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Not a good trend in Home Improvement.

by bbeachner on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 7:24 PM
 If you have any interest in Home Improvement, you probably watch some of the popular shows on PBS or HGTV. One show in particular catches my attention because I can relate to the subject matter lately; Holmes on Holmes is a show about a General contractor coming to the rescue of homeowners who have been victimized by a previous contractor. The popularity of this show is no surprise to me; it is a scary trend in the Home Improvement business and the number of these types of calls has increased tenfold in the last few years. I believe three things must be in place before hiring any contractor to work on your house. A budget, a plan, and a fair expectation.
All three things work together for a great outcome. Define your expectations to the potential contractor; tell them your plan and then work within your budget to execute and finish your plan. Sounds easy enough, right? Most of the time it all comes together and everyone is happy, but sometimes it goes wrong.
I don’t want to talk about the old fashioned cash grab scenario where an unsuspecting homeowner gives a so-called “contractor” a bunch of money and never sees the contractor again. That is a con and a deliberate crime committed by a thief. I want to address the well intentioned type of contractor who takes a deposit and starts the work, but things don’t quite go as planned.
This type starts doing the work and may even finish it, just not to the standard that you expected. You start noticing bad workmanship and bad behavior; maybe the worker is taking liberties you didn’t grant them. Drinking your soda, showering at your house (I have heard it), cooking lunch on your grill, etc. I have heard many things that I consider crossing the line and could go on for a while, but the bottom line is:  if you don’t tell a contractor what your expectations are, then some will assume that since they have your house torn apart, that they can do whatever they want to. I would like to give you some tips to properly vet contractors and avoid having to call another one to fix the “old one’s” mistakes.
First step, get referrals from friends. Ask around your neighborhood, at work, church, or the gym. Anywhere people gather is a good place to ask about a good contractor. Search online; there are a few good places to get good contractor feedback these days. Angie’s list has come out as a leader in this area, but there are local sources, too, here in the Rochester, NY area.  Jim Salmon has a great referral network. If you don’t find anyone that way, then get multiple estimates from legit companies, not out of work guys posting free ads on local classifieds. You could find a good contractor using places like “Craigslist,” but research them and see if they have a presence in your marketplace. Visit their other jobs! If they can’t or won’t let you, stay away.
Visit a current job site and visit an older finished project. Just because your cousin gave you the name of a “guy” doesn’t mean that you and your cousin have the same standards. See the work; if it’s good, it will stand on its own.
Interview your contractor about all the basics and get an insurance certificate sent to you directly from their carrier, not a copy. Here’s why; just like your car insurance, the policy has a down payment. Anyone can set up a policy with a small down payment and get a certificate printed right on the spot. Then they are equipped with a piece of paper with a one year expiration date and they are free to make copies and hand them out all over town for a year, without ever making another payment. That policy will now be cancelled in three months. If they have an accident and cause damage to your property or themselves, you are liable. Get the certificate from the carrier. A good contractor will volunteer that anyways; all it takes is a phone call.
Get it in writing! Your initial contract and any changes that are made (there are almost always changes after the work starts, especially in older homes). Get a change order signed and dated with descriptions, price changes and the reason for the change. This protects both you and your contractor. It is easy to forget small changes along the way and then get a surprise in the final invoice. 
So you have hired a contractor; now it’s time to iron out the details of your project. This is where “fair expectations” come to play. I believe in a fair price mentality. A tradesperson needs to be able to apply their craft at a pace that allows them to perform duties without rushing through them. If you want top notch, then you will pay a little more for it. If you pay less, then it will come out of the job somewhere, most likely the quality of goods and services. The old adage that “haste makes waste” holds more weight when it applies to the castle you live in, as you will have to stare at it every day. The lowest price usually ends up being the highest price; it costs more to undo a bad job in order to make it right, so agree to a fair price if you have fair expectations. Pay a fair amount, get a fair return. Most contractors have a great deal of pride in their work and they usually go a little further than the contract stipulates because of that pride. Money and time are the same thing in this business; the more quality time that is spent, the better the job will be.
Budgeting for home improvement takes time. Handing a stranger your hard earned cash is sometimes the hardest thing to do. My best advice is to never let the job or the money get ahead of each other. Some say that you should never give a contractor a deposit. I say yes and no.  A small painting job or repair shouldn’t require a deposit. On the other hand, it might be difficult for a small outfit to buy $20,000 worth of new cabinets for your new kitchen. Kitchen jobs are very heavy on material cost; exterior painting jobs are very heavy on labor cost. Cost schedules should be pre-determined by bench marks, depending on the job. Deposits are subjective to the type of work being done. You should never be paid in full before you have a final walk through and are satisfied with everything.
To have a great experience with your home improvement projects make sure your budget, your expectations and your plan are all reasonable and remember they are all relative to each other. You will almost never be satisfied when you are trying to get too much for your money. I am not saying a bargain is impossible to find, but be armed with the right tools to find it and then you won’t be explaining your nightmare to a whole new set of potential contractors or, even worse, lawyers.
Till next time, Brian Beachner owner of Sunny Days Residential

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