Selecting a Car Wash Builder - Seven Tips to Ensure Your Next Project is Successful
By Anthony Analetto
Selecting the right car wash builder can provide you with a functional, cost effective, and physically attractive building in which to grow your business. However, selecting the wrong builder can provide you with hours of hilarious (or maybe depressing, depending on your disposition) stories to entertain colleagues with — usually at a bar at a car wash convention. I have one friend that can put you in stitches as he relates his experiences with inspecting the conveyor pit at his second wash. Dug 8-feet wide and 12-feet deep, it was two times wider and three times deeper than the drawing indicated. You’ll be in tears as he acts out how he redrew it with spray paint on the ground, and used a penknife to cut up a box to show a crew of workers how a self-cleaning trench works. Truthfully, stories like these are only funny when told several years after the initial pain has worn away. Otherwise, how could a story about a contractor making an 8-inch mistake on a conveyor trench wall form — caught after 16,000 yards of mixed concrete were already in transit — seem funny? That episode cost the storyteller $12,000 and delayed the project a week — but you’d swear by the story that he took it all in stride.
Not to be taken lightly, hiring a car wash builder involves arranging a team that consists of contractors, architects, and engineers. You have several options, and I’ll explain the pros and cons of each below. Your job is to select the format and the players that will help you coordinate everyone’s effort to function as a single, finely tuned machine. Mastering this process isn’t just for building new sites: just ask another one of my friends what happened when he hired a contractor to repair a pitted passenger-side conveyor floor at one of his locations. I expect he’ll at least give you a smirk as he tells you how he had to order custom plastic blocks to raise the driver’s side of all the equipment because the contractor poured a 2-inch slab of concrete down one half of the tunnel. My point is that mistakes can happen to any of us — no matter how long we’ve been in the industry. In order to prevent (or at least reduce the frequency) of these mistakes, be sure to follow the seven tips below.
1. Require Car Wash Experience
Under no circumstance should you select a general contractor, architect, civil engineer, or tradesperson who does not have experience building car washes. Don’t just require references — be sure to follow up on every reference provided. Physically inspect at least one car wash project they worked on (even if you have to jump on a plane to do it).
2. Plan for “Known Unknowns”
Your general contractor may not be concerned with the experience of each tradesperson assigned to your project, so ensure that your contract gives you the right to review the qualifications of each worker. You may have to accept some workers that don’t have car wash experience, but reviewing staff qualifications in advance will allow you to schedule time for project oversight when necessary.
3. Clearly Define Responsibilities
Never assume anything — even that a contractor has the tools to do the job. Renting construction equipment for a particular job is common, so make sure the contract specifies whether equipment will be rented. Next, make sure you get lien releases on any materials that contractors will be purchasing or renting. Otherwise, if a contractor fails to pay their bills, the supplier might attempt to place a lien on your property. A lawyer can help you avoid having to choose between a massive payout and a construction delay. In the same vein, try to negotiate a contract that withholds the final 10 percent payment until at least 30 days after work is complete so you have the funds to pay if a lien comes up after you open.
4. Decide on a Building Method
Block and stick may still be the most popular construction method, but it’s worth taking a look at pre-fabricated buildings. With beautiful, modern appearances, functional and easy-to-maintain designs, and reduced construction time, what’s not to love? Let me start by explaining that my first story above happened to an industry veteran the first time he attempted to build a property with a pre-fab building. His mistake was thinking that it would simplify construction so much that he could leverage his extensive experience to act as his own GC. Think again: pre-fab buildings have their benefits, but require more planning — not less. Whereas a block and stick building can be caught up in days when construction schedules get modified, pre-fab buildings must be ordered many months in advance with a defined ship date. Also, you still have to build the conveyor trench and do all the groundwork. On the other hand, with careful planning, you can build quicker on a building that can be depreciated — just make sure the documented life expectancy exceeds the length of your loan which will be a requirement for financing.
5. Pick the Right General Contractor
You’ll either hire an architect and a general contractor separately, or select a design-build firm as a one-stop solution that directly employs architectural services. I’m a big fan of the design-build option. There is typically a more transparent cost at each step of the project. Also, having a single point-of-contact makes it more likely to stay on schedule and within budget. Although the simplicity of design-build is attractive, never sacrifice your requirements to go with this option. In other words, always pick a general contractor and architect with car wash experience over a design-build firm that does not.
6. Hire the Right Engineers at the Right Time
A civil engineer will determine if your site plan complies with all setback, driveway, retention, and other requirements. Every project will have a civil engineer, but different municipalities will require special engineering assessments based on specific permitting requirements. Find out who they are up front and contract their services before you start any site planning, not after. For example, it’s common to have to contract a geotechnical engineer in some regions to test bore the soil and ensure that your site can support a car wash. If you find a problem before you submit for permits, you can easily adjust your site plan; if you delay, you risk being confronted with costly solutions to rectify an unstable soil problem where you were planning to put your building.
7. Double-Check Everyone and Everything
Seeing a decal on the side of a truck saying they are licensed, bonded, and insured is not proof that they are. Make the necessary phone calls to check the status of each. You don’t want to discover that a contractor’s insurance or licensing has expired after they topple a light pole and total a nearby car (true story).
Finding a reputable GC with car wash experience can be a difficult process, but don’t cut corners. Speak to each reference they provide before soliciting a bid. Visit their office to inspect the equipment they say they own before you sign a contract. There’s lots of construction going on right now, and good GCs are in high demand. You may find that you have to wait a couple of months for a reputable one with the right experience. More often than not, it’s worth the wait. Rushing by selecting the wrong GC can lead to mistakes that delay your project even longer — or worse, leave you with a few stories of your own.
Good luck and good washing.
Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.