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Because I was born and raised in the trades my clients often look to me to help them select a builder. So here's my general rule: I'm not looking for perfection in a contractor. I'm looking for character, experience, honesty, transparency, a commitment to excellence, passion, great work and glowing recent references. That's what you should be looking for too.
A great contractor turns out consistently great work, but not necessarily always perfectly executed work. Everybody makes mistakes, anyone can miss something important, and anyone can get overwhelmed from time to time with circumstances beyond their control. Of course no one wants it on their project, but let's be honest, sometimes "life happens." The difference between a passionate craftsman with integrity and someone who's there to make a quick buck is not necessarily the absence of storms, but rather how they weather them.
I want you to do your best to look beyond the surface. There are some folks out there with clean records who should definitely NOT be in the construction business and yet others with "dings" who definitely should. I wish you could see how many contractor interviews I walk away from shaking my head in frustration. Checking a contractor's license status is an important first step, but a clean contracting record is no more a guarantee of craftsmanship and integrity than a clean DMV record guarantees someone is a great driver. The longer you've driven a car, or been in business, or just been alive, the more likely you are to have had mishaps or misunderstandings along the way. Some of the best builders have dings on their records despite being able to build your house blindfolded with one arm tied behind their back.
Case in point, nearly 25 years ago I had to weather some storms of my own. It started when the exclusive West-side building firm where I worked as Design Director rather unexpectedly closed their doors, and so I ended up doing a brief stint as a contractor. Not long after I went through a devastating divorce, our young family was broken up, my life savings was depleted, I was forced to file for bankruptcy, and under the unyielding weight of it all, I collapsed. Yes, ouch! I chose to suspend my license and allow the insurance bond to do its job of covering some costs more immediately. Since I wanted to get back to design as quickly as possible it was a small price to pay to help the folks who got stuck in that storm with me. Thank God I had clients who patiently trusted me and I'm proud to say I worked tirelessly to fulfill every obligation. Now all these years later I've built the family and career I'd always dreamed of. It's been a crazy wonderful life. None of us make it through without storms. It's how you weather them that ultimately defines you.
So what's the moral of the story? When selecting a contractor to entrust your project to, don't judge the book solely by its cover. Start with making sure they're licensed, bonded and insured, and get satisfactory answers to any questions regarding their record. But most importantly look at their work. Interview them. Ask for several recent references. The work they are doing for others today is the very best gauge of the work they'll do for you tomorrow. Perfection in this life is a myth and storms are sometimes unavoidable, but character, experience, a proven commitment to excellence, and most of all, passion, are the most important things to look for.
Now go find the right contractor to help you build yourself a beautiful life.
-Dean Sharp the House Whisperer