Baseball may still top the list as “America’s pastime,” but home improvement is moving up fast. More than 8 out of 10 American homeowners have remodeled or are planning to remodel their home. The ready availability of low cost home equity loans has served to accelerate the pace of remodeling, replacing and “fixing up.” Rather than sell their home and move on, many people are staying put and turning the old homestead into a shining new castle, and increasing its value at the same time.
While many home improvements are “do-it-yourself” projects, more substantial renovations are better left to a professional contractor. The surge in home improvements has created a boom in companies specializing in all aspects of home repair and remodeling. The majority of these contractors are capable, honest, and provide a good value for the homeowner.
Unfortunately, where there is money to be made, unscrupulous people also appear. Hardly any region of the country has not been touched by some sort of home improvement scandal perpetrated by sleazy rip-off artists. These take the form of incomplete work, shoddy craftsmanship, second-rate materials and just plain “take the money and run” scams.
What can you do to protect yourself from becoming a victim? To keep from being ripped off? There are several steps you should to find the best contractor to perform work on your home.
1.Shop around for a reputable contractor. Newspaper, radio and television ads, the internet, Facebook, direct mail fliers, the Yellow Pages – all are good sources for locating a contractor in your area. You can also ask your neighbors, family or friends for a reference. Many of the large home center hardware stores offer contractor referrals. While you can often find an excellent contractor through this source, keep in mind that you are generally limited to those companies that buy their building materials at that particular home center. It is usually to your advantage to expand your search to a wider array of contractors.
2.Look for a company that specializes in the type of work you are planning. Would you go to a heart surgeon to fix a toothache? Of course not! Similarly, you should find a contractor with expertise in the type of project you have in mind. For example, if a new roof is in your plans, contact a roofing contractor, not a carpenter. If you want to remodel your kitchen, call a kitchen & bath specialist. If you need new windows, turn to a replacement window company. A specialist will have knowledge and experience that can save you time and money.
3.Interview a prospective contractor before you hire them. Make an appointment to meet with the contractor to discuss your project. Most reputable firms will have a sales representative willing to come to your home and talk about your plans. Or, if the firm is small, the owner might talk with you. Take the time to get comfortable with your contractor.
4.Ask questions! You need to know as much as possible about what will occur before, during and after construction. Keep an ear open for evasiveness or tricky answers to your questions. If you feel a contractor is trying to hide something from you, you are probably right. Here are some key questions to ask – and why you should ask them:
•What, if any, are the company’s specialties? (Are they right for your project?)
•How many workers does the company have? (Will there be enough people available to complete your project on time?)
•Are they employed by the company or are they independent contractors? (How reliable and responsible are the men and women who will be working in your home?)
•How long has the company been in business? (Are they experienced? And will they be around to resolve any problems once the project is completed?)
•Is the company licensed? (Most states require a contractor to be registered and licensed.)
•Is the company a licensed member of NARI, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry? (Are they legitimate and respected in the industry?)
•Does the company do its own installation or subcontract them out? (Who is responsible, especially in resolving any complaints?)
•Is the company insured against loss, damage or injury while on the job? (Or will your homeowner’s insurance policy be called upon to do extra duty?)
•What about warranties and guarantees? (Do they back up their work? Or will you be left out in the cold if a problem arises?)
•What are the company’s payment policies? (How do they want to be paid? Can they finance your project?)
5.Set a firm payment schedule. While a set schedule of payments would appear to be of greater concern to the contractor (to ensure he gets paid fairly), it should also be of equal importance to the homeowner. If a contractor insists on 100% payment in advance, watch out! You may never see him again. Typically, a project will require a down payment of one-half of the estimated project cost, with the balance due upon completion. You may want to make other arrangements, such as evenly spaced payments. Financing your project through the contractor, or through your bank, credit union or finance company, offers more flexibility on your part.
6.Get a firm production schedule. Don’t accept verbal promises or vague timetables. A reputable contractor will have a very carefully structured schedule and be able to tell you (with certain allowances) when the work will be done. Use this schedule to determine if your project is receiving the attention it deserves from the contractor.
7.Be available when the work is being done. Unless your home will be totally uninhabitable, don’t plan on being away during construction. Let the contractor know that you will be there to make sure work starts on time in the morning, and that the site is cleaned up and secured at night. You have a right to know what is happening in your home.
Be smart when dealing with any home improvement contractor. You are about to make a substantial investment. Make certain your work will be guaranteed, and that the company has the means to back up that guarantee. It is your right – and your responsibility as a consumer – to be sure you are dealing with a reputable, solid and trustworthy company.
Tens of thousands of your neighbors in the United States will make improvements to their homes this year. In almost every case, the result will be a more comfortable, more attractive and more valuable home. Make sure your home improvement project turns out equally well. Find the best contractor for help in planning your next home improvement project.