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My Last Shop: Part 3 - Getting Bids

by Michael Smith
Mountain Park, GA

Hello again, this is my third installment of my experience with building my last shop. Here is Part 1 , and here is Part 2 . To bring you up to speed, I am a retired California high school woodshop teacher now living in Mountain Park, GA near my two grown children and their families. Not counting the woodshop where I taught this will be my fourth and last (probably) shop.

In the past, where I lived in California, it was easy to get bids because many of my former students went to work in the trades. So I had choices when I needed construction work done that I couldn't do or wouldn't do. Now, I'm living in a place where I don't know anyone in the trades and I have to use my wits to select workmen. Aye Mate, there's the rub!

There are two types of contractor. The general contractor organizes all of the work from obtaining permits through foundation to finish trim. The sub-contractor usually has one part of the job like concrete, framing, electrical and so on. I like to use sub-contractors because I can easily do some parts of the job myself. Think cheap!

So the first thing I did was just walk in on a couple of home construction jobsites and look around to see what the workers were doing. If you are nervous about this just consider that the process of building a house takes many trades and lots of people come and go every day. If you know even just a little about the process you can always appear official. Carry a measuring tape or clipboard. Once you are satisfied that the kind of work you are interested in is progressing satisfactorily ask if the boss is around. You may have to ask in another language, "Donde esta el Jefe?" Once you introduce yourself to the boss, tell him, or her, what you are planning to do and ask if that is the kind of thing they want to give you a bid for. Get a business card and take it from there. The contractor will want to see your plans, visit the site and then do whatever pencil pushing needs to be done to arrive at a price for his portion of the work.

Most people recommend getting three bids for the work to be done but don't go overboard. Most of the time I get three bids but there have been times I just get one because I want someone in particular to do the work and I have a good notion of what it should cost. Remember you will have to decline all but one bid. Don't hesitate to ask the contractor how he arrived at his price. Also, ask about how many workers will be on the job and how many days. Just by taking a rough figure of $20.00 per hour per man you could come fairly close to labor costs.

Another source for contractors is redbeacon.com or servicemagic.com . There are other on-line services as well. These services will find a contractor in your area and give you reviews by people who have hired the same contractor previously. Be sure you read the reviews. Sometimes you will have to read between the lines. The service will charge the contractor a fee for submitting his name to you.

The biggest problem I had was that I was looking for a sub-contractor who would bring his crew to do the work. I want the working contractor. I did not want a broker that was going to look through his rolodex and find some guys to do the work. I have learned to be leery of the contractors that wear pinky rings and drive a Cadillac Escalade. You are just paying them to find a crew and most of the time this drives the price up.

Another part of the bid process is getting bids for materials. I have always bought my materials through businesses that specialize in the materials I need. A better way to say this is I buy lumber from a lumber yard, roofing from a roofing company, sheetrock from a sheetrock company, insulation from an insulation company and so on. You get the picture. I get a better price and I can be sure to have a knowledgeable sales person if I have a question. That was the way I used to do it, anyway.

I've found that in this economy now the lumber yards are not doing much business and their lumber is sitting out in the weather (warping, drying) waiting to be sold. Moreover, since business is slow and fuel is high they have gone to charging for delivery. If that's the case, why not buy from a home improvement store? They store their lumber inside and their stock moves fast enough that the lumber is usually "fresh". The charge for delivery is competitive.

Lastly, the home improvement stores have a good return policy in the event you calculate your material needs too high. Lumber yards and specialty suppliers generally charge 10 to 20 percent restocking fee if you have material to return. Save your receipts!

Having said all this I know I haven't touched on all of the possible scenarios that you might run into. Construction isn't rocket science yet though it is more technical than it used to be. Keep your wits about you. Don't hesitate to ask questions of the people you come in contact with. Buy a how-to book. Ask Google.

OK, I've got my plans printed, permits obtained, all my bids are in. I've got to demolish an existing shed and clear the site and I'm ready to start construction. See you in the next installment.

Michael can be reached by email at woodsmith@sonic.net .

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