The current sub-prime mortgage situation has dealt a serious blow to small and large homebuilders alike. Like all downturns, this too shall pass, but experts predict it may take quite a while for this housing market to stabilize. However, all is not lost: Commercial construction continues to thrive, and you can move your organization right into it.

Corporate Requirements

Start by writing a business plan. Think of this as a skull session. Aside from its use in acquiring bank loans, a business plan forces you to think about what you want to do with your business, what the requirements are and how you will meet those requirements. You very likely have a positive outlook, or you wouldn’t be in construction, but you must be honest with yourself about your potential and your abilities and be willing to make changes if the business plan reveals weaknesses. Writing a useful business plan requires a bit of work but help is available on the Internet at little or no cost. (Editor’s note: Check out Roadmap for Success: How to Write a Business Plan from CBO’s January 2007 issue and on www.constructionbusinessowner.com.)

Meet with a reputable business lawyer who can help you decide on your business structure, most likely an “S” corporation or a “C” corporation. Operating instead as a sole proprietorship or partnership is risky because everything you own personally is at risk, and in a partnership, each partner may be liable for the total debts and obligations of the company. Your business lawyer will instruct you on how to maintain separation of your personal and business assets—this is important because failure to keep them separate may make your personal assets available to creditors regardless of the protection the corporation would otherwise provide. Although I don’t recommend it, you can set up your own corporation and save a few hundred dollars, but you’ll still need to learn how to safely maintain your corporate structure. While no contractor plans to go broke, good business practice requires that you prepare for every contingency in setting up your company.  

If you set up a new corporate entity, you’ll need to establish banking relationships, including a line of credit, if possible, for intermittent use in managing your cash flow, and set up vendor accounts at places like Home Depot, Lowe’s and others as needed—all in the name of your new corporation. Paying bills when due should be a top priority to maintain and grow your credit lines.

Because construction insurance is unique, you should seek out a reputable insurance agent who specializes in construction. He will be able to explain the risks you face, the contractual requirements for a given project and the types of coverage available to meet them. It is practically impossible for anyone other than an insurance agent or attorney whose specialty is construction insurance to keep current in the field because of continually changing interpretations of policies by the courts.  

It is not economically practical to cover every risk with insurance, but at least you know where uninsured exposures lie and then can consider ways to mitigate them. You should be certain that the risk inherent in any given construction project is fairly allocated between you and the project owner by way of terms and conditions written into the construction agreement. Your insurance agent and construction attorney are key players in sorting this out.

Accounting and Costing

The certified public accountant (CPA) you consider should have construction accounting experience and provide references. In speaking with the references, you should be able to determine not only his competence, but also how accessible the accountant will be to you. If reaching him requires your having to go through layers of assistants or wait interminably for returned phone calls, try a different CPA.

The accountant you ultimately choose will meet with you and your in-house bookkeeper to help you understand the elements of a good bookkeeping system, including recommendations for construction accounting software and assistance in setting it up. Your CPA will also help you understand the reports required by various government agencies and the records you must maintain for filing taxes and preparing your financial statements.  

Your CPA can help you create a chart of accounts, establish billing and payment policies and procedures, and set up filing and retrieval systems. Once your startup systems are in place, you or your bookkeeper should consult with your CPA a few times per year.

Before you cut the first payroll check, you should know how, when and where to remit your employees' payroll withholdings to the federal and state governments. Remit these payments on time to avoid penalties, interest and unwanted letters and visits from the IRS.  

You should sign all checks yourself. In many years as a general contractor, I relinquished this responsibility only briefly. Not only does your review and approval of checks let you know where your money is going, but it also gives you a sense of the subcontractors and vendors who are working with you and the activity on your jobs. Rarely did I go through a stack of payroll and vendor checks that I didn’t have a question on one or two that I wanted answered before I signed, even though the checks had been through the normal approval process before coming to me. If your direct involvement in this procedure does nothing else, it will result in everyone in the approval chain being a little more diligent in this crucial area.

Whether you pay bills with paper checks or electronically, your bank will provide means for you to confirm that your money has gone where you intended. It is good practice to have a duplicate paper bank statement sent to you at your home, and you also can observe daily account activity online. Small business firms can easily lessen the possibility of financial loss due to oversight or even dishonesty by implementing these and other simple common-sense measures.  

Small contractors may take advantage of the