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Whether youíre planning an addition for a growing family or simply getting new storm windows, finding a competent and reliable contractor is the first step to a successful and satisfying home improvement project.

Your home may be your most valuable financial asset. Thatís why itís important to be cautious when you hire someone to work on it. Home improvement and repair and maintenance contractors often advertise in newspapers, the Yellow Pages, and on the radio and TV. However, donít consider an ad an indication of the quality of a contractorís work. Your best bet is a reality check from those in the know: friends, neighbors, or co-workers who have had improvement work done. Get written estimates from several firms. Ask for explanations for price variations. Donít automatically choose the lowest bidder.

Donít Get Nailed

Not all contractors operate within the law. Here are some tip-offs to potential rip-offs. A less than reputable contractor:

  • offers you discounts for finding other customers;
  • just happens to have materials left over from a previous job;
  • only accepts cash payments;
  • does not list a business number in the local telephone directory;
  • tells you your job will be a "demonstration;"
  • pressures you for an immediate decision;
  • offers exceptionally long guarantees;
  • asks you to pay for the entire job up-front;
  • suggests that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows. If youíre not careful, you could lose your home through a home improvement loan scam.

Hiring a Contractor

Interview each contractor youíre considering. Here are some questions to ask.

  • How long have you been in business? Look for a well-established company and check it out with consumer protection officials. They can tell you if there are unresolved consumer complaints on file.
     
  • Are you licensed and registered with the state? While most states license electrical and plumbing contractors, only 36 states have some type of licensing and registration statutes affecting contractors, remodelers, and/or specialty contractors. The licensing can range from simple registration to a detailed qualification process. Also, the licensing requirements in one locality may be different from the requirements in the rest of the state. Check with your local building department or consumer protection agency to find out about licensing requirements in your area. If your state has licensing laws, ask to see the contractorís license. Make sure itís current.
     
  • How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year? Ask for a list. This will help you determine how familiar the contractor is with your type of project.
     
  • May I have a list of references? The contractor should be able to give you the names, addresses, and phone numbers of at least three clients who have projects similar to yours. Ask each how long ago the project was completed and if you can see it. Also, tell the contractor that youíd like to visit jobs in progress.
     
  • Will you be using subcontractors on this project? If yes, ask to meet them, and make sure they have current insurance coverage and licenses, if required. Also ask them if they were paid on time by this contractor. A "mechanicís lien" could be placed on your home if your contractor fails to pay the subcontractors and suppliers on your project. That means the subcontractors and suppliers could go to court to force you to sell your home to satisfy their unpaid bills from your project. Protect yourself by asking the contractor, and every subcontractor and supplier, for a lien release or lien waiver.
     
  • What types of insurance do you carry? Contractors should have general liability coverage. Ask for copies of insurance certificates, and make sure theyíre current. Avoid doing business with contractors who donít carry the appropriate insurance. Otherwise, youíll be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project.

Checking References

Talk with some of the remodelerís former customers. They can help you decide if a particular contractor is right for you. You may want to ask:

  • Can I visit your home to see the completed job?
     
  • Were you satisfied with the project? Was it completed on time?
     
  • Did the contractor keep you informed about the status of the project, and any problems along the way?
     
  • Were there unexpected costs? If so, what were they?
     
  • Did workers show up on time? Did they clean up after finishing the job?
     
  • Would you recommend the contractor?
     
  • Would you use the contractor again?

Understanding Your Payment Options

You have several payment options for most home improvement and maintenance and repair projects. For example, you can get your own loan or ask the contractor to arrange financing for larger projects. For smaller projects, you may want to pay by check or credit card. Avoid paying cash. Whatever option you choose, be sure you have a reasonable payment schedule and a fair interest rate. Here are some additional tips:

  • Try to limit your down payment. Some state laws limit the amount of money a contractor can request as a down payment. Contact your state or local consumer agency to find out what the law is in your area.
     
  • Try to make payments during the project contingent upon completion of a defined amount of work. This way, if the work is not proceeding according to schedule, the payments also are delayed.
     
  • Donít make the final payment or sign an affidavit of final release until you are satisfied with the work and know that the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. Lien laws in your state may allow subcontractors and/or suppliers to file a mechanicís lien against your home to satisfy their unpaid bills. Contact your local consumer agency for an explanation of lien laws where you live.
     
  • Some state or local laws limit the amount by which the final bill can exceed the estimate, unless you have approved the increase. Check with your local consumer agency.
     

You can protect yourself from inappropriate lending practices. Hereís how.

Donít:

  • Agree to a home equity loan if you donít have enough money to make the monthly payments.
     
  • Sign any document you havenít read or any document that has blank spaces to be filled in after you sign.
     
  • Let anyone pressure you into signing any document.
     
  • Deed your property to anyone. First consult an attorney, a knowledgeable family member, or someone else you trust.
     
  • Agree to financing through your contractor without shopping around and comparing loan terms.

Getting a Written Contract

Contract requirements vary by state. Even if your state does not require a written agreement, ask for one. A contract spells out the who, what, where, when and cost of your project. The agreement should be clear, concise and complete. Before you sign a contract, make sure it contains:

  • The contractorís name, address, phone, and license number, if required.
     
  • The payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors and suppliers.
     
  • An estimated start and completion date.
     
  • How change orders will be handled. A change order ó common on most remodeling jobs ó is a written authorization to the contractor to make a change or addition to the work described in the original contract. It could affect the projectís cost and schedule. Remodelers often require payment for change orders before work begins.
     
  • A detailed list of all materials including color, model, size, brand name, and product.
     
  • Warranties covering materials and workmanship. The names and addresses of the parties honoring the warranties ó contractor, distributor or manufacturer ó must be identified. The length of the warranty period and any limitations also should be spelled out.
     
  • What the contractor will and will not do. For example, is site clean-up and trash hauling included in the price?
     
  • Oral promises also should be added to the written contract.
     
  • A written statement of your right to cancel the contract within three business days if you signed it in your home or at a location other than the sellerís permanent place of business.

Keeping Records

Keep all paperwork related to your project in one place. This includes copies of the contract, change orders and correspondence with your home improvement professionals. Keep a log or journal of all phone calls, conversations and activities. You also might want to take photographs as the job progresses. These records are especially important if you have problems with your project ó during or after construction.

Completing the Job: A Checklist

Before you sign off and make the final payment, use this checklist to make sure the job is complete. Check that:

  • All work meets the standards spelled out in the contract.
     
  • You have written warranties for materials and workmanship.
     
  • You have proof that all subcontractors have been paid.
     
  • The job site has been cleaned up and cleared of excess materials, tools and equipment.
     
  • You have inspected and approved the completed work.

Where to Complain

If you have a problem with your home improvement project, first try to resolve it with the contractor. Many disputes can be resolved at this level. Follow any phone conversations with a letter you send by certified mail. Request a return receipt. Thatís your proof that the company received your letter. Keep a copy for your files.

If you canít get satisfaction, consider contacting the following organizations for further information and help:

  • State and local consumer protection offices.
     
  • Your state or local Builders Association and/or Remodelors Council.
     
  • Your local Better Business Bureau.
     
  • Action line and consumer reporters. Check with your local newspaper, TV, and radio stations for contacts.
     
  • Local dispute resolution programs.

For More Information

ē Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov

ē National Association of Home Builders Remodelorsô Council: www.nahb.com


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Last modified: 3MAR2007
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