May 29, 2012
Guest Post: How Do Surety Bond Costs Affect Small Contracting Firms?
Here is the first guest post by guest blogger Danielle Rodabaugh
It's no secret that the economy plays a huge role when it comes to competition in the construction industry. When the economy is down, competition goes up, and small contracting firms typically have trouble competing with larger ones. When construction professionals are unprepared to pay for the surety bonds required for large projects, the opportunity for small firms to gain access to business becomes even more limited.
Before I go much further, I'd like to review the use of surety bonds in the construction industry, as the surety market remains relatively mysterious to those who work outside of it. As explained in more detail here, the financial guarantees provided by contractor bonding keep project owners from losing their investments.
Each surety bond that's issued functions as a legally binding contract among three entities. The obligee is the project owner that requires the bond as a way to ensure project completion. When it comes to contract surety, the obligee is typically a government agency that's funding a project. The principal is the contractor or contracting firm that purchases the bond as a way to guarantee future work performance on a project. The surety is the insurance company that underwrites the bond with a financial guarantee that the principal will do the job appropriately.
Government agencies require construction professionals to purchase surety bonds for a number of reasons that vary depending on the nature of a project. For example, bid bonds keep contractors from increasing their project bids after being awarded a contract. Payment bonds ensure that contractors pay for all subcontractors and materials used on a project. Performance bonds ensure that contractors complete projects according to contract. When contractors break these terms, project owners can make claims on the bonds to gain reparation.
The federally enforced Miller Act requires contractors in every state to file payment and performance bonds on any publicly funded project that costs $100,000 or more. However, state, county, city and even subdivisions might require contractors to provide additional contract bonds, such as license bonds or bid bonds, before they can be approved to work on certain projects. Or, sometimes local regulations require payment and performance bonds on publicly funded projects that cost much less than $100,000. Contractors should always verify that they're in compliance with all local bonding regulations before they begin planning their work on a project.
Although the purpose of contractor bonding is to limit the amount of financial loss project owners might have to incur on projects-gone-wrong, the associated costs can limit the projects that smaller contracting firms have access to.
Surety bonds do not function as do traditional insurance policies. When insurance companies underwrite surety bond contracts, they do so under the assumption that claims will never be made against the bonds. As such, underwriters closely scrutinize every principal before agreeing to issue a contract bond.
Furthermore, the premiums construction professionals have to pay to get bonded might come as a surprise to those who know little about contractor bonding. Contractors often get tripped up with how much surety bonds will cost and how they'll pay for them — especially when it comes to independent contractors who operate small firms. Surety bond premiums are calculated as a percentage of the bond amount. The higher the required bond amount, the higher the premium. Thus, purchasing bonds for large projects obviously costs contractors more than purchasing bonds for small projects.
The percentage rate used to calculate the premium depends on a number of factors, including the contractor's credit score, years of professional experience and record of past work performance. The stronger these variables are, the lower the surety bond rate. The weaker these variables are, the higher the surety bond rate.
As such, small firms often find it hard to compete for large projects because they struggle to either qualify for the required bonds or pay the hefty premiums. When contractors are unable to secure contractor bonding as required by law, they are not permitted to work on projects. This, consequently, typically limits large public projects to large contracting firms that can both qualify for and afford to purchase large bonds. Fortunately, when small contracting firms fail to qualify for the commercial bonding market, the Small Business Administration does offer a special bonding program to help them secure the necessary bonding.
Smaller contractors can improve their situation by reading up on the surety bond regulations that are applicable to their area. Those who understand the surety process and how various factors affect their bond premiums should find themselves better prepared to apply for the bonds they need.
[Posted by JT on behalf of Danielle Rodabaugh]
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