Whether you're planning an addition for a growing family or simply getting new windows, finding a competent and reliable contractor is the first step to a successful and satisfying home improvement project.
Your home may be your most valuable financial asset. That's why it's important to be cautious when you hire someone to work on it, the Federal Trade Commission notes. Home improvement and repair and maintenance contractors often advertise in newspapers, the Yellow Pages, and on the radio and TV. However, don't consider an ad an indication of the quality of a contractor's work.
Your best bet is a reality check from those in the know: friends, neighbors or coworkers who have had improvement work done. Get written estimates from several firms. Ask for explanations for price variations. Don't automatically choose the lowest bidder.
Don't get nailed
Not all contractors operate within the law. Here are some tip-offs to potential rip-offs.
A less than reputable contractor: solicits door-to-door; offers you discounts for finding other customers; just happens to have materials left over from a previous job; only accepts cash payments; asks you to get the required building permits; does not list a business number in the local telephone directory; tells you your job will be a "demonstration;" pressures you for an immediate decision; offers exceptionally long guarantees; asks you to pay for the entire job up front; and/or suggests that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows.
If you're not careful, you could lose your home through a home improvement loan scam.
Hiring a contractor
Interview each contractor you're considering. Here are some questions to ask:
1. How long have you been in business? Look for a well-established company and check it out with consumer protection officials. They can tell you if there are unresolved consumer complaints on file. One caveat: no record of complaints against a particular contractor doesn't necessarily mean no previous consumer problems. It may be that problems exist but have not yet been reported, or that the contractor is doing business under several different names.
2. Are you licensed and registered with the state? Check with your local building department or consumer protection agency to find out about licensing requirements in your area. Ask to see the contractor's license and make sure it's current.
3. How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year? Ask for a list. This will help you determine how familiar the contractor is with your type of project.
4. Will my project require a permit? A competent contractor will get all the necessary permits before starting work on your project. Be suspicious if the contractor asks you to get the permit(s). It could mean that the contractor is not licensed or registered.
5. May I have a list of references? The contractor should be able to give you the names, addresses and phone numbers of at least three clients who have projects similar to yours. Ask each how long ago the project was completed and if you can see it. Also, tell the contractor that you'd like to visit jobs in progress.
6. Will you be using subcontractors on this project? If yes, ask to meet them, and make sure they have current insurance coverage and licenses, if required. Also ask them if they were paid on time by this contractor.
7. What types of insurance do you carry? Contractors should have personal liability, worker's compensation and property damage coverage. Ask for copies of insurance certificates and make sure they're current. Avoid doing business with contractors who don't carry the appropriate insurance. Otherwise, you'll be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them.
To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP.