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Property Managers: Insider Tips Make it Easy to Hire Finishing Contractors

Northern Illinois Real Estate Magazine - August 2011

By Clark Johnson, Director of Marketing, Finishing Contractors Association of Chicago

Clark Johnson - Director of Marketing, FCACIf prospective tenants take one look at your lobby and make a mad dash for the door, or if you can't remember the last time your building was painted because it was so long ago, it may be time to spruce up your space. It doesn't take a leap of faith to find qualified trusted contractors for painting, wallcovering, and drywall finishing projects. Doing a little homework upfront, however, will save potential headaches and ensure professional results. Property managers need only follow these simple steps. 

Get recommendations from those in the know. Ask other building managers and engineers for the names of finishing contractors they were happy with. These are the companies to contact. Call three to five from this list.

Find the right fit. Ask the companies if they have performed the work that you need and get specific examples from within the last year or two. Don't waste time on contractors whose skills don't match the job requirements. "Hiring someone with experience in your area is key, and even more so when you need specialty finishes," says Sam Hart, owner of National Decorating Service Inc. in Oak Brook. "Be sure to ask how many projects like yours they've done."

Look for pros. Focus on companies that have been in business for at least five years - the longer the better - so you can be sure they have established track records. If you have doubts, contact the Better Business Bureau. "Look at their websites, too," says Don Steadman, who owns All-Tech Decorating in Romeoville. "You can learn a lot from their sites. If they don't have one, I would move on."

Going green? Look for experience. Sustainability and LEED green build- ing are the cornerstones of many finishing projects today. If you need to comply with LEED requirements or other eco-friendly standards, be sure the contractors you're considering have experience with these projects, including maintaining indoor air quality on job sites, disposing of waste materials responsibly, recycling as many materials as possible, and using low-odor paints and finishes.

Stay safe. Ask for their experience modification rates (EMRs), which reflect their safety records for insurance premiums. Hire a contractor whose EMR is .99 or lower.

In addition, find out what kind of training their field workers complete and if they have ongoing education. Most contractors undergo basic 10-hour federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training, but if they have OSHA 30-hour certification, that's even better.

"You can also contact OSHA to see if the contractors have any citations with- in the past two years," says Miles Beatty, owner of Beatty Decorating Co. in Lake Bluff. For extra reassurance, make sure the companies require their workers to comply with anti-drug and alcohol policies.

Verify licensing and insurance coverage. Make sure the companies are licensed, bonded, and insured. Get copies of their current insurance certificates; don't just take their word for it.

"You want a contractor who has at least at $1 million in liability coverage and a $1 million umbrella policy Beatty says. They should also have workers' compensation insurance, which most states require, and auto insurance for their business vehicles." 

Think beyond price. If you choose the lowest bidder automatically, you're probably going to be disappointed with the results. "Don't scrimp on quality," Beatty says. "Like any other service you get what you pay for with finishing contractors."
 
Get quotes. Always get detailed estimates in writing. When comparing quotes compare apples to apples by entering parts, labor, and time estimates into a spreadsheet. Never rely on verbal estimates. Again, don't assume the lowest bidder is the best contractor for the job.
 
Put the details in writing. Once you've made a hiring decision, get the finishing contractor to commit to all aspects of the project in a written contract, which you and the contractor should sign. The contract should include the contractor's name, address, phone, license number, and insurance information; the start date and estimated completion date; the hours work will be performed; the scope of work; the specific safety precautions the contractor must follow; the payment schedule for the contractor, any sub-contractors and suppliers; the contractor's obligation to obtain all necessary permits; a list of materials to be used; the contractor's change order process; warranties that cover materials and workmanship, along with the contact information for the companies that will honor the warranties; your right to cancel the contract; and what the contractor will and will not do, such as debris removal.
 
Maintain control. Stay on top of the project and check in with the foreman daily. If something doesn't look right, bring it up as soon as you notice it. "While a finishing contractor may rotate workers from one job site to another, especially for large projects, it's rea- sonable to request the same foreman for the duration of a project" Hart says. "If you're not happy, let the foreman know, and that applies to the job and the people doing it. For example, if a member of the crew has been seen smok- ing on your property and your contract states that it's a no- smoking site, or if a worker is being disrespectful to your tenants, let the foreman know. Don't wait until the job is finished to speak up."

Don't be afraid to fire your contractor. Ideally, you should have included an explanation of your right to cancel the contract in the written document; but if you didn't, you can still issue a pink slip. When should you cut your losses? Circumstances that could warrant your firing the contractor are: if the contractor is doing a poor job, has damaged your property, is not listening to you, or has otherwise violated the contract. A good contractor would never let that happen, Steadman says. If you followed the screening and hiring steps above, it shouldn't come to this point.
A little research in the beginning will pay off in the end when your project goes smoothly and your building looks fantastic.
 
If there's any question about the contractors' coverage, ask for their agents' contact information. If they balk, that's a red flag. Avoid doing business with any contractor that doesn't carry the appropriate insur- ance, or you'll be liable for any injuries or damages that occur during the project.
 
Eliminate warranty worries. When interviewing prospective com- panies ask if they guarantee work- manship and materials, and if so, for how long. Most finishing contractors guarantee their work for at least one year. 
 
Call references. Request a list of names and phone numbers of at least three recent customers with projects like yours and call them. You may want to ask: Were you happy with the project? How would you describe the quality of the work? Did the contractor keep you informed about the status of the project? Did workers show up on time? What was the original project budget? What was the final project budget? Did the contractor complete the project on time? Would you use the company again?
 
"You want a solid company that a reputation for good work," Steadman says.