Beyond the Yellow Pages: Choosing a Contractor


Karen Warseck,  AIA

I t is startling to learn that 60 percent of all litigation related to construction involves failed roofing - and some estimates run even higher. Most of these failures can be attributed to improper installation of the roofing system. A key to preventing problems is to select a competent, professional roofer.

Too often, however, the first time building managers or owners learn about roofing is when they become involved with their first reroofing project. The process for selecting a contractor may involve little more than opening the yellow pages, calling the roofers with the largest ads and getting bids. It should be no surprise that problems occur and no one ends up satisfied.

Selecting a professional roofing contractor is a process that should start long before the phone book is opened. The process begins with an assessment of the current condition of the roof and a determination of what needs to be done to correct problems. After all, it is difficult to know what direction to go unless you know where you already are. Until the remedy is established, selecting a contractor to do any sort of work is a waste of time and money.

Roof View

Because more than half of construction-related litigation
involves roof failures, it is vital to hire a competent contractor.

A roof survey is the first step. Once a survey has been completed and the need to replace or re-cover a roof is established, the next step is to have a set of construction documents prepared. The construction documents should include all the information a contractor will need to bid the work.

This means a detailed set of drawings showing where all the components of the work are to be installed, especially those conditions that are not included in a manufacturer's "standard" details. It also means a project manual that includes information on bidding procedures and bid forms, agreement and bond forms, conditions of the contract, job conditions, and all technical specifications.

Once the documents have been prepared, the next step is to prepare a list of qualified bidders. Qualified means competent, financially stable, professional, responsive and affordable. A good source of prospective bidders is the architect or engineer who prepared the construction documents. If the consultant on the project supplies a list of prospective bidders, the list usually contains those firms with whom the consultant has had previous experience and which he or she feels are qualified to install the roof.

If you have prepared the specifications yourself, sources for prospective bidders include the manufacturer of the roofing membrane to be installed, referrals from associates and membership lists of organizations like the National Roofing Contractors Association or local roofing organizations, and the Building Owners and Managers Association International.

There are good reasons to use each of the sources just mentioned. If a colleague is willing to refer a roofer, he or she probably has had a good experience with that roofer. Membership in professional organizations is not a guarantee of quality, but does indicate that the roofer has some interest in maintaining professional standards.

Warranty Considerations

If a warranty is required, it is imperative to obtain the list of approved applicators from the manufacturer, since most manufacturers will not warranty a roof unless the applicator is an approved contractor. Generally, approval means that the contractor has demonstrated some level of competence to the manufacturer.

No matter what the source of the list of prospective bidders, background checks are still recommended. One comprehensive form that can be used as a guide in ascertaining the competence, stability and financial responsibility of a contractor is the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Document A301 - Contractor's Qualification Statement. This form asks for the following information: the current and previous names of the company, how long it has been in business, what licenses it holds, what experience the company has had, any litigation the company is involved in, trade and bank references, surety name, and company assets.

A roofing company that has changed its name more than once or twice during its business life generally means trouble. Usually, the name changes only after significant disruptions in the company such as major personnel changes or bankruptcy.

Longevity a Plus

Longevity in the industry means that the roofer must be providing quality work at a reasonable price; otherwise the firm would quickly have been out of business.

Not having a contractor's license in those jurisdictions where licensing is required is sufficient cause to not consider a roofer. Should there be a problem with the roof, the owner has no legal recourse against the unlicensed contractor and may, in fact, be committing a crime by hiring an unlicensed company.

Litigation may also be an indicator of the roofer's qualifications. However, questions about litigation must be approached cautiously. If litigation has been due to problems with the roof installation, and has not been found for the roofer, it is more than likely that the contractor is not competent.

Roof View

When researching prospective bidders, check references
and ask how previous jobs are holding up.

However, given the nature of the construction industry, contractors often become involved in lawsuits for other reasons than just lack of proper installation. Lawsuits may have been for non-payment, lien settlements or personal injury, to take three examples. The reason for the lawsuit is as important as who won.

Checking the trade and bank references to be sure that the company pays its bills can also save you from headaches in the future. If the roofing contractor cannot pay suppliers, it means that liens may be filed against the property. Not having enough credit available may mean that the company will push to be paid more than it should in order to obtain supplies for subsequent phases of the work.

If the contractor is on a cash-only basis, it may not have the resources to obtain materials before they are to be installed. The danger is that if the contractor cannot obtain goods before they are needed for installation, the whole project can be unacceptably delayed.

Company Assets, Reliability Linked

The ability of a contractor to be bonded shows that the company is financially stable and reasonably reliable in completing the projects it has undertaken. Finding out the company's assets will also help the building owner or manager evaluate the reliability of a contractor. Someone who owns equipment and buildings is more likely to respond to problems since that person has a good deal to lose. If a company has no hard assets, there is little that can be recovered during bankruptcy or litigation.

The AIA Document A301 includes a section that requests a list of the projects in progress and also those done by the contractor for the last five years. Knowing a contractor's current projects and the usual size of past projects can help to determine if the contractor is overextending itself.

The A301 form can be modified to ask the prospective bidder to list all the projects done using the system anticipated for the upcoming project. If names and phone numbers of contacts are included on this list as references, the building owner or manager can not only ascertain exactly how much experience the contractor has had with the product to be installed, but can talk directly to some of the roofer's previous clients who have the same roofing system.

Unless the project is a special case - such as a frozen food warehouse - or has some other truly unique characteristics, experience with the type of roof system installed is much more important than experience with the same type of building.

Even though the contractor will always give the names of contacts with good projects as references, it is still important to check references. Always try to check the oldest installations. Find out how the installation is holding up and if there have been problems. Ask how responsive the roofer has been when problems arise and if he or she returns phone calls.

Always find out if the contact person would hire the roofer again. This information will not only provide a better perspective on the reputation of the roofer, but also indicate the level of service that can be anticipated. A contractor who understands the plans and specifications will probably provide a better result than one who only reads the specs to prepare the bid. Proper use of the bid form and conformance to the instructions to bidders shows that the roofer has some degree of sophistication and is more likely to have the experience needed to install the roof properly.

To be sure that the contractors understand the construction documents, a pre-bid conference should be scheduled with the client, the consultant and the bidders. A good roofer will attend the conference -- those who do not should be disqualified. If there are questions about the documents or the site, a professional contractor will bring the questions up at the pre-bid conference so that they can be clarified before the bid is due.

Contractors who work with the consultant are generally more likely to provide a quality roof than contractors who attempt to subvert the process by bringing substitutions directly to the owner; in the latter case, it may be that the contractor is not an approved applicator for the system specified and so is trying to get a substitution to another material.

Another possibility is that the contractor is trying to subvert the bidding process by giving a lower price on a material that no one else is bidding on. Since the whole point of competitive bidding is to have proposals that are directly comparable, a roofer attempting to do this is not very ethical and should not be considered for the project. If a contractor is unethical while just attempting to obtain the project, what will that contractor be like once work is underway?

Final selection

The final selection is done when the bids are opened. If all of the bids are done on the bid form as instructed in the bid package, and all contain documentation required for bidding (the approved applicator certificate, bonds, etc.), and if all of the contractors have been screened previous to inviting them to bid, then the final selection criteria generally becomes price. Be aware, however, that the low bid may not be the best bid.

If one bid seems excessively low, chances are there has been an error in the bid process by that contractor. If the bidder can support the claim of a substantial error, the owner and consultant, after consultation with an attorney, should consider whether or not to permit the bid to be withdrawn. Errors in mathematics or transcription are generally justifiable reasons for allowing a withdrawal, but errors of judgment about costs and quantities of materials or labor are not.

Selection of a roofing contractor to install a roof does not have to be a gamble. If the roofer is experienced, professional, responsive and affordable, the chances of a poor installation can be minimized and a watertight roof the result.

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Karen Warseck, AIA. CSI, is president of Building Diagnostics® Associates, a Hollywood. Fla., firm that specializes in the analysis of roofing and waterproofing problems.

This article was reprinted from the April 1991 issue of Building Operating Management Magazine. For other great articles, log on to Facilities Net at

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