What to look for in a contractor

Al Heavens

Alan J. Heavens has been the Philadelphia Inquirer’s most popular columnist writing on real estate and home improvements for more than 15 years. Homestuff, his column on home renovation, is syndicated to nearly 400 papers (including the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, San Diego Tribune, Houston Chronicle, and Toronto Star) in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Austrailia through the Knight Ridder wire service, and reaches millions of readers each week. He is a weekly columnist for the online Realty Times, a long-time board member for the National Association of Real Estate Editors, and a former “Gadgeteer” on the Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

What To Look For When Hiring A Remodeling Contractor

Jay Cipriani is probably the best source for what to look for when you hire a professional to spend months in your house and to whom you will be handing over great quantities of money to pay for that work.

The first question you should ask is how long the contractor has been in business. Try to find one who has been in business for at least 10 years because, according to Jay, “95 percent of all contractors go out of business in 3 to 5 years,” and you need a longer guarantee than that on the work. The selection process should also include checking references to make sure they are specific and legitimate, not simply lip service paid by someone who could be the contractor’s friend or relative. A lot of homeowners will try to get past the bad experiences once the remodeling job is complete, but you need to know if the contractor kept to the schedule, if it started on time and was finished on time, and, if not, why.

Did the contractor stay within budget? Are there any complaints against the contractor that have been lodged with the local better business bureau or the state consumer affairs department? Where does the contractor do banking? From what sources does the contractor obtain materials? Check with the local building inspector for recommendations or, if the official will not offer any suggestions, find out if there are contractors the inspector recommends not working with. They aren’t really supposed to be offering choices, but Jay suggests that if you take them aside and ask them, the building officials usually will be upfront with you. If the contractor has nothing to hide, they will be completely upfront about everything. The contractor who does all these things is the one with whom you’ll feel safe and comfortable.

Jay gives lists of references and urges couples to call everyone on the list. He even drives them to see homes he has recently completed so they can talk with the owners about the work. He also provides a 12-page manual outlining procedures and even the basics of remodeling.

Homeowners should be looking for contractors who will take care of obtaining all the necessary permits. The contractors are used to working with the local building officials and know all the hoops they have to jump through, as Jay puts it. The homeowners can pay for the permit by going directly to the building department and writing the checks, but the contractor is typically more qualified to fill out all the forms and then provide the sealed drawing that most municipalities require for remodeling work.

Whether or not the contractor applies for the work permit, he or she is still required to make sure that it was done and done correctly. If the building official shows up for an inspection, the contractor cannot plead ignorance. Otherwise, the work will be stopped until the permitting process has been completed to the official’s satisfaction. The contract should spell out who is responsible for what, and what should be included in the permit should be detailed in the contract.

One of the biggest choices homeowners have to make concerns materials that are needed for the remodeling job. There are too many choices these days – manufacturer, model number, size, color – and all of that has to be specified in the contract. The contractor generally provides all the materials for the job, and that’s a good idea because he or she will be responsible for making sure that the materials get to the job site on time and that they are exactly what the homeowners wanted. If the item shows up and it is broken, or if is the wrong one, then it should be the contractor’s job to return the item quickly and obtain a replacement to keep the project on schedule. Sometimes the contractor might mark up the price of the item, sometimes not, but the added cost is usually justified by the work the contractor has to do to get the material on-site on time.

The contractor should provide warranty papers to the homeowners on all the materials used in the remodeling project before the agreement is signed and the work begins. The homeowners should know before the product is purchased and installed under what conditions it will be repaired or replaced if something happens to the item over a specified time. That way, if a product has a better warranty than the one the homeowners are requesting, they cannot complain after the fact that such information had not been made available to them to make an informed decision.

Homeowners should be looking for detailed contracts, right down to the size, make, and model of every item or material to be used or installed. Are you getting metal switch place covers or plastic switch-plate covers; hollow-core or solid-core doors; double-pane, low-E windows or historic wood windows with grilles? Sometimes you may have to do that work for the contractor because they usually have better “hand skills”, as Jay puts it, rather than management or typing abilities.

The contract should include the start and completion dates. Some homeowners will include a bonus for a job finished early or on time, or a penalty if it isn’t. To obtain the bonus or avoid the penalty, even a reliable contractor might be tempted to cut corners to make the additional money or not lose any, so it’s not a good idea. There should be a detailed payment schedule included in the contract. Never give a contractor a huge deposit up front; try to work out an agreement that the contractor will be paid when each phase of the work is completed to your satisfaction.

Always leave a balance at the end of the job to cover punch-list items, which are things that the contractor must come back to fix, such as popped nails, in drywall or a door that doesn’t close properly. Don’t give away all of your money before the job is completed to your satisfaction. Make sure the contractor and the contractor’s subs have the proper amount of insurance to protect you from any injuries or damages that occur on the job, including general liability in case someone backs into your car, and that all laborers are covered by workers’ compensation program in case one of them is injured on the job.

All of these items should be in the contract. If you need help writing a contract, or you want to make sure the one you are about to sign is the one that offers you the most protection, hire a lawyer. Make sure that the lawyer is willing to assume responsibility for you if a problem requiring litigation arises during or after the job.

One of the major reasons why contractors and homeowners butt heads are over change orders, which are unexpected additional costs for which a homeowner has to pay. Typically, a change order is written up as a work order that specifies additional costs. Jay recommends that before signing the final contract, homeowners should ask the contractor the following questions: “What unforeseen costs could we run into? Can you let us know about it now so we can put money to cover it in our budget?”

Most contractors don’t make much money on change work orders because most homeowners already are upset that there is an extra cost. When a contractor discovers that there is a change work order, the contractor typically has to halt work, make changes, and then wait for delivery of the new materials. Change orders should be written up on a separate piece of paper in detail – including price – and then appended to the original contract. The signatures of both the contractor and the homeowners should be on that change order.

When a dispute arises, it usually is the result of one side or the other failing to communicate. The homeowners have some remedies, including first trying to negotiate with the contractor. If that doesn’t work, the next step could be the better business bureau’s arbitration board or some third party; then hiring a lawyer to deal directly with the contractor to get the dispute resolved or filing a complaint or a lawsuit if it is not. If the project ends and a problem remains, hang on to your money and don’t make any further payments until the matter is resolved or, as Jay advises, “until there is a win-win situation for both parties.” Try to work it out at the start. Don’t let a bad situation get worse by not communicating with one another.

I suggest that finding a contractor by word of mouth from friends, neighbors, and family works most of the time. I also recommend that you get at least three estimates before you choose a contractor. I know that despite 25 years of stressing the importance of returning phone calls promptly, most contractors don’t.

Unless the basement is filling up with water, however, take your time finding and hiring a contractor for your job. Only the careful homeowners will find the perfect match.

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