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Who's Your Next Contractor?

Oct 22, 2007
Starting any home improvement project can be a daunting and expensive task. Like any type of project the "right" people make the difference for a successful conclusion. It will save money and time. Even if it is a small project or repair, care should be taken when selecting the "right" contractor or home improvement company.

Finding the right contractor for your home improvement project.

Naturally the first advice is to seek someone who has been recommended by a trusted source. Relatives, friends or neighbors are a good starting point. It is natural to assume that these referrals can be trusted; however, be sure to check how long ago the work was done. The reason for this is that over years there is turnover in a crew or the actual owner may have done the work if he had just started in the business.

Outside your immediate circle there are many places you can find contractors, so don't pick one source. Check the local pages, BBB, licensing databases in your state, contractors' own references and finally, like in most aspects of life, the Internet offers information on local contractors in your area.

Finally, the "FREE" estimate. Since it is free, contact at least three or four contractors for estimates. This will help you in making an educated decision. For a smaller project, probably three would suffice. First impressions.

All meetings, personal or business, rely on first impressions. Your instinct comes into play here. If you don't feel right about a contractor, then probably he's not the right choice for you. Allow at least for one hour per interview and ask as many questions as you can. A good contractor will deliver more information than you need, and in most cases your husband or wife may not be present and you will have to explain the information to them.

Questions you should come away with an answer after the initial meeting:

* Is the contractor or salesman presentable in appearance?

* Is the salesman the owner? If not does he sell for many different contractors?

* Was he detailed and willing to explain all your questions?

* Is he willing to discuss other jobs his company has worked on?

* Was he polite?

* Did you feel any pressure to buy or sign on the proverbial dotted line?

* Is he trained by the manufacturer to install and use the equipment or materials required?

Ten important questions about the contractor you may hire:

1. Is he licensed and insured? If so, does he have a copy or can he provide it? This is question 1, as you should not proceed if the answer is NO. If you live under a homeowners association, most likely he will be required to have it do work in your community. In addition he must have workman's compensation. This is important in addition to liability insurance. Contractors with all these requirements will cost more. However, if someone gets injured on your property the legal costs and aggravation may be more than the extra money you are paying.

2. How long has the contractor been in business and how long has he been in business in your area? If it is a new business, he may have just opened a franchise. Since the franchise has checked and trained this person, being a new business is not a negative. If he's a newer business, he may have worked in the business and decided to go at it on his own. This is not bad and you may consider this in you decision making as he is trying to make a name for himself and may provide more attention to you and perhaps a better price to build up his business.

3. As a contractor, does he need a license and if so does he have it and is willing to provide it? In some states you can look him up and see if it is updated, and has he ever been disciplined or reprimanded? Not all work requires a license and not all states require a person or business to carry one.

4. Warranty. Like any commerce transaction, ask about the materials. Are they top quality and do they have a manufacturer's warranty? What kind of workmanship warranty is included if it is not a material defect but an installation defect? How long is this warranty and do you need to contact the contractor or the manufacturer in the case of defective materials?

5. References. Ask not only to see them but also obviously contact them; and if it is possible, go see actual jobs. Does he offer before and after pictures of previous jobs? Does he have a website showing completed jobs and "actual" references? In addition ask for business references such as suppliers, landlords, etc.

6. Customer complaints are a fact of life. The important thing is how are they handled and what is the time frame to resolve them on average.

7. When you talk to the references, ask if the contractor did a final walk thru and made sure they were happy. Did he send a thank you note and has he followed up during the work as well as after the job was completed? Contractors who seek referrals make sure they are proud of their work and do a good job.

8. Deposits are a sore issue; contractors will want a deposit from you to show you are serious about the job. On the other hand, contractors that are not reputable will take it and run. So what to do? If the job is small, the deposit, if any, should be small or none, meaning you pay in full when the job is done. If the job is a pool, addition, remodeling or large scale, you should expect to provide a deposit and adhere to a payment schedule. The payment schedule should be in the contract and you should stick to it. Never deviate from this schedule. Paying on a credit card can give an extra level of protection as the contractor will have to answer as merchant to the bank and you have one more ally if the project is not completed as promised.

9. Does the contractor subcontract his work or does he manage and hire his own crews? This is important because if he does not pay his subcontractor, your home may get a lien and you may be responsible. In addition he may have less control of the crew and their skill level. However, in larger jobs this is very common, but you should still question their relationship with other companies they do business with.

10. The contract is a legal and binding document and should be read carefully and explained to you by the contractor. If you don't understand it ask a third party, preferably a lawyer, if it is a large amount of money.

Here are a few things you should look at:

* Product choices (colors, materials)
* Right to rescind (Each state may be different.)
* Scheduling (Start, finish and milestone dates)
* Possible delays (weather, material shortage, etc)
* Down payment and payment schedule
* Manufacturer warranties
* Labor warranty
* Walk thru and final inspection
* Local government and home owners' approvals

Additional sources you should consider:

* Your local BBB or Better Business Bureau
* Local government and state licensing
* Trade associations
* Third party niche sites on the Internet
About the Author
Lee Starusta is president of YourContractorDirect.com
Local Contractor Directory
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