February 2006
Volume 2, Number 2
Table of Contents

Need House Work?
Tips on Choosing the Right Contractor

By Ellen Rappaport Tanowitz

With housing prices rising to extraordinary levels, perhaps you have considered renovating rather than moving to a larger house. Here are some points to consider before you sign on the dotted line with a contractor.

• Ask for referrals from friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Receiving a referral from someone you know is often the best way to find the right person to do the job.

• Keep in mind the scope of the job. For example, if you want to add a twostory addition to your home, the contractor who redid your Aunt Jane’s half-bath is not necessarily the person for the job. Like lawyers, contractors have specialties, and ripping off roofs and sides of houses is far different from replacing some plumbing fixtures.

• Be wary of references from the contractor, who will likely give you his three best customers. Rather, ask the contractor for the names of the last 3 projects he has completed or is presently working on. If he hesitates, it could be a warning signal. Additionally, ask to visit one or more of his current work sites.

• Determine the licensing regulations in your state. In Massachusetts, a contractor must register with the state as a home improvement contractor. An examination is not necessary; however, most residential construction projects, renovations, or new construction require a construction supervisor. A construction supervisor is licensed by the state and is required to take an examination. The process can get complicated; insist that your contractor follow the rules, which could be a prerequisite to collecting from a state fund set up to protect consumers from fraudulent contractors.

• Make sure your contractor has insurance—worker’s compensation and errors and omissions—and that the coverage amounts are sufficient. If your contractor fails to secure the tarps on your exposed roof and water gets into your home, the damage could be significant. By the same token, contact your own insurance company and find out whether you can add a rider for a nominal cost. That way, if something goes wrong you will at least be reimbursed. The insurance companies can then fight out who ultimately pays the claim, not you.

• How busy is the contractor? This is tricky because a contractor who is not busy may not be a contractor you want on your job. On the other hand, a contractor who is too busy may not be able to devote the necessary time to your job. Find out who will be overseeing the job. Who will be at your home daily? Make sure you know whom to call if any questions or problems arise.

• When drafting or reviewing the contract, consider all the things that can go wrong—a rock ledge six feet down, torrential downpours, a plywood shortage— and be clear about whose responsibility it is to pay for damages or delays in such scenarios.

• Finally, the most important thing is to control the money! It is reasonable to pay the contractor a certain amount up front for supplies and down payments to subcontractors. However, never pay a contractor more than one-third of the contract price in advance and do not pay for work before it is completed. Many contractors will set up the contract so that they can request a check at least once a week. Be sure the contract defines the steps in your job—demolition, pouring the foundation, erecting interior walls, and so on. Tell the contractor that you will pay as each task is completed and include it in the contract.

Of course taking all these steps is no guarantee of a problem-free project, but they will help direct you to a good contractor.

Ellen Rappaport Tanowitz is a solo practitioner who survived a complete gut of and addition to her kitchen last fall.


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