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Sunday, August 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Home projects can be a nightmare if you don't get the right contractor
By Elizabeth Rhodes
If you want to get Tom Silva going, ask him about the public's expectation of contractors.
"They want the cheapest guy they can get and they want him here tomorrow, and then they complain about the workmanship forever," fumes Silva, the general contractor on the long-running "This Old House" television series. "You'll never forget the guy who does a lousy job because the door sticks, the floor squeaks, the toilet doesn't drain, and so on." On the other hand, ask the public about its experiences with contractors and you also get an earful about sticky doors, squeaky floors and lots more. Contractors who vanish mid-job for days at a time. Contractors who make mistakes and won't correct them. Contractors who simply don't finish the job at all.
What's going on here? And what can homeowners do to protect themselves from entering that awful twilight zone: the home improvement from hell?
Silva is full of ideas, many of which are incorporated in a new book, "This Old House Complete Remodeling" (This Old House Books; $24.95). Besides its chapters on interior and exterior upgrades, there's a thick chapter on managing the remodel process.
Taking a break from his work on the series' current remodel project, an 1849 farmhouse near Boston, Silva is quick to say, "There are a lot of good remodelers out there. They want to do the job right and treat the job like their own house. But you have to remember two things: It's going to be more expensive, and you're going to have to be willing to wait."
Ideally, the whole remodeling process actually starts, say Silva and several Seattle-area remodeling experts, long before the contractor is even contacted. And well it should, given the dollars involved.
According to a 2003 report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, remodeling expenditures top more than $200 billion annually, with more than half that earmarked for home improvements. (The rest goes for maintenance and repairs.) It's enough money to help keep the U.S. economy afloat, and more than 10 million homeowners busy. And that's just the rough number of homeowners who upgrade their kitchens and baths annually.
Have a plan
The key to a successful remodel is thorough planning. While homeowners often can plan minor jobs themselves, "Moving into a major project without design help can result in a plan that doesn't work well, looks marginal or hides errors requiring expensive changes," notes Silva in his remodeling book.
Failure to plan also can seriously limit the availability of contractors, observes Steve Williams, owner of two Seattle businesses, Steve Williams Custom Homes and Case Handyman Services.
"If people don't want to spend a little bit of money on design, we'll pass," says Williams. "We want to know specifically what we're doing. That's the only way we can price it (the job). It doesn't have to be a lot of design. It can just be three, four hours with an interior person specifying all the surfaces and fixtures."
There's another good reason to plan carefully: to stay on budget. What contractors call "change orders," which alter the scope of the project, can seriously ratchet up the cost and play havoc with the construction schedule.
When it comes to finding a contractor, Silva suggests homeowners cast a wide swath, getting referrals not just from friends and neighbors, but through home centers, good-quality lumber yards, home shows, designers and don't forget the local remodelers association. (The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties provides referrals and advice though its Web site: www.mba-ks.com.)
Silva suggests getting five to 10 referrals. Interviewing them thoroughly is key, because as one long-time building pro observes, remodeling "is an industry where you have people all across the board. Some will do an excellent job and others, quite frankly, will burn the homeowner."
Steps you should take
When it comes to interviewing contractors, here's what Silva and others say is important:
Be clear about the scope of your job, your budget and expectations, and share this information.
Ask whether the contractor is registered and bonded with the state's Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). That's a state requirement. Depending on their specialty, contractors must maintain a $6,000 or $12,000 bond. They also must carry $250,000 in general liability insurance coverage. Next, follow through by contacting L&I to confirm the registration, suggests Ron Langley, a spokesman for the department. Contractor information is available online at www.lni.wa.gov. While 50,200 contractors statewide are registered, Langley says his department catches more than 1,000 a year who are not. The local Better Business Bureau is another source to check.
Ask how long the contractor has been in business. Silva says five years is the minimum, and "hands-on experience is the key. How do you know the guy you hired knows the guys he hired are doing the job right if he doesn't know how to do the job himself?" Williams adds that it's important to ask about experience because contracting is a very high-turnover business. Those who haven't been at it long may have the construction skills, but not the business skills necessary to survive. Their sudden demise can mean a job unfinished or repairs and follow-up that never get done.
Ask how much experience the contractor has with your size and type of project. Some contractors prefer to work smaller jobs, while others specialize in large remodels costing hundreds of thousands. "The last thing you want to do is pull off a custom remodel with a contractor who just works with off-the-shelf products, and vice versa, because the product knowledge and attention to detail is going to be different," observes Lyndi Sheasley, a certified kitchen and bath remodeler and owner of Interior Ideas in Bellevue.
Research the products you plan to use "to see how they're made and installed so you can know if the contractor has the capability to work with the products," suggests Alan Buchanan, sales manager at Lowe's North Seattle store. If the contractor tries to direct you to another product, it may be because he's inexperienced with yours. This could have dire implications, because incorrect installation voids a product warranty.
Ask about the size of the crew and when the contractor is available. Good contractors are in demand, so homeowners should be prepared to wait sometimes for months, Silva says. Ask how many other jobs the contractor has under way simultaneously, and their relationship to yours. "Will the others be done on time and yours be used as filler?" Silva says that's a fair question.
Listen carefully to what the contractor says. If your project needs a permit and the contractor says don't bother, "a red flag should go up," Williams warns.
Ask for referrals to past clients, then call them (and visit if possible). "So many people don't call their referrals," observes Williams, who considers that a big mistake. Here's what he'd ask past clients: How did the contractor bill? Were his invoices detailed and written out? Did the contractor work well with inspectors? Did he have a safety plan? Did he do security background checks on employees and subcontractors? Did he give lien releases so the homeowner wouldn't get stuck with unpaid bills from materials suppliers and subcontractors? And if there were any problems, was the contractor willing to return to fix them?
Request the names of suppliers the contractor frequently uses, then ask them about his payment record.
Finally, go with your instincts. If there's a personality conflict, don't sign with that contractor, because conflicts are likely to continue.
Once you've found your contractor, you'll want a contract. (Go to www.thisoldhouse.com and type the words Get it in writing into the search field.)
"It takes a lot of work in order to give yourself the best opportunity to have a good experience with a contractor," concludes L&I's Langley, "but in the long run, it pays off." firstname.lastname@example.org
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