Hiring a Contractor

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

Dear Home Inspector: We're considering some major renovations to our home including a new kitchen, bedroom suite addition and a detached garage. We've heard horror stories about contractors from friends and coworkers. Isn't there some way to avoid headaches during the project?

Sure: Move out for twice as long as the contractor tells you it will take, pay 35% more than the estimate, don't expect much to be done right, and anticipate that some items won't be done at all.

That's not to say that all of the above will happen to you. But having been asked by law firms to assist in litigation against contractors, I've seen some very unpleasant situations and worked with many irate homeowners. In most of these cases, it seems that the contractors (now defendants) have no clue that they have acted improperly. They seem genuinely surprised that everyone isn't thrilled with the workmanship, schedule and final product, since this is how they have always operated.

Even reputable, experienced contractors can run into difficulties on any particular job, resulting in delays or other surprises for the customer. Here are some pointers that may help you avoid some headaches, or at least protect you if things go wrong.

The contractor failed to extend this plumbing vent when raising the roof.

1) Inspect the Contractor

  • There are many trade organizations, municipal, state and federal agencies that offer free publications and tips for selecting a contractor. Don't just call the first contractor listed in the Yellow Pages.
  • Just because a contractor advertises that he is licensed and insured, doesn't always mean he actually is. I advise that you ask to see a current, valid license and insurance certificate. Your local or state government might also have specific licensing and insurance requirements.
  • Good contractors should be able to provide references from past customers. Visit their projects and ask questions about the contractor's ability to stay on schedule and communicate during the project.
  • Check with the local building inspector's office and ask about the contractor's reputation. When you get estimates from at least three contractors, don't even consider "Bubba," even if he has the lowest price.

2) Inspect the Terms

A written contract is an absolute must and should at least include the following:

  • A payment schedule, detailing when each payment during the project is due. The payment amounts and timing should be set to give the contractor the incentive to complete major milestones in a timely manor. Leave a big chunk of money for the final payment.
  • Specific details about the materials and products need to be listed. If you want an XYZ brand bathtub, be sure it is included, without the words or similar product. If you expect siding and gutters on that new garage, be sure it is included in the contract.
  • A list of items the contractor will not do. Clean-up, painting, floor covering and fixing the ruts in the yard are just a few of the items that you might be stuck with.
  • Any product warranties or workmanship guarantee need to be clearly stated.
  • The contractor should obtain applicable permits and is responsible for meeting all building codes.
  • Have a dispute resolution process included, like arbitration or mediation, in case things go wrong.
  • Have your attorney review the contract.

3) Inspect the Work

Before releasing final payment, be sure the contractor has paid the subcontractors and suppliers. In some states, they can file a "mechanics lien" against your home if they haven't been paid in full.

You (and the municipal building inspector) should be completely satisfied with the final product before handing over the last check. Some folks take the extra step of hiring a home inspector to perform a thorough inspection of the work performed to be sure there aren't any issues that might surface in the future.

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