Choosing and Working With a Contractor

Charles Plunkett Comments
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There are many ingredients that go into developing a successful self-storage project. Some of the more important ones are a suitable site, a proper feasibility study, a professional design team and the right contractor.

How do you choose your contractor? It’s important to hire someone you can trust, who has your best interests at heart, who will prevent you from making mistakes. There are other factors that are equally essential, such as the contractor’s experience, attitude, knowledge, reputation and dependability.

Experience

Your contractor’s level of experience is critical. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who just got out of medical school for a heart surgery. Likewise, you shouldn’t hire a contractor who has never built self-storage to construct your facility.

When it comes to building an office or restaurant, an architect, engineer or design team prepares the drawings that outline how the project is to be constructed, and then a contractor is hired to build what is on the plans. In self-storage, however, it is becoming increasingly common for the contractor to participate in the design process, assisting in the prevention of costly mistakes and ensuring the project’s “constructability.”

Self-storage presents many distinct issues that are not present in other types of development. It’s much less expensive to fix problems on paper than in the field, but if a contractor has no self-storage experience, it will be difficult or impossible for him to foresee potential pitfalls. Sometimes mistakes will occur even when the contractor is building the project exactly to plan. Without experience, he’ll never recognize errors made by others in the design phase.

Attitude

In self-storage, your contractor is more like a development-service provider than just a builder. It’s important that he be flexible, not intent on pushing a personal agenda or limiting the scope of the project to his personal abilities.

Your contractor should work as part of your construction team, and his attitude should reflect a team mentality. Ideally, he should view himself as an extension of the ownership entity. The owner identifies the goals of the project; the architect helps interpret and design those goals; the engineer ensures the goals are realistic; and the contractor works cooperatively with all professionals to produce the desired result.

When it comes to the written contract for your business arrangement, make sure the agreement is very clear so everyone knows the role they play in the project. This will facilitate the overall process and move the plan to completion in a timely manner.

Knowledge

While the builder of a restaurant may not need to know about food service, the self-storage contractor must have in-depth knowledge of the business. Some of his clients will be first-time owners or developers, so he needs to know the effect even a minor decision can make on a project’s bottom line. He can also be a vital source of information, providing input on small but critical issues such as turning radiuses for trucks on the property and office setup. The list of items for which new owners need guidance is almost endless. If a contractor has been in the industry for a while, he will have a pool of knowledge from which his clients can readily draw.

Reputation

The next item to examine is the contractor’s past performance. Is he able to bring projects in on time and on budget? Do not be disillusioned—every contractor occasionally has a bad job. The question is how good is his overall track record?

Check references. Talk to people for whom the contractor has built, recently and in the past. Get a sense for his overall performance.You can’t make an informed decision based on one facility, good or bad.

It’s also important to look at the types of projects your contractor has built. If your site calls for a state-of-the-art, four-story building, you don’t want to hire someone who has only worked on simple, single-story facilities. Some of the multistory projects being built today include complex designs, building codes and fire regulations.

Dependability

Finally, your contractor should be reliable. The true test of any professional is what he is willing to do to solve problems when they arise, for example, warranty-related issues. Any experienced owner will tell you what a headache it is to have a contractor who refuses to come back for warranty work. You want absolute assurance that you can count on your contractor when you need him. This is the kind of thing you can find out when you contact his references.

Other Factors

Once you’ve examined your candidates based on experience, attitude, knowledge, reputation and dependability, you may allow other factors to affect your decision. For example, you may feel you need to hire someone local or a contractor you’ve used in the past. Don’ t rule out an experienced self-storage builder because he isn’t based in your area. Contractors who work nationwide are accustomed to travel. They also know how to effectively compete with local companies based on their expertise.

You might also be tempted to act as your own contractor. If you have the skills and time, this may be an option; but don’t base the decision on money. Some owners undertake the building of a project on their own because they think it will be cheaper. Most find it takes them longer to finish the project and they have spent more than the contractor’s fee in the form of mistakes, repairs and delays.

One final note: Most states have laws that require contractors to be licensed, so make sure your contractor is in good standing with the licensing board. Also be aware this prerequisite may extend to you if you choose to act as your own contractor. The conditions for licensure can range from relatively easy to extremely difficult and take several months to fulfill.

Find a contractor with whom you think you can really work. You should have a good feeling about this member of your team, knowing that he is looking out for you and has the integrity, knowledge and experience to see you through this exciting, challenging development.

Charles Plunkett is president of Artistic Builders Inc. of San Antonio. The firm has specialized in self-storage construction for more than 10 years, completing many millions of square feet in self-storage projects nationwide. Services include value engineering, predevelopment consulting and site analysis, design assistance, and full construction. For more information, call 210.479.3450; e-mail jeff@artisticbuilders.com; visit www.artisticbuilders.com.

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