Advice for Selecting a Home Contractor Can Help Avoid Unwelcome Surprises

Advice for Selecting a Home Contractor Can Help Avoid Unwelcome Surprises

June 20, 2008

Many Midwesterners who are drying out after several weeks of stormy weather soon will turn their attention to repairing their homes. Finding a reliable contractor can be a challenge, especially since less-than-reputable workers often emerge to take advantage of natural disasters.

"Most contractors are reliable and trustworthy," said Shirley Niemeyer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension housing and environment specialist. "However, a few may take advantage of disaster situations."

Following a few key steps can head off trouble. Niemeyer's advice:


  • Homeowners should be skeptical of any contractors who come directly to their home seeking work. They may say they are already in the neighborhood, so they can give you a special price and usually will attempt to pressure you into making a quick decision. Ask door-to-door solicitors to leave a phone number and materials. Legitimate operations have a permanent address.


  • Ask friends or colleagues for names of contractors they've used. Look for contractors that belong to professional associations. These associations usually have professional standards for their members. Ask how long the contractor has been in business and about his or her training.


  • Try to get at least three bids. Give all contractors the same information so estimates are comparable. Ask for names of previous customers and call or visit them to see if they would hire the contractor again.


  • Most areas of the country require building permits for both new construction and for remodeling and some repairs such as roof repair. Do not agree to obtain building permits for the contractor since this may make you liable for the quality of the work. Do be sure the contractor obtains the necessary building permits. Do not allow work without a permit. Permits provide an assurance that the work is being completed according to local building codes. However, do ask the contractor how familiar he or she is with the codes in your county or community.


  • Be sure the contract is complete. It should have specifications for all major materials and steps in the project. The quality and types of materials should be stated in the contract. For additions or remodeling jobs, ask for scale drawings. Clean-up, repairs or replacements for defective merchandise and faulty or poor quality work should be addressed in the contract. Ask about the contractor's insurance coverage, and how and when building materials and service bills and any subcontractors will be paid.


  • Don't sign a contract with blank spaces, and do not agree to pay the amount in advance. Discounts for advance payments are a potential indication of a possible scam. Another variation is contractors who offer to arrange financing for you. They may offer to take care of everything if you sign a few papers, saying payments can be spread over several years with a small down payment. However, the papers may be for an extremely high-interest loan against your home which involves large balloon payments at the end. If the loan money is paid directly to the contractor even before the work is done, the contractor may have little incentive to complete the work. Pay invoices as the work is completed. Use check or money orders for paying.


  • If financing is necessary, check with your bank or lender. Pay the contractor as the work is completed or in stages, reserving some money for when the work is finished satisfactorily.

Remember, if you sign a contract for home improvements, federal and state laws allow three business days to reconsider the decision and back out of the contract. The contractor must leave a copy of the contract and must explain your right to cancel.

Dan Moser

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