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CONTRACT 101: Tips for Hiring the Right Contractor

Things To Do:

  • Obtain consultations and estimates from at least three contractors
    Since initial meetings are usually free, get together with three contractors before hiring one. Compare procedures for the work, experience and qualifications, references and prices.
  • Educate yourself on the kind of work for which you're contracting
    Research price, process, materials, etc. You'll want to know what to expect during preliminary meetings as well as final contract negotiations.
  • Make extensive notes of your project vision and discuss them
    Gather lists of materials you like and pictures that reflect your style and tastes to share with the contractor. Using your notes, a reliable contractor will often suggest budget conscious alternatives that remain faithful to your needs and desires.
  • Calculate your budget before the first contractor meeting
    Then both parties can work to create a realistic project plan based on priorities and budgetary constraints.
  • Maintain an ongoing list of questions you would like to have answered
    Don't be shy or intimidated. If the contractor is not willing to spend a lot of time reassuring you of the process and specific details, s/he are not likely going to give your project adequate attention or consideration.
  • Select contractors affiliated with national organizations
    These industry watchdogs enforce codes of ethics, establish qualification standards and provide consumer information.
  • Choose professionals in business for at least five to ten years
    This indicates an established foundation in their field as well as the community.
  • Ask for references to determine:
    • The contractor's competence, reliability and dependability;
    • If the project was completed on time and within budget;
    • The quality of the work;
    • If there were problems along the way and/or with the completed project;
    • The contractor's availability for ongoing consultation before and during the project;
    • Verification of expertise claims;
    • If the reference would recommend the contractor without hesitation to friends or family.
  • Get samples and photographs of prior work
    If possible, try to arrange to see some prior completed projects in person to make sure the level of craftsmanship and style suit your personal tastes and vision.
  • Verify that the prospective contractor is bonded, insured, and licensed by the state's contractor licensing board
    Without these, you may be held liable for damages if there's an accident on the site, and have no recourse if the work isn't completed.
  • Try to stay involved with as much of the process as possible
    Supervision can be key for later insurance or legal claims if necessary. Keep photos and document any problems that may arise during the project's progress.
  • Check all work upon completion
    Insist on necessary repairs or revisions for imperfect sizing, exposed or unfinished carpentry, plumbing or electrical work, or anything that doesn't meet permit specifications or reflect your vision.
  • Work with a contractor who offers a guarantee on labor
    At least one year on all projects is adequate.
  • Document all agreements
    Include an estimated time line, cost projections, payment schedule, materials, representations, warranties, duties and obligations of both parties, and remedies in case anything goes awry.

Things Not To Do:

  • Hire a contractor based solely on advertised specials
    They often have hidden costs and fees, and without having thoroughly interviewed the contractor, there's no way of knowing if s/he is really qualified for the project.
  • Depend on the yellow pages exclusively
    After your fingers do the walking, your mouth needs to do some talking. As with advertised specials, your efforts cannot end without interviews and further research into qualifications and experience.
  • Accept verbal contracts or promises
    Always get agreements in writing and signed by both parties. While you may think that your reputable contractor is uber-trustworthy, verbal assurances can easily create problems stemming from misunderstandings.
  • Make a commitment with the first contractor you meet
    You'll want to compare the information provided by each contractor to determine whose vision, cost projection, and time estimate for completion match your own.
  • Provide final payment until the work is completed
    Wait until after the work passes inspection. Also ask yourself if the project meets or exceeds your expectations. If it doesn't, hold back the last payment until it does.
  • Agree to undocumented project changes or enhancements
    For the same reason you don't accept a verbal contract, insist on a written addendum detailing the improvement or alteration.
  • Assume that the contractor is following protocol
    Double check that subcontractors and suppliers are getting paid. If not, both can sue you for nonpayment. Also make sure the contractor has applied for and received the necessary permits under his/her own name. If permits are in your name and not followed to the letter, local and state authorities will hold you responsible with fines and/or halt construction.
  • Hire a newbie
    While you may get a break on the cost, an inexperienced contractor is the price you pay. Being new, s/he may not be familiar with permit procedures, customary practices, or adequately equipped to handle unexpected delays or obstacles.

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