The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

How to Vet a Remodeler

Finding and evaluating a home improvement contractor is a difficult process. Do it right, and you will be happy with the work. But do it wrong, and your project could be a nightmare.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have a clue how to go about it. According to a survey of its members by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, customers are asking the wrong questions.

The most common ones: When can you start? When will you finish? What time will you start each morning? What time will you stop working for the day? Are you going to work every day? Can you finish by a certain date? How much will it cost per square foot?

In other words, “How fast and how much?”

Certainly these are important questions, to which you will want answers. But there are far more important things you need to know. After all, you are not only going to be inviting a stranger into your home, you are asking the contractor rip up your house and interrupt your life, perhaps for a long period of time.

Here’s what you really need to ask.

-- License. Ask for the contractor’s license number and confirm it with your state or local government regulator to make sure it is valid and current. Many jurisdictions set minimum experience and educational requirements, and administer exams to make sure the contractor is up to snuff. Fail the test? No license.

Many places also maintain relief funds for homeowners whose projects go wrong and are unable to secure satisfaction. But they cover only licensed contractors.

-- Tenure. How long has the contractor been in business? Generally, the longer, the better. It indicates he or she is a pro and is delivering the work consumers expect.

There are many skilled construction workers who try their hands at general contracting. Typically, those who flounder do decent work, but have no clue about how to run a business.

-- Insurance. By law, remodelers must carry both business insurance and worker’s compensation. If they don’t, you could be liable, especially if someone is hurt while on the job.

Ask for a copy of the certificate of insurance and call the issuing agency to confirm coverage is valid and up-to-date.

-- Verify. Something else to confirm is the company name, address and phone number. Do you really want to hire someone who runs the show out of the back of a pickup truck?

-- Referrals. Get a list of previous customers. But not just any customers: Ask for a list of people whose jobs were similar to what you are contemplating. And request jobs that were completed recently, within the last six to 12 months. Being unwilling to provide references is a bad sign.

The list will probably contain their best customers -- why give out the names of dissatisfied clients? -- but check them out anyway. Obtaining a firsthand description of the way the contractor works can be invaluable, and go a long way toward answering the questions mentioned above.

Also, check the contractor out with your local Better Business Bureau, as well as the state or local consumer affairs agency where you live and where he or she is headquartered.

-- Supervisor. Taking to a nice, well-dressed, well-spoken salesperson is one thing. But you’ll want to know who will actually be the supervisor on the project. If you can meet and speak with him or her, even better. You’ll want to be able to communicate with your contractor, for sure. After all, this is the person who will address your questions and concerns once the project starts.

Now, a few things that indicate the contractor may not be trustworthy:

-- Beware of high-pressure tactics such as “sign a contract today or lose out on special pricing.” Don’t be rushed into making a decision. Take your time. If they want your job, that “special” pricing will always be there.

-- Be cautious about a demand for a large down payment. Many states don’t allow contractors to take more than a certain amount upfront. Certainly, don’t put up more than a third, and never in cash. A contractor who wants nothing in advance is rare, but it usually means he or she is well capitalized and doesn’t need your money to buy materials.

-- If contractors don’t inform you of your right to cancel the contract within three business days, don’t sign anything, and ask them to take a hike. The law requires notification in writing of your “right of recession” if the contract was solicited in your home or someplace other than the contractor’s place of business. This is a grace period that allows you to change your mind without penalty.