When buying or leasing commercial real estate in most cases you will end up having to build, renovate, construct, or do some sort of tenant improvements whether you want to occupy office, retail, or warehouse space. Choosing the right contractor however can be a difficult process especially if you have not been through the process before.
Picking the wrong contractor can lead to your tenant improvement project being way over budget and not on time which can create a lot of stress especially if you have a hard deadline or existing lease expiration date. Going through a commercial real estate renovation is not ideal or fun however choosing the right commercial contractor can make the different between a successful move in and a stressful one. Below are a few tips on how to select the right contractor that will keep your project on time and within your budget.
Know What Your Needs Are First
Have some plans and ideas. Contractors can't guess your needs and while verbally telling them what you want is possible on a small job in most cases you want to have things in writing. If the scope is really small (e.g. just building a couple of walls or having new flooring installed) then you really won't need plans but do have what you want done in writing. If the scope is larger you need to hire an architect or space planner to draw up an office layout that meets your current and future needs. Once you have a good plan that you are at least 90% sure will work then you are ready to get preliminary bids.
Find Out Commercial Contractor Recommendations
There are a few ways to go about choosing the best contractor. If using a commercial real estate company Austin you can start with them. They have been through the process a ton and can share a complete list. You can also ask the landlord for a few references on who they have used for tenant finish outs. Ask neighboring tenants who they used and how their experience was. As you do your research you will find that there will be a handful of commercial contractors that do most of the tenant build out work in your city.
Ask Contractors Lot's of Questions Before Asking For Construction Bids
Before asking for contractor bids you want to interview at least 5-6 contractors and ask them a lot of questions about their experience.
- Find out how busy they are right now and if they have the bandwidth to do your job.
- How they communicate during construction regarding timelines, challenges, issues, etc
- What do they do to keep costs down and within budget?
- What do they specialize in?
- Get references for other projects they have done
- Do they have employees or do they subcontract everything out?
- What work will be completed by subs vs employees?
- What vendors do they use (e.g. architects, electricians, plumbers, etc..)?
Obtain at Least 3 Preliminary Construction Bids
Now you are ready to request preliminary commercial construction bids. You may have not signed a lease yet or closed on a property however BEFORE you do it's important that you get at least 3 preliminary written bids first. The landlord may be giving you $50,000 in a tenant improvement allowance however how do you know if the total construction costs will be above or below that? In most cases it ends up being above and if so it might make this property too expensive for you. You don't want to be surprised later on by finding out you have to come out of pocket by $100,000.
You need to set your expectations and having an idea of what the costs will be is VERY important. Even if you are 90% sure you are going with XYZ company getting a few other prelim bids will educate you on typical costs and you will be able to keep your contractor honest. Make sure the bids include a line item for every aspect of the build-out. For example total plumbing, electrical, flooring, walls, mechanical costs, etc.
Compare Each Commercial Bid
Make sure to compare each bid ensuring each one includes the same level of materials, tasks, and scope of work. You want to ENSURE they are apples to apples. If the landlord is charging a construction management fee make sure you know whether it's on the total construction amount (hard and soft costs) or just the hard costs. Also make sure to get estimates on architectural and engineering fees if needed and insert those as line items on the bids.
Value Engineer the Construction Scope of Work If Needed
If the bids came back much higher than you anticipated then discuss with each contractor how you can value engineer. This essentially means reducing the scope where possible to get the costs down. You want to meet in person or jump on a conference call and go through the bids line by line. Do this with each contractor and find out where (if possible) you are able to reduce the costs. You can also negotiate with the contractor to see where they are able to reduce their list price.
Choose the Least Expensive Qualified Commercial Contractor
After comparing all the bids now is the time to choose a contractor. Don't always go for the cheapest, however picking the most expensive doesn't mean you will get the best service. I like to pick the “least expensive qualified contractor”. I also make sure I pick the one that I know has the time and bandwidth to work on my project. If I have a deadline it's important that it gets met. In addition you want the contractor to commit in writing to give you weekly progress updates whether physical onsite meetings and/or conf calls. There needs to be some sort of penalty for not doing this. Communication is key to a successful build out.
Don't Pay Contractors All Up Front
You may be required to pay a small retainer fee or money needed to cover ordering materials but paying the full construction costs in advance is not advisable.
Get Building Permits If Necessary
For small jobs a construction permit may not be required. However if the scope of work is significant the city will require a building permit. In most cases (such as City of Austin) a qualified commercial contractor is required to obtain permits of their work. Be wary of one that asks you to obtain a permit on their behalf. The party that pulls the permits is held responsible for any construction work that does not meet city code. Before the project begins request proof from the contractor that the building permits and trade permits (if required) have been obtained.
Weekly Construction Updates & Timelines
Communication is key for a successful tenant improvement finish out or other construction. Get in writing up front that the contractor will have a predefined day and time to either meet onsite or have a conference call to review construction progress and if the project is still scheduled to be completed on time. The best experiences I have had have been when we have all met in person to discuss project progress, obstacles, etc..
For more info checkout Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information hiring a contractor