*NEW* Consumer Resources
Finding a Contractor
Depending on how big or complex a project is, you might hire a
- General Contractor, who manages all aspects of a project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, getting building permits, and scheduling inspections
- Specialty Contractor, who installs particular products like cabinets and bathroom fixtures
- Electrical, Mechanical, or Plumber, A contractor that specializes in these specific fields.
- Architect, who designs homes, additions, and major renovations — especially ones involving structural changes
- Designer or design/build contractor, who provides both services
Do Your Research
Check with friends, neighbors, or co-workers who’ve used a contractor. If you can, take a look at the work done and ask about their experience.
Look at sites you trust that post ratings and reviews
Do people seem to have similar experiences, good or bad? You also can check out a contractor’s online reputation by searching for the company’s name with words like “scam,” “rip-off,” or “complaint.”
Find out how long they’ve been in business
Look for an established company whose record and reputation you can check out.
Check for qualifications, like licensing
Many states, but not all, require contractors to be licensed and/or bonded. Check with your local building department or consumer protection agency to find out about licensing requirements in your area. Licensing can range from simple registration to a detailed qualification process. If your state or locality has licensing laws, make sure the contractor’s license is current.
Before You Hire a Contractor
Once you’ve narrowed your options, get written estimates from several firms. Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder. Ask for an explanation to see if there’s a reason for the difference in price.
How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year?
Ask for a list so you can see how familiar the contractor is with your type of project.
Will my project require a permit?
Most states and localities require permits for building projects, even for simple jobs like decks. A competent contractor will get all the necessary permits before starting work on your project. You may want to choose a contractor familiar with the permitting process in your county, city, or town.
May I have a list of references?
A contractor should be able to give you the names, addresses, and phone numbers of at least three clients with projects like yours. Ask each client how long ago the project was and whether it was completed on time. Was the client satisfied? Were there any unexpected costs? Did workers show up on time and clean up after finishing the job? You also could tell the contractor that you’d like to visit jobs in progress.
What types of insurance do you carry?
Contractors should have:
- personal liability
- worker’s compensation
- property damage coverage
Ask for copies of insurance certificates, and make sure they’re current, or you could be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project.
Will you be using subcontractors on this project?
If so, make sure the subcontractors have current insurance coverage and licenses, too, if required. To find builders, remodelers, and related providers in your area that are members of the National Association of Home Builders, visit www.nahb.org. To find detailed information about a builder, service provider, or remodeler in your area, contact your local home builders association. You can find your local association at www.nahb.org.
Understand Your Payment Options
Don’t pay cash
For smaller projects, you can pay by check or credit card. Many people arrange to finance larger projects. Try to limit your down payment
Some state laws limit the amount of money a contractor can request as a down payment. Contact your state or local consumer agency to find out the law in your area.
Try to make payments during the project contingent upon completion of defined amounts of work
This way, if the work isn’t going according to schedule, the payments to your contractor also are delayed.
Get a Written Contract
Contract requirements vary by state. Even if your state doesn’t require a written agreement, ask for one. It should be clear and concise and include the who, what, where, when, and cost of your project. Before you sign a contract, make sure it includes:
- the contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number (if required)
- an estimated start and completion date
- the payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers
- the contractor’s obligation to get all necessary permits
- how change orders are handled. A change order is written authorization to the contractor to make a change or addition to the work described in the original contract and could affect the project’s cost and schedule.
- a detailed list of all materials including each product’s color, model, size, and brand. If some materials will be chosen later, the contract should say who’s responsible for choosing each item and how much money is budgeted for it (this is also known as the “allowance”).
- information about warranties covering materials and workmanship, with names and addresses of who is honoring them — the contractor, distributor, or manufacturer. The length of the warranty period and any limitations also should be spelled out.
- what the contractor will and won’t do. For example, are site clean-up and trash hauling included in the price? Ask for a “broom clause” that makes the contractor responsible for all clean-up work, including spills and stains.
- any promises made during conversations or calls. If they don’t remember, you may be out of luck — or charged extra.
- a written statement of your right to cancel the contract within three business days if you signed it in your home or at a location other than the seller’s permanent place of business
After You Hire a Contractor
Keep all paperwork related to your project in one place. This includes:
- copies of the contract
- change orders
- any correspondence with your home improvement professionals
- a record of all payments. You may need receipts for tax purposes.
Keep a log or journal of all phone calls, conversations, and activities. You also might want to take photographs as the job progresses. These records are especially important if you have problems with your project — during or after construction.
Don’t make the final payment or sign an affidavit of final release until you’re satisfied
Besides being satisfied with the work, you also need to know that subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. Laws in your state might allow them to file a mechanic’s lien against your home to satisfy their unpaid bills, forcing you to sell your home to pay them. Protect yourself by asking the contractor, and every subcontractor and supplier, for a lien release or lien waiver.
Know the limit for the final bill
Some state or local laws limit the amount by which the final bill can exceed the estimate unless you have approved the increase.
Know when you can withhold payment
If you have a problem with merchandise or services charged to a credit card, and you’ve made a good faith effort to work out the problem with the seller, you have the right to contact your credit card company and withhold payment from the card issuer for the merchandise or services. You can withhold payment up to the amount of credit outstanding for the purchase, plus any finance or related charges.
Use a Sign-Off Checklist
Before you sign off and make the final payment, check that:
- all work meets the standards spelled out in the contract
- you have written warranties for materials and workmanship
- you have proof that all subcontractors and suppliers have been paid
- the job site has been cleaned up and cleared of excess materials, tools, and equipment
- you have inspected and approved the completed work
How To Avoid a Home Improvement Scam
Here are some tips to help protect yourself and your money:
- Consider only contractors who are licensed and insured. Check with your state or county government to confirm their license and ask the contractor for proof of insurance.
- Get contractor recommendations from people you know and trust.
- Check with the local Home Builders Association and consumer protection officials to see if they have complaints against a contractor. You also can search online for the company’s name with words like “scam,” “review,” or “complaint.” Or use online rating websites you trust to see what others are saying about the contractor.
- Get multiple estimates. A written estimate should include a description of the work to be done, materials, completion date, and price. Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder. And ask for an explanation if there’s a big difference among the estimates.
- Read the contract carefully.Contract requirements vary by state. Even if your state doesn’t require a written agreement, ask for one. Before you sign a contract, make sure it includes
- the contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number
- an estimated start and completion date
- any promises made during conversations or calls related to issues such as the scope of work and the cost of labor and materials
- a written statement of your right to cancel the contract within three business days, if you signed it in your home or at a location other than the seller’s permanent place of business
And, make sure all blank spaces are filled in.
- Don’t pay the full amount for the project upfront. Some states limit the amount of money a contractor can ask for as a down payment. Contact your state or local consumer agency to find out the law in your area. And never make the final payment until the work is done and you’re satisfied with it.