By Maura Keller
Hiring an experienced and reliable contractor is crucial to a streamlined and successful home construction or renovation. But how do you know what to look for in a contractor, and what are some of the key questions that need to be asked when choosing a contractor?
According to Tom Miller, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, it’s important to start with the local contractor licensing board to see what kind of complaints may have been registered against a prospective contractor, and to make sure they carry the proper license, bond and insurance.
“If there are any complaints, check to see if they have been satisfactorily resolved,” Miller says. “And ask to speak to, or visit, a past client or two. Online review sites, which are fairly anonymous, have much potential to be unreliable.”
Also check to see if the contractor belongs to NARI, or a similar professional organization. NARI members sign a code of ethics and are committed to promoting professionalism in remodeling.
“Undertaking a major remodeling project or building a new home is possibly the single largest financial investment most homeowners undertake,” says Scott Lowell of Lowell Custom Homes. “Homeowners have to be comfortable with the contractor that they are starting a long-term relationship with.”
Chris Stebnitz, owner and president of Stebnitz Builders, says that with the popularity of HGTV and various reality shows that “teach” people how to complete projects on a low budget or give the impression that projects can be done in a short period of time, homeowners often come in with unrealistic expectations for time and budget for their project.
That’s why Stebnitz says that some of the most important questions to ask the contractors you are interviewing include, how is your organization structured? And, are you a one-person company wearing all the hats?
“The experience you receive working with that contractor will be vastly different than the experience you receive working with a contractor with enough depth of organization to provide for a project that is not only a quality product, but a level of service that takes the worry and responsibility for your project off you,” Stebnitz says.
Another question to ask is, what is your warranty and what does it cover? The industry average for a warranty is one year. More established contractors will warranty their work for as many as five years or more.
And be sure to ask if your project will have their own carpenters, or will they bounce from job to job? “This can be a very frustrating reality when you expect your carpenters or trades to be working on your project and no one shows up,” Stebnitz says.
Regarding references, any contractor should provide the names of three (or more) homeowners that can provide useful, realistic feedback of their experience with said contractor. Stebnitz also recommends homeowners use the measurement tool called Guild Quality, a third-party survey firm who contacts clients after project completion for an in-depth, detailed survey/ report about their remodeling experience.
Lowell says he tells clients to ask references, “If you had to do it again, what would you have liked to see handled differently and how did the contractor respond to issues after the home was complete—what was their follow-up service like?”
According to Miller, professional contractors do not have time to provide estimates for every potential client who asks; typically, a phone interview can narrow the field for both homeowner and contractor, to see if the project and schedule appear to be a good fit for both parties.
“Many professionals are willing to make a first visit, to meet the homeowner and see the environment, and can often offer a rough estimate of price range based on what they see, but working up a reliable ‘scope of work’ and budget takes an investment of time and would typically involve a fee for services,” Miller says.
As Stebnitz explains, most contractors price out their projects with project pricing, meaning, they give a price for the entire project. Or, they can price it out for every item and hour of labor— called time and material pricing. Both methods have pros and cons says Stebnitz, so discuss this in detail with your contractor.
After properly vetting a contractor and hiring them, it’s important that homeowners make sure the communication is ongoing.
“Are schedule disruptions discussed openly? Is the site cleaned up and made orderly daily? Do the workers conduct themselves professionally? These are signs that you’re dealing with a trustworthy professional,” Miller says.
Of course, all projects involve some degree of demolition or deconstruction and it is not uncommon to uncover some issue needing correction not covered in an agreement. Miller says that homeowners should expect some surprises but it’s important to make sure there is a discussion about the process and cost of a solution.
“Expect some punch list items to pop up, even several months after the project is done and you are living in it,” Miller says. “Materials dry out, things settle, cracks in caulk, grout or paint will appear. This is normal and a professional should come back to take care of them.”
And at any sign of a problem, make sure to deal with the issue promptly, in person and with an open mind. Miller says that if the issues continue to seem unresolvable, discuss with the contractor whether you can agree on discontinuing the project, knowing that you would have to pay for services rendered.
“Local licensing boards often have a complaint resolution process, where a third party works with both sides to reach a suitable compromise,” Miller says. “If the contractor simply will not deliver what was promised in the agreement, there is almost always a claim process that a homeowner can go through. But remember, if you choose a true professional, none of this will be necessary.”
Stebnitz agrees. “Homeowners are much more educated than ever before. But there is still a need for the contractor to educate their clients on the process,” he says. “With so many resources online and through social media platforms, the homeowner has a great opportunity to do as much research on a contractor before they even make that first call.”
Finally, ask to see a sample contract from the contractor and have it reviewed by an attorney. Pay special attention to:
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