They are only interested in signing that contract.
Do your research BEFORE you talk to the first company. The Internet is full of information, but don't believe everything on the Internet. Create a list of criteria that you'll use to select your contractor.
Since the salesman is out to SELL you a pool he is interested in "churning out" a plan or project scheme as fast as possible. The quality of the design and project specifications are going to be reflect in the "FREE" effort they expended! You get what you pay for!
Check the local Better Business Bureau. They will not be able to give you references, but their records may represent a trend. Where there is smoke there is fire.
Check the local court records. Many are available for review on-line. The builder may have been a plaintiff (suing to get paid) or a defendant (sued by an upset customer). Contact the other party, learn what went wrong, why there was a dispute, why it ended up in court, and if the issues were resolved. TAKE THE COMMENTS WITH A GRAIN OF SALT. Remember, you cannot always please everyone. Some consumers are unreasonable. What you are looking for is a PATTERN of upset consumers in their wake.
Check the Contractors Licensing Board - Not every state requires that contractors be licensed. Those that do, usually have records visible on-line. Search other licensed states, as some builders that had licenses revoked in other states merely move to another state. If a contractor has had any complaints or actions against their license - again, it illustrates that they cannot resolve issues before they get out of hand.
Check out on-line reference websites: The Franklin Report, Yelp, Angie's List and others. Again, take what you read with a grain of salt. Remember, you are looking for a pattern of happy or unhappy customers.
Review building permits issued in surrounding communities. Most building departments have searchable on-line databases. Search for the last 4-5 years of permits. Contact these owners. Most will be happy to provide a candid review of the contractor.
It is best to obtain a design package (sometimes called a "bid package"). The entire project will be defined with schematics of the plumbing, high & low voltage electrical and lighting. It will include illustrations of the minute details that are unique to your project. It will also include construction and workmanship specifications.
Utilizing a "bid package" allows all possible contenders to provide a quote based upon the same exact set of criteria. Stand your ground - ensure that they realize that substitutions are NOT ALLOWED. This will ensure that the design does not get altered and that the performance is not degraded. It also ensures that you are comparing APPLES TO APPLES !
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR!
IF SOMETHING IS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE - IT IS!
It is impossible for anyone to validate any assumptions that they make over wires. They must visit your site, sit down with you, understand your budget and needs. They have to get to know YOU!
There is no better time than RIGHT NOW to build a pool. Why? Because next year those items are going to cost even more!
The best pool designers and contractors are still busy, even in a down economy. They are not going to "work for wages." It ends up becoming a losing proposition in the long run, and the smart ones know that. And you don't want to hire the dumb ones that will work for wages. They just won't have the resources to perform system tweaks later on or perform warranty repairs.
Ensure that a dispute resolution process is included. Know what your obligations are: paying invoices within XX days of receipt; providing a soils/geotechnical report; marking property lines, boundaries and easements; obtaining planning department or HOA approval; providing trash disposal, dumpsters, electricity or toilet facilities; repairing fences, sprinklers, sidewalks and driveways, upgrading the electrical or gas meter... the list goes on and on.
Most select plumbing sized based upon a guess and not sound hydraulic design calculations. When properly sized, the response from most potential bidders is "the pipes are way too big," "who specified these huge pipes?," "way overkill." In reality the plumbing should be specified based upon the science of hydraulics (physics), which these contractors and salesmen apparently do not understand. When you hear these responses, you should have one reaction... cross them off of your list.
Do they require a soils report?
Where do they obtain their structural engineering?
Does the structural engineer actually review YOUR project plans, site/topographical map AND the soils report, prior to defining the strength of the pool shell and placement of the steel?
Will the engineer sign on the plans that they have reviewed those documents?
This is very important because:
a) it ensures the consumer that the contractor forwarded those documents for review
b) you'll know that the document were actually read by the engineer
c) many contractors just buy random structural engineering on-line or mail-order (based on their best guess)
d) you are guaranteed that your pool is going to be built to withstand the forces from your soil and your site conditions.
The plans should also include any infrastructure required for future projects. Getting water, gas, sewer & electrical routed under the hardscapes & plantings now, will be less expensive than tearing it all up to install them at a later time when that outdoor kitchen, shower, cabana, guesthouse, garage or barn is built. Maybe incorporating future connections for alternative energies may be something of interest.
The safety components of the project, from fencing & gates, door alarms, pool covers or an integrated anti-drowning alarm system should be a part of the plans and contract. You don't want to miss the final inspection because those items were left off for you to handle.
1) Hire a well respected designer or consultant to design your dream backyard, before you start construction.
2) Hire the best contractor that you can afford.
3) And if you are not hiring the BEST AVAILABLE, then come to the realization NOW that everything will not be PERFECT. Nor should you expect or demand perfection from those lesser contractors.
Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™
Aquatic Technology Pool and Spa