Vetting Your Professionals Hiring the Best People for the Job

Vetting Your Professionals

There is always work to be done on a building, whether it’s a simple lobby repair or a major capital improvement, but finding the right contractor for the job takes some work. If the vetting process is not done properly, the results could be disastrous. 

Consider the following hypothetical scenario: wanting to move quickly on a capital improvement project, the board of a fictional building hastily approves a contractor without bothering to do any reference or background checks. Maybe the contractor was mentioned by a friend of a friend, or just appeared toward the top of a cursory Google search. After the project is already underway, the property manager digs around for information and discovers that the contractor’s license is expired. And although there were rave reviews posted on the contractor's website regarding the quality of his previous work for other clients, nobody at this building reached out to those clients to verify that the reviews attributed to them were true. When the property manager visits the contractor’s previous work sites, it's clear that the contractor isn't qualified to do what he's been hired to do for the manager's building.

Make Sure Contractors are Insured

And the surprises aren't over. The manager also finds out that the contractor doesn't have the proper insurance coverage—which leaves the building open to massive liability if something should go wrong in the course of the project. It’s looking at those small details that could be the difference between hiring a qualified contractor who can complete a job properly and has the right documentation, and hiring an inept, unqualified contractor that could cause significant trouble for the building. 

“It's so important when hiring a contractor for an HOA or condo for the board to make sure those contracts are reviewed by an attorney to ensure that they understand specifically what the contractor is offering to do,” says Shelley Murray, an associate attorney with the law firm of Kaye Bender Rembaum in Pompano Beach. “It should lay out what services the contractor is offering to perform and the basic terms of the agreement with regard to pricing, renewals on the contract, and the termination rights with the contract. Whether it's a landscaping company, a laundry service, cable providers, or general contractors, these items will vary based on industry standards. So the association needs to make sure they're not putting themselves at risk for automatic renewals or signing contracts that are not terminable without risking liability for both damages and attorney's fees to the other party.”

Properly Vet Your Contractors

When reviewing potential contractors, having a property manager involved in the vetting process can help reduce headaches for the board. Christine Evans, regional vice president for Associa Florida, explains, “Individual board members can come under attack, being accused of picking a favorite vendor. Also, they might not have the experience or knowledge needed to understand which contractors are really the best for the job. A contractor may have done a great job replacing a roof on a single-family home, but there are other factors that need to be considered when you're working in a multifamily building with common areas and shared spaces, or when a whole neighborhood is getting their roofs replaced.” 

When it comes to selecting a contractor to do work for an HOA or condo, communication is at the top of Evans' priorities. “That's definitely where some contractors fall short,” explains Evans. “They don't know how to communicate well with all of the different people who are involved. They're used to only having to make one phone call to a single homeowner if they get rained out. When you're in a situation where you've got a lot of people who are involved and affected by any changes to your schedule, the communication piece is so important. Certainly workmanship is of the utmost importance, but contractors can quickly get a bad name and a bad reputation just because of their communication.”

Ask the Right Questions

The property manager provides a single point of contact for the contractors, which helps stop the spread of misinformation or confusion. “Usually vendors who work with associations know that they should limit their personal conversations with individual owners because things get misinterpreted, and owners start talking to other owners, and pretty soon the message is nowhere near the same as when it started out,” explains Evans.

The first thing a property manager should do when starting work on a project is ask a lot of questions of the board to find out what exactly their expectations are for the work that needs to be done, so that they can determine if they are capable of putting together a specification that lays out the details and scope of the project. “There are a lot of standard specifications out there for things like landscaping,” explains Evans, “but even for a simple specification, the property manager should be getting into a conversation with the board about what they're looking for with a new vendor. Why are they not happy with the current vendor? Is it the method of trimming? The frequency? We need to figure that out and put it in the specification, otherwise the specs given to the contractor aren't going to match what the association is actually looking to have done.” For bigger jobs like roof replacements in a multifamily building, an engineer should be involved in drafting the specs, and reviewing the work when it's done. “Most managers aren't qualified to get on top of a building and determine if all of the underlayments were done properly with the appropriate materials,” explains Evans. “Spending the extra money for an engineer in those situations pays off in the long run.” 

Once the property manager gets the boards approval on the specs, the next step is to send those specs out to vendors for bids. “In my experience, you have to send the specs to six vendors if you want three bids,” explains Evans. “Usually there will be several bids that come in that didn't follow the spec, or the bottom line price is so variable.” Evans recommends including a spreadsheet with the bid request that's sent to vendors and asking the vendors to fill out the fields relating to the specs: how many times throughout the year they're going to mow, how many times they're going to edge, how many times they'll trim shrubbery. “That way, at a glance you can see if they've left something out,” explains Evans. “And some contractors may feel like the spreadsheet is too much work and will just want to send you their standard bid. That's fine because it's a sign that they're probably not going to be the best for the job. If they can't comply with this request at the beginning, they probably aren't going to meet your expectations at the end.”

Proof of Insurance

Proof of insurance and licenses should be covered in the specs sent out to vendors. “There's no sense in considering a bid from an uninsured vendor if you're professionally managed,” explains Evans. “Most management companies are not going to allow for contractors who are not insured.” 

Hiring a contractor who does not have the proper paperwork, especially insurance, could cause tremendous financial hardship to the building. For example, Evans recalls a situation in which a small roofing company was not vetted properly before it was hired. “The owner said he had insurance, but he was actually planning on purchasing insurance once he got started on the job,” recalls Evans. “Work began before the insurance was in place, and one of his workers fell off the roof and injured himself fairly badly. It resulted in lawsuits that are still going on today. It's just not worth it.” 

To avoid these situations, make sure that the contractor shows proof of their insurance coverage. The declaration page of the contractor’s insurance policy will explain what type of coverages the contractor has, including such information as the name of the insured or insured party; the location of the property insured; the value and replacement value of property insured; the inception and expiration date of the policy period; amounts and limits of insurance coverage; deductibles; and the premium amount.

Also, the association should be listed on the insurance as an additional insured or interested party. “This is a very important step,” remarks Evans. “If the association is listed as an additional insured on the policy, and the contractor falls behind on their insurance payments or their policy is canceled, the association will be notified.” 

Remember, too, that the general contractor may come with a team of subcontractors and the subcontractor should also produce all of their required coverage. It is the responsibility of the general contractor to make sure that any sub hired is properly licensed and insured. “This is something specifically you want a legal review for,” explains Murray, “because every single one of these contracts is drafted differently, and the way that the statutes interpret the law in the absence of a contract that deals with situations that could arise between a subcontractor and a general contractor. The association can find itself in some pretty serious situations with regard to liability to the subcontractor if those issues aren't hashed out in the contract with the general contractor.” 

Finally, Evans recommends that the board and the management meet with their top three bids for an in-person interview before finalizing their decision. “It's easy for contractors to say yes to things on paper, or to say that they can do x, y, and z over the phone, but it's much harder for them to take your questions or concerns lightly when they're sitting face-to-face,” remarks Evans. “You can tell a lot about someone's professionalism when they're sitting right in front of you. You can ask them follow up questions on safety measures, for example, and that's when you can tell if they just marked 'yes' on a spreadsheet to get the job, or if they actually implement OSHA training and other safety measures.” 

You’re Fired! 

Luckily if management has done the vetting process and thoroughly checked a potential contractor’s documentation, references, and examples of their work, the odds of a problem occurring will be much lower. But say insurance does lapse after a vendor has been contracted, and work needs to be stopped?

If it is found at a later point in time that there is an issue with either insurance or licensing, the management and board’s first line of defense would be to halt the process on the job until these items are produced and verified. It’s not worth the risk involved to continue. “A phone call to the contractor should be made immediately,” explains Evans, “followed by a certified letter which says that 'Per the conversation that we had on the phone today, none of your staff is to be on the property. Work is to be halted. You'll need to remove all of your equipment, and so on.' And you should always inform your attorney.”  

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. Staff writer Jenn Welch contributed to this article.

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  • Hello, Thank you so much for this valuable information. Very informative. I'm employed with a great company here in the Panama City, Beach area. We are seeking the best possible vetted maintenance vendors for our facility. I'd would like to know if there is any way you could email me a listing of known vetted vendors for a lead/starting point to consider. I take pride in your judgement. Please email me at my listed email. Again, thank you so very much!