Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

QUALITY CONTRACTORS CAN BE CRUCIAL

Nearly all homeowners must hire contractors for repairs and cosmetic upgrades before their property goes up for sale. Sometimes the jobs are small, like repainting a front door or repairing a shaky stair railing. Other times they're large, like replacing a leaky roof or rebuilding a broken deck.

But no matter the size of the job, sellers who hire a contractor put themselves at financial risk. They could overpay, get a shoddy job that needs to be redone at great expense or -- worst of all -- face high costs to fix damage done by an incompetent contractor.

"Your home is your biggest asset, and if you hire the wrong contractors that could be very expensive," says Cheryl Reed, communications director for Angie's List, a fee-based website that maintains a database of consumer reviews on service providers throughout the U.S. and Canada (www.angieslist.com).

Besides the fiscal hazards of botched contracting, homeowners also face the danger of "(busting) their budget on unwarranted overcharges for the work done," says Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."

"Due to the economy, many contractors are short on cash. You've got to be careful who you hire and how much you pay," Davis says.

Davis says there are plenty of reputable contractors willing to work for a reasonable rate, but homeowners must often work to find them.

Indeed, Davis contends it can be easier for consumers to stake out a solid homebuilder to construct a whole house than to find top-notch plumbers, electricians or painters to execute small home improvement jobs.

"Homebuilding companies are high profile and transparent. They identify themselves with signs in the front lawns of their customers. It's easier to see how they perform than to judge contractors who do smaller jobs," he says.

Here are several pointers for home sellers who need contractors' services:

-- Book your contractors in advance if possible.

For many contractors, the flow of work is lumpy. Perhaps one month they're overbooked, and then the next they have no work at all. If you can fit your jobs into holes in their schedule, they might give you very favorable terms, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "House Selling for Dummies."

-- Reach out broadly in search of the best contractors.

When seeking contractors, Tyson advises home sellers against resorting to the Yellow Pages or online advertising from random websites. A more dependable approach is to ask for referrals from friends, neighbors or work associates who've had recent work done.

Along with names gathered from your immediate circle, Tyson says it's often wise for home sellers to collect referrals through the real estate agent they plan to hire to list their property.

Contractors hired at the recommendation of a real estate agent are likely to be very attentive to your job --fearing that botched work could tarnish their reputation within the local real estate community.

-- Get ample estimates to help ensure that you don't overpay.

Preparing a home for sale is time-consuming. For that reason, Davis says many busy home sellers fail to gather a sufficient number of estimates from contractors. But he says such a failure of due diligence can be costly --especially when lining up major work.

"Time-consuming though it is, I recommend you get at least three to five estimates for any job expected to cost $1,000 or more," he says.

"The surprising thing," he says, "is that there's often little correlation between price and quality. So people who cast a wide net can often get both low cost and top-quality work."

-- Preview contractors' work by visiting customers' homes.

Once you've created a short list of contractors based on pricing and reputation, you might assume the next best step is to ask for references. But Davis says this isn't always the most informative way to determine the quality of their workmanship. Rather, he suggests you go and visit the homes of a few recent clients to judge for yourself.

"Who knows? The references a contractor gives you could be his cousins or someone he paid to say nice things," Davis says.

The photos shown on a company's website can also give you a deceptive picture, he says, because they might have been altered electronically.

-- Make sure you get all the major details of your jobs in writing.

Very few homeowners like to bother going over the fine points of an agreement for home improvement work --especially if they feel an intuitive trust for the contractor involved. But Reed, of Angie's List, says it's essential that anyone seeking home improvement services obtain a watertight contract, however brief.

"A good contract should contain a description of the work to be done, the contractor's start and completion dates and a full outline of the costs -- including penalties for missed completion dates," she says.

"Without a contract, it's very hard to make your case in court," if something goes awry, Reed says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)