estimate” supplied before the contractor sitting down, designing the space, and crunching the figures is pure b.s. and a number plucked out of thin air, indicating neither the scope of work nor allowances for materials and finishes. This explains why so many “estimates” are wildly inaccurate. Quit squandering your time on them.

You should always hire a professional to handle the “Pre-Construction” phase of the project. Included in this package are the following tasks: preliminary design, scope of work, schedule, budget, material selection, unlimited modifications, value engineering, tailoring the project to your budget, refining details, sourcing materials, selecting sub-contractors, and tendering portions of the job, obtaining working drawings, and obtaining all necessary building permits, variances, committee of adjustment, or zoning approvals. This package (Pre-Construction) will act as the project’s guiding blueprint for the project’s lifetime. One thing that all of the self-proclaimed “experts” and “advice-givers” who publish article after article and give sermons on radio and television never mention: a plan. The more information provided, the better, but this is the one thing that professionals who do the actual work LIVE BY. Although you may have to pay a charge “initially,” a well-executed and fine-tuned plan will save you tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands. Two years of preparation can go into a project that only lasts six months. But it’s the only way to finish a project on schedule, within budget, and above expectations.

You’ve probably heard this countless times, but it bears repeating. Inquire for references. The idea of references offers people a false sense of safety. No reliable contractor would ever provide you the names of people whose jobs “went bad” or reveal their unfavorable recommendations. What percentage of a contractor’s 100 completed projects would be cut if he only provided 20 references?

In most cases, former customers do not appreciate being approached, and they especially dislike it when strangers show up at their door to ostensibly “inspect the work” the contractor had previously completed. Once the work is done, most homeowners want to relax and take advantage of their newfound freedom. Even if a client has had a good time working with their contractor, they don’t appreciate being bombarded with calls from potential new clients every week, every month, and every year. It’s also uncomfortable when strangers are invited into their house to “inspect” the work. The contractor and the potential clients must remember that people have lives and other obligations besides being satisfied customers.

Another consideration is that we are currently living in a technologically advanced era. The internet makes it possible to learn almost everything about a corporation. For instance, there are a variety of independent platforms for reporting and reviewing contractors. These separate websites allow customers to voice their complaints about the corporation without fear of retaliation. The reviews and reputation of a contractor can be gauged appropriately in this way. A trustworthy contractor will work hard to keep their name in good standing.

Last, do not automatically dismiss someone for lack of customer references. The longest-running contractors will have the most satisfied customers who can provide references. But what about the dudes who are just starting in business? Many potential contractors have spent the past ten, twenty, or even thirty years employed elsewhere in the building industry. Many examples of skilled workers (such as carpenters, site supervisors, foremen, and project managers) have decided to strike out on their own and start their businesses. Often, these individuals felt they could provide customers with a better product or service than their previous employer. Disregarding someone’s expertise, skills, and qualifications is inconsiderate because they don’t have a large clientele or a long track record in the field. On the other hand, the newcomers may be more ready to make you an offer you can’t refuse to expand their clientele. Ensure they are competent; they may not have a large client base. It is ultimately the responsibility of the contractor to communicate his qualifications, including his accreditation, licenses, and history. I’m just saying that people put too much stock in references, which are primarily controlled by the industry’s old guard and don’t give an excellent indication of someone’s skills and experience.

CONTRACTORS REQUIRE LICENSES, INSURANCE, AND WORKERS’ COMPENSATION BENEFITS TO PROVIDE THEIR SERVICES TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC. Find out if your contractor has a valid license by contacting the Ministry. WHY SHOULD I CARE? On the one hand, it’s the law, and the contractor is breaching it if he doesn’t have it. Therefore he could face legal consequences. However, it is not a reliable indicator of competence. There is no assurance that you will pass the exam and other criteria to get your license. Even if a person has a driver’s license, that’s only a “check” and not a guarantee that they’re competent behind the wheel. Because it is never enforced, some people accuse the government of extortion. I have repeatedly reported unlicensed contractors to the Ministry, but they have taken no action. Some professionals view it as a toothless watchdog that only taxes the REAL, honest, diligent, and law-complying contractors while letting the guys that flout the rules off the hook and, in effect, helping them out by making their pricing even cheaper (less carrying costs). Still, you should probably take it with a pinch of salt. All contractors should have it, and the lack thereof should say something about the contractor’s ideals and ethics. It’s a warning sign, but you can’t completely rule out the possibility of trouble even if the individual in question has a license. However, a police background check is conducted before permits are issued, so hiring someone without one raises further red flags. If the contractor is licensed, you can file a complaint with the relevant ministry if anything goes wrong and the contractor risks revoking his license.

The contractors’ liability insurance should cover employees and visitors to your home. Anyone hurt on your property without it could file a lawsuit against you.

You and the contractor are protected from legal action in the event of a worker injury, according to the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Board (WSIB). As responsible citizens, we must advocate for a risk-free workplace for all employees.

There are still “hacks” in this industry, but hiring a professional will save you money in the long run. The term “contractor” is so broad that anyone can use it. Any fool can buy a hammer and some business cards at the local office supply store and declare himself a contractor, but they rarely succeed. They do a lot of harm to themselves and others in a short length of time and then fizzle out. Their target audience consists primarily of “cheap” homeowners. Most of the time, they dramatically underbid a work because they don’t pay taxes, don’t have licenses, don’t have training, don’t have insurance, don’t have WSIB liability coverage, have no idea what’s involved in a job, how much materials cost, how to calculate labor, and don’t hire expert subs. The “cheap” homeowners who see this and think, “Wow, I’m getting a deal!” will be interested. But sooner or later, the proverbial fan will be hit, and the price of dismantling and redoing will ALWAYS exceed the expense of hiring a contractor in the first place. In addition to the cost of the actual work, the homeowner may incur tens of thousands of dollars in fines from the city for failing to obtain the necessary permits and carry the required insurance, and in extreme cases, the city may even order the demolition of the home (a process known as “condemnation”), at which point the homeowner must pay to have the house torn down. Seriously, a nightmare.

THE CONTRACT- Critical…crucial. The contracts that are on offer vary depending on the contractor. The terms “Fixed Price,” “Cost-Club,” “Time and Material,” and “Project Management” are just a few examples. While some contractors only work with one approach, others choose several. Choose the option that serves your needs the best. Not all contracts are the same, so it’s essential to research and ask questions. Whatever you decide, more information is always better. If something goes wrong and an issue arises, you want a contract that provides little room for interpretation. DO IT ON PAPER! The norm, etc. The best contractors provide comprehensive contracts and keep accurate records throughout the project so everyone involved can see what’s going on. Warranties are crucial as well.

The atmosphere generated by the fake media is antagonistic and hostile against contractors, and the two entities benefit from one other. Contractors have a bad reputation, and most people treat them suspiciously or even with contempt. This combative stance serves no useful purpose. The contractor and the customer should be on the same page, with mutual regard for each other’s time, needs, wishes, and expectations. A win-win partnership in which the efforts of both parties ultimately benefit the third. Reliable contractors are picky about the clients they take on. Those with malicious intentions usually team up with anyone who can pay them. But the good ones know that a project is a joint commitment, and that after agreeing to terms, praising one another, and making commitments,

only then can anything be done to bring the project to fruition and move it from point A to point B. Good contractors don’t sell much but always deliver on their promises. Because of the complexity of renovations, most professionals in the industry have extensive experience and education in the field. Some have degrees in architecture, engineering, project management, plumbing, electrical work, and many other areas. However, the best among them recognize the difficulty of some endeavors. Beautiful restorations don’t occur by chance, buildings that last centuries aren’t built in a day, and good craftsmanship results from years and years of hard work. The best contractors have dedicated their whole adult lives to becoming masters of their craft, gaining invaluable experience along the way.

Find a reliable contractor, and then collaborate with that person. Contractors’ favorite clients are the ones who have a firm grasp on the concept of quality, who value professionalism and quality workmanship, who insist on dealing with only those who are honest and trustworthy, and who know that teaming up with a true professional is their best bet for seeing a project through to fruition. I’ve also learned that service providers with clientele exhibiting the characteristics listed above will go out of their way to accommodate them.

I just shared the best advice I have to offer on the subject. It’s up to you if you want to take my advice or listen to the multitude of “experts” who have probably never hired a contractor or tackled any REAL project (painting your living room doesn’t count) and therefore know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Having the most qualified legal counsel at my side is a must if I ever find myself in need of one. I hope the best doctor can help me if I ever get sick. I only trust professional mechanics with my vehicle. All that matters in this world are the decisions you make. Godspeed.


Costco Building Company

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