Why I Loved My General Contractor

A small business owner and a university instructional designer describe their experience with general contractors.

When Tim Tierney, the co-founder and COO of Chicago menswear brand Stock Mfg. Co. set out to find a general contractor for his new store, he was apprehensive. Tierney had never worked with a general contractor before, and the young entrepreneur braced himself for a time-consuming and costly experience.

“This was my first experience with a general contractor, and as a business owner, I was wary of paying for services that I didn’t fully understand,” Tierney said. “You hear all these horror stories about general contractors going over time and over budget because the client doesn’t understand what they are doing and there’s no oversight.”

Tierney’s fears, however well founded, were not realized. His general contractor completed work on time and under budget, and Tierney said the project came out better than he’d hoped.

Amy Kitchens was not so lucky on her first attempt. The university instructional designer sunk thousands of dollars into a home improvement project that went far over its initial time-frame thanks to an unreliable GC.

“That first experience was a nightmare,” Kitchens said. “Every day I was texting, calling, and emailing, trying to get updates from this guy, and it was just impossible to communicate with him. Deadlines meant nothing.”

Kitchens caught a break with her second general contractor, who finished the project quickly and helped mitigate some of the costs accrued by her first GC.

ESTATENVY spoke with Tierney and Kitchens to learn about what makes for a great general contractor. Here’s what they had to say.

What kind of work did your GC do for you?

Tierney: He helped us transform an old crepe restaurant into a home base Stock Mfg., our menswear brand. It was not an easy project. The space had to serve as a retail store as well as an office and event space, so versatility was essential. He helped us create a space that has a bar with two taps, a pool table, a lounge area where we can host meetings with our B2B clients, and an office with a kitchen in the back.

Kitchens: My house had a really decrepit old basement that I needed to be renovated. It’s a nice big space, but it was waterlogged and dark and unpleasant, so I needed to change that into a livable space. There was a lot of old plumbing and electrical down there, so it got tricky fast.

What did you love about your general contractor?

Tierney: Our general contractor was great at listening and problem-solving. We had a tight budget for the buildout and pretty specific ideas for what we wanted the finished space to look like. Once we relayed our vision to him, he gave us tiered pricing options based on various finishes and materials. We also had an idea for a custom shelf solution with racks underneath to elevate our merchandising in a cost- and space-effective way, and he helped us bring that idea to life.

Kitchens: Communication. Without a doubt, communication. I don’t know the first thing about construction, so I’ve got these guys working on my house, and I have no idea what they are doing. That’s not a great feeling. My second general contractor kept me up to date on every project and let me know exactly what was going on every day. Some people may not want all those updates, but I told my contractor that I needed to know what was going on, and he went out of his way to do that.

Would you do anything differently if you had to look for a general contractor again?

Tierney: I wouldn’t change anything about the experience, and I would definitely hire the same GC. Our space came out better than we hoped and under budget.

Kitchens: Now I know to do the research. You can’t just go on their website or the quotes they give you. My first contractor gave me much lower estimates than the other’s I’d talked to. That doesn’t mean very much if the final cost ends up way higher. For my second contractor, I went to some review sites and saw what clients had to say, and I ended up finding a contractor who gave me a slightly higher quote but ultimately came in under budget.

What advice would you give to someone looking to hire a general contractor?

Tierney: Transparency is key. You need to have a two-way relationship with your contractor, and they need to be someone you can trust. As with any working relationship, if there are warning signs of issues early on, you can bet those issues will pop up later on.

Also, an open mind is crucial. You don’t want a contractor who is looking to recreate prior work. You want someone who will listen to your needs and apply some creativity to bring your plan to life.

Kitchens: Definitely check the reviews. Look for people who have hired the contractor for a project similar to yours, and see what they have to say. General contractors can make all sorts of promises, but if you’ve never worked with them, you don’t know what those promises are worth, so find someone who has worked with them.