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Facts on Homeimprovement Projects
Learn more about your project needs, how-to hire, scams check lists and contracts.

If you decide your home improvement project is too large for you to take on, then who should you hire? Below are a few suggestions:

1. General Contractors manage all aspects of your project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, getting building permits, and scheduling inspections. They also work with architects and designers.

2. Speciality Contractors install particular products, such as cabinets and bathroom fixtures.

3. Architects design homes, additions, and major renovations. If your project includes structural changes, you may want to hire an architect who specializes in home remodeling.

4. Designers have expertise in specific areas of the home, such as kitchens and baths.

5. Design /Build Contractors provide one-stop service. They see your project through from start to finish. Some firms have architects on staff; others use certified designers.

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? While most states license electrical and plumbing contractors, only 36 states have some type of licensing and registration statutes affecting contractors, remodelers, and/or specialty contractors. The licensing can range from simple registration to a detailed qualification process. Also, the licensing requirements in one locality may be different from the requirements in the rest of the state. Check with your local building department or consumer protection agency to find out about licensing requirements in your area. If your state has licensing laws, ask to see the contractor’s license. 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? Most states and localities require permits for building projects, even for simple jobs like decks. 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, as required by your state or locality.

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. A "mechanic’s lien" could be placed on your home if your contractor fails to pay the subcontractors and suppliers on your project. That means the subcontractors and suppliers could go to court to force you to sell your home to satisfy their unpaid bills from your project. Protect yourself by asking the contractor, and every subcontractor and supplier, for a lien release or lien waiver.

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.


Checking References
Talk with some of the contractor’s former customers. They can help you decide if a particular contractor is right for you. You may want to ask:

Can I visit a home to see the completed job?

Were you satisfied with the project? Was it completed on time?

Did the contractor keep you informed about the status of the project, and any problems along the way?

Were there unexpected costs? If so, what were they?

Did workers show up on time?

Did workers clean up after finishing the job?

Would you recommend the contractor?

Would you use the contractor again?

The "Home Improvement" Loan Scam
A contractor calls or knocks on your door and offers to install a new roof or remodel your kitchen at a price that sounds reasonable. You tell him you’re interested, but can’t afford it. He tells you it’s no problem — he can arrange financing through a lender he knows. You agree to the project, and the contractor begins work. At some point after the contractor begins, you are asked to sign a lot of papers. The papers may be blank or the lender may rush you to sign before you have time to read what you’ve been given to sign. You sign the papers. Later, you realize that the papers you signed are a home equity loan. The interest rate, points and fees seem very high. To make matters worse, the work on your home isn’t done right or hasn’t been completed, and the contractor, who may have been paid by the lender, has little interest in completing the work to your satisfaction.

You can protect yourself from inappropriate lending practices. Here’s how. Don’t:

Agree to a home equity loan if you don’t have enough money to make the monthly payments.

Sign any document you haven’t read or any document that has blank spaces to be filled in after you sign.

Let anyone pressure you into signing any document.

Deed your property to anyone. First consult an attorney, a knowledgeable family member, or someone else you trust.

Agree to financing through your contractor without shopping around and comparing loan terms.


Getting a Written Contract
Contract requirements vary by state. Even if your state does not require a written agreement, ask for one. A contract spells out the who, what, where, when and cost of your project. The agreement should be clear, concise and complete. Before you sign a contract, make sure it contains:

The contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number, if required.

The payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors and suppliers.

An estimated start and completion date.

The contractor’s obligation to obtain all necessary permits.

How change orders will be handled. A change order — common on most remodeling jobs — is a written authorization to the contractor to make a change or addition to the work described in the original contract.

A detailed list of all materials including color, model, size, brand name, and product.

Warranties covering materials and workmanship. The names and addresses of the parties honoring the warranties — contractor, distributor or manufacturer — must be identified. The length of the warranty period and any limitations also should be spelled out.

What the contractor will and will not do. For example, is site clean-up and trash hauling included in the price? Ask for a "broom clause." It makes the contractor responsible for all clean-up work, including spills and stains.

Oral promises also should be added to the written contract.

A written statement of your right to cancel the contract within three business days if you signed it in your home or at a location other than the seller’s permanent place of business. During the sales transaction, the salesperson (contractor) must give you two copies of a cancellation form (one to keep and one to send back to the company) and a copy of your contract or receipt. The contract or receipt must be dated, show the name and address of the seller, and explain your right to cancel.





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Watch out for yourself!
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;

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.

Completing the Job: A Checklist
Before you sign off and make the final payment, use this checklist to make sure the job is complete. Check that:

  • All work meets the standards spelled out
    in the contract.

  • You have written
    warranties for materials
    and workmanship.

  • You have proof that all subcontractors and
    suppliers have been paid.

  • The job site has been cleaned up and cleared
    of excess materials, tools and equipment.

  • You have inspected and approved the completed work.


Keeping Records
Keep all paperwork related to
your project in one place. This
includes copies of the contract,
change orders and
correspondence with your home improvement professionals. Keep
a log or journal of all phone calls, conversations and activities. You
also might want to take photographs
as the job progresses. These records are especially important
if you have problems with your
project — during or after construction.