Selecting a Building Contractor in Belize


Posted August 29 at 1500
Updated August 30 at 1100

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Selecting a Building Contractor in Belize

Vance C. Titus, P.Eng./APEB, P.Arch./APAB

A contractor was selected and the contract signed in September 2007 for the construction of a building in the Corozal Town area. The contractor established the construction schedule and agreed to complete the building by May 2008. The contractor finally declared substantial completion in October 2008 and finished the punch list of items that needed to be completed before building acceptance in November 2008. The selection of the contractor to build your dream home or commercial building or other structure may be one of the most critical decisions a prospective building owner will make in Belize.

My first recommendation: Do not rely solely on the recommendations of friends, family or others living in the area where you will be building to make your contractor selection decision. Do your own research before you hire a contractor. Have a plan for how you are going have independent oversight of the contractor's performance before you sign the construction contract. My second recommendation: Do not make a commitment to build or give a contractor money without first signing a comprehensive construction contract.

The first thing you have to do is identify the contractors with whom you want to talk. This is the step in which you want to talk with anybody and everybody you think might be able to help. The person or realtor or developer from whom you purchased the property on which you wish to build is an excellent starting point. If there are buildings in the vicinity of the property on which you intend to build that appear to be recently completed, talk with the owners asking them who did the building. If your building site is in an area of the country that requires a building permit, ask the permitting authority for a list of contractors working in the area. Talk with the local insurance agents, in their evaluations of properties for insurance coverage they develop a knowledge of the quality of work performed by contractors. Talk with the people in the local hardware and the building supply stores. These people deal with the contractors on a daily basis. Talk with the people at the hotel or guest house where you are staying and talk with the owners and guests at the local restaurants when you go out to eat. You may be surprised and quite pleased with the amount of information you can gain from conversations in seemingly unlikely and casual settings. Finally, you may contact the Association of Professional Architects of Belize (www.architectsofbelize.com; info@architectsofbelize.com) and the Association of Professional Engineers of Belize (www.apebbelize.com; apeb@btl.net or apebbelize@yahoo.com). Each of these associations have members living and working throughout the nation and who have experience working with many different contractors.

Before you take out your newly created list and start talking with prospective contractors, you will need to have a basic idea of what you will be asking the contractor to do. Many prospective building owners want the contractor to do everything: buy the building materials and build the basic building, buy all the electrical and plumbing fixtures and install them, and buy all of the finish materials (tile, paint, cabinets, doors, windows, etc.) and install them. The more frequently employed option in Belize to this “all in” approach is for the owner to select and buy all of the electrical and plumbing fixtures and all of the finish materials and have the contractor install these owner purchased items. Another variation on this approach is for the contractor to construct the building shell, only, including the installation of all electrical conduit and wiring and all plumbing piping to their respective points of use; with the owner purchasing the electrical and plumbing fixtures and all finish materials and completing the work themselves.

Now its time to start talking with contractors. Please remember, during this process the contractor will, most likely, be on his best behavior; and, that his purpose in meeting with you will be to “sell” you on the idea that you should select him. Be thorough in your questioning: how long has he been in business; how many buildings similar to the one you wish to build has the contractor built; does he have experience installing the specific building materials you wish to have used, if such building materials are not the “normal” materials used in Belize; how much other work will he have underway at the time you will want him to start work; does he have his own crews or does he hire off the street for project needs or does he use subcontractors, or all of the above; does he have his own equipment; and, does he provide transportation to the project site for his workers. Most importantly, is the contractor an owner-worker who is on site at all times while work is being done or does he have a site superintendent or foreman empowered to act on his behalf when he is not on site? Without doubt you will come up with many more questions during the course of your contractor interviews.

Ask the contractor to show you buildings that he has under construction and buildings he has built and that are occupied. If, while driving around, the contractor goes by a completed and occupied property and says that he did that building but he does not stop, make a note of where the building is and go back and interview the property owners or occupants. A few of the things you may look for on sites that are currently under construction are: does there seem to be sufficient people on site to do the work that appears to be underway; if concrete or stucco or grout work is underway is the material being mixed by hand or by mechanical mixer; is the site generally free of construction debris and other waste; do the working conditions, in general, and scaffolding and ladders appear safe; are the building materials stored on site properly protected from weather damage and secure from theft; and does the building process appear to be progressing efficiently and in a quality that appears satisfactory? Similar to the list of questions to initially ask the contractor, you will no doubt expand this list of things to look for as you go around looking at each contractor’s in-progress and completed properties. Finally, remember that the contractor will take you to properties that he wants you to see; in his mind those will be the “show case” properties and property owners that will best help him convince you to select that contractor. Before you are done evaluating each contractor, you should try to find other buildings built by or still under construction by the contractor and look at them and talk with those owners, as well.

Ask the contractor for references, but remember, just like references on a personal resume, the contractor will be giving you the names of references that he believes will be giving you positive feedback on his work. Of course, you will want to talk with the references provided. Some of the things you will be interested in are: was the contractor easy to work with; did he do what he said he would do; did he do what you asked him to do; are you happy with the quality of the contractor’s work; did the work get completed in a reasonable amount of time; were you happy with the general cleanliness of the building and site during construction and following completion; is the contractor responsive in correcting construction defects and fixing things installed improperly; and would they recommend the use of this contractor to you? Try to locate the owners of other buildings in-progress or completed by the contractor and ask about their business experience with the contractor.

Finally, when evaluating the contractors you find potentially interesting, look carefully at what kind of contractor they are. In all probability, most of the contractors you will be speaking with will be “general contractors”; that is, they are firms that are in the business of building buildings. Some of the firms with whom you might speak may characterize themselves as “construction managers”. If you are in discussion with a construction manager and that construction manager tells you that he will hire the crews and construct the building you want and all you have to do is to pay him to organize everything, be aware that you are really talking to a general contractor.

By generally accepted industry definition, a construction manager serves as a construction consultant to the owner providing the owner advice during the design, contracting, and construction process. Typical areas of a construction manager’s involvement might include: construction value engineering during building design, project implementation planning, contract administration, construction management or construction oversight monitoring. The real point of this being that the construction manager is employed by the owner and has the primary responsibility to represent the owner’s interests during construction. The construction manager who acts as a prime contractor cannot simultaneously act as the independent, objective representative of the owner.

I cannot over emphasize the initial recommendation of engaging the ultimately selected contractor using a comprehensive construction contract. I know of a lot of homes and commercial buildings that have been built in northern Belize without the benefit of comprehensive construction drawings or a construction contract. In all instances with which I am familiar where building was accomplished without proper construction documents, the ultimate costs of construction turned out to be more, often substantially more, than the contractor’s initial estimate.

The contractor that is building without a clear idea of what is to be built and which has no contractual control over its performance has been issued a “license to steal”. This type of practice is neither unique to Belize nor is this statement intended to be an accusation of dishonesty on the part of Belizean contractors. It is a simple recognition of the reality that if the building owner does not provide the contractor with a clear understanding of what is to be built and if the owner does not require the execution of a contract that gives each party a clear understanding of their respective responsibilities, then it should not come as a surprise to the owner when construction costs escalate.



 

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