Need some repair work done around the house? Want to remodel the kitchen or bath? Need the trim painted? Here are some tips for choosing a contractor to do the job. Follow some or all of these depending on what kind of work is needed—repair, maintenance, or full-blown remodeling.
- Ask friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors to recommend contractors they have used who did a good job. It is helpful to know if someone didn't like the work a contractor did as well. Some neighborhood associations maintain a list of contractors and repair services that members recommend.
- Check with the appropriate local trade organization or association for builders, plumbers, electricians, remodelers or other trades for members who perform the work.
- The telephone yellow pages may give you a starting point for finding a reputable contractor, but it can't tell you the quality of their work. The same goes for online listing services.
- Check out the contractor with the Better Business Bureau (or local/state equivalent) or your local or state consumer affairs office. This check can help you but it is not conclusive. No record of complaints doesn't mean there haven't been any problems for a particular business; it may mean that problems many not have been reported or that the contractor may be doing business under several names.
- Ask the contractor for customer references, particularly those customers who had a similar job done. Ask the references the following questions:
- Were you satisfied?
- Was the job completed on time?
- Were you kept informed about the job status and any problems?
- Were there any unexpected costs? Why and for what?
- Did the workers show up on time? Did they clean up when finished?
- Would you recommend the contractor?
- Would you use them again?
- If it is a remodeling job, can I come see the work?
- Ask the contractor for copies of current licenses and insurance certificates. Licensing requirements vary widely from state to state. Most states require electrical and plumbing contractors to be licensed. State licensing requirements for other contractors can vary; check your state's requirements at www.contractors-license.org.The contractor should carry personal liability, worker's compensation, and property damage insurance.
- Get written estimates from more than one contractor. Make sure that all of the estimates are based on the same specifications. If a contractor wants to deviate from the specifications, have them write those changes up as options.
- Decide how you want to pay for the job. The bigger the job, the more options. Do you need a loan? If so, do you find your own financing or work with the contractor to arrange financing? Will you pay by check or credit card? Your credit union has options for financing home improvements. Avoid paying cash. Never pay the complete fee upfront before work has begun.
- If a down payment is necessary, pay the smallest amount possible.
- Make payments during the project contingent on the completion of specific tasks.
- Make the final payment only after you are satisfied with the completed work.
- Get a written contract. It should spell out who is performing the work, what work is being done, where the work is being done, the start date and completion date, and what it will cost. The contract should be clear, concise, and complete.
- Get all guarantees, warranties, and promises in writing.
Avoiding home repair rip-offs and scams
Here are some red flags to watch for. Say "no thanks" to any person or company who:
- Solicits business door-to-door. A reputable business doesn't need to go door-to-door.
- Wants payment in cash.
- Wants the entire payment up front.
- Offers you discounts for finding other customers.
- Just happens to have "material left over from a previous job." Paving your driveway with asphalt is a favorite.
- Requests that you get the necessary permits. This could mean that the contractor is not licensed or registered as required.
- Is not listed in the local telephone directory or does not have a local street address (not P.O. Box). Even small free-lance repair contractors who are established in your area but have no "office" will usually give you their home address.
- Needs an answer immediately. Don't sign a contract until you have reviewed it thoroughly.
- Offers exceptionally long guarantees.
- Wants you to borrow money from a lender they know. This request usually signals a home improvement loan scam.
A tip on using online services listings
The Internet is a rich source of online community classifieds (such as craigslist.org) or commercial services listing sites, where many contractors and small job repair people list their businesses or services. Many good businesses and services use such listings, but these online outlets also attract listings from the not-so-good and the “up-to-no-good” guys. No matter where you obtain the name of a contract or repair person, always check the business out as recommended above.
For further information
For more detailed information, check out the FTC publications in Home Improvement.