The big question: How do you locate a tiptop contractor?

The choice of the builder is as important to a major home-improvement job as the selection of the architect is to the design. Thus, during the preparation of the plans and specifications, the owner needs to assemble a list of prequalified contractors.

Remember, it takes experience to erect a complexity of materials and labor into a successful finished structure. Inexperience may well dash the job on legal rocks, cause it to cost far more than it should, or result in a bad-quality job.

If the owner is to be his own builder, he will need to select subcontractors to handle those construction skills he may lack.

Whether the selection is for a general contractor or a subcontractor, the process is the same. But the question is, how do you locate a tiptop contractor? Simply, check with previous clients, the Better Business Bureau, contractors' association, lenders, building supply houses, and insurance companies for contractor track records.

Contractors who are seasoned and financially sound may qualify with surety companies that furnish bonds guaranteeing contractor performance. Bondable contractors may generally be considered reliable builders.

The open market is no place to choose a builder. Contractor prequalification is essential. Only contractors who are skilled, experienced, and reputable should be sought and signed.

The first rule is to avoid amateurs. Further, shun those who appear dishonest or disreputable.

Keep in mind that the lowest bidder may not always be the best builder. The assembling of thousands of components in a construction project is complex enough without adding frustrations from working with unprofessional, inexperienced, or unreliable contractors.

Keep such culls off the job. Also, beware of accepting tempting lower bids from them. Unduly low bids often prove inordinately expensive, especially if executed by unqualified bidders.

Experienced bidders know better how to bid than do amateurs. Further, veterans may be more apt to provide and ensure a workmanlike finished product. Solicit for your job only experienced builders who tout a proven record of satisfied customers.

In most states licensing of contractors is required. Therefore, avoid unlicensed builders.

Some sifting of professionality has already taken place during the licensing process. Require visible evidence of a current license within the trade that the contractor bids; i.e., a plumber should not bid on electrical work or a painter on a roofing job.

Licensing is not necessarily a predetermination of qualification. But license longevity at least proves survival, and thus may indicate a demonstrated ability to perform.

Use caution in contracting with one who is newly licensed, especially if the job is over the builder's head in scope or complexity.

True, all builders had to start somewhere, somehow. They usually get their start on small projects, building up experience and financial responsibility, moving progressively to larger and more complex jobs. All too often newborn contractors may obtain their experience at a naive owner's expense and burden. My first job was a garage.

The architect-engineer may provide the names of general or subcontractors with whom he has successfully worked on previous jobs. His list, therefore, would include only qualified contractors.

Compatibility between architect and builder is an ideal and improves the prospect for a successful project. If at loggerheads, these key principals may impede construction harmony or facility. Then the owner and his project may suffer the dire consequences.

When the architect, builder, and owner are all compatible, the prime ingredients for good construction are present.

While retaining only competent contractors, the owner still must presume that builders are human, subject to mistakes or oversights. The best of architects, builders, and, alas, owners, have shortcomings. Even the most earnest individual may not always achieve perfection. So insist on excellence from the contractor, but don't be too surprised or frustrated at some silly mistake. Here's an example: A $20 million sports stadium was completed before it was discovered that there were no drinking fountains.

If the project is to be built by the owner himself, the job can better proceed in good order if he is experienced as a builder; but the work will more than likely falter if the owner is inept in business or a fledgling in construction.

To make it worth his while, the owner has to earn the contractor's fee. In any event, seasoned supervision on the job is a daily necessity.

If an owner has the time and talent, he may supervise the job himself. Otherwise, he may hire an experienced foreman or superintendent for the project. Even a contractor may retain a supervisor to act in his absence and thus be responsible for the daily overseeing of the work. The supervisor may be a foreman working part time with his tools.

Whoever runs the job must be ''boss'' and assume responsibility for what goes on.

A clear chain of command is essential so that when something goes wrong, the owner can put his finger on a single responsible agent. Otherwise, the job will bog down, one trade blaming another for mistakes or poor workmanship.

The foreman or superintendent is the key person directly responsible for putting the building together day by day. In the interest of the owner it had better be a good one!

Thus, if you are about to build, use prequalified, seasoned contractors who are financially responsible. Avoid amateurs or unlicensed builders. Aim for compatibility among architect, builder, and owner.

Above all, insist on daily supervision of the construction by someone who knows his stuff.

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