By Dave Sutton | Photo courtesy of Blue Door Painters, Inc.
Even under the best circumstances, undergoing a home improvement project is stressful for homeowners. Choosing the right contractor, keeping an eye on the work being performed, communicating one’s needs and desires— all of these are essential, but new, to most homeowners.
This article attempts to inform homeowners about what to look for in a home improvement contractor, how to better communicate, what to expect in terms of a payment schedule and how to respond if something goes awry. We also spoke with contractors about the things they wish homeowners knew.
The Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC) licenses and regulates home improvement contractors. The commission investigates complaints by homeowners and awards monetary damages against licensed contractors out of a Guaranty Fund. Each licensed contractor is covered by the fund for up to $100,000 for all claims, and the amount that can be awarded per homeowner is $20,000.
The fund applies only to work done by licensed contractors. “Any homeowner who hires an unlicensed contractor is putting their own safety and the integrity of their residence at risk,” says Steven Smitson, executive director of the MHIC.
The first step to vetting a contractor using the MHIC is verifying whether or not the individual and/or company is licensed. To do so, go online to www.dllr.state.md.us and click on the MHIC icon. Consumers can check by last name, trade name, salesperson name, license registration number or enter their own zip code to search for licensed contractors in their area. In addition, MHIC is in the process of putting all disciplinary actions online in a searchable database. Come this May or June, consumers will be able to go to the MHIC site to research and examine disciplinary actions made against contractors.
What Do You Wish Homeowners Knew?
The majority of disputes with contractors arise from homeowners having expectations that differ from the work actually performed, poor communication or homeowners not being pleased with the work, says Smitson. Homeowners who simply go with the cheapest estimate are probably setting themselves up for failure, he adds.
Michael Budman of MAB Home Services agrees. “Hiring solely for the low price is dangerous. I get calls from people who’ve hired low-price contractors asking whether I can fix the work that’s been done. Sometimes when I give them a price to fix the work they say, ‘That’s more than the original price.’ Then I explain that I also have to undo the earlier work.”
Reputable contractors may be a little more expensive because they must possess certain necessities in order to do business, says Karen Kunze of CWK Construction. “We must have insurance, licenses, skilled workers, vehicles and a central point of operations. However, when the work is done homeowners will find that their experience is more professional, complete and honest.”
Along with unlicensed contractors, high-pressure sales tactics are a red flag. Smitson emphasizes that homeowners are well advised to avoid making impulse decisions based on such tactics. “If you didn’t wake up that morning planning to enter a contract, then our advice is to not sign. Some of the scams say, ‘Oh, I have an extra load, or extra materials, and if I can do the work today then I can give you a great discount.’”
There are two more essential items that contractors wish homeowners knew. Depending on the size of the project, the process may take several weeks and the home will be under construction. “Although the construction may create a period of discomfort in the home, the finished product will be well worth the sacrifice,” says Elyse Inukai with Kaska Construction.
The second item to consider is that home renovation work often leads to finding other issues. Contractors agree that once you open up a home and climb behind or beneath its surfaces, you’re apt to discover a few more things to fix. In fact, homeowners with older residences should be especially prepared for this.
What Should Homeowners Look for in a Home Improvement Contractor?
Smitson says homeowners should take the time to contact references, go and observe the work they’ve done and ask key questions such as whether the client was satisfied with the contractor’s communication, work schedule, quality of work and follow-up.
Inukai says general home improvement contractors are required to post their MHIC license on business cards, company vehicles and all advertisements. If they don’t, they are violating state law, subject to fines and probably not reliable, she adds. Inukai also recommends homeowners ask for proof of the contractor’s general liability insurance prior to signing a contract. “The home improvement contractor should have a minimum of $1,000,000 in general liability insurance prior to undertaking any projects,” she advises.
Michael Budman says the Internet is one of the best resources available, and he specifically recommends reviewing Angie’s List.
Another good tip is to look for contractors who are themselves homeowners. This type of professional understands how much homeowners have invested in their residence—emotionally and financially—and may take more care with an improvement project.
How Should Homeowners Better Communicate Their Needs and Desires?
Nearly everyone interviewed emphasized that the contract is all-important. “Once the contract is written, give it to a neighbor and ask: ‘What am I paying for?’ If a kid can’t understand the contract, then chances are it will end up having a dispute,” says Smitson. Contractors emphasize that in bidding a job, homeowners should make certain to write down exactly what they wish to do, then furnish identical requirements to each bidding contractor.
Another excellent way to improve communication is to look for a company that will explain the process before it is undertaken, says Jeff Stein of Blue Door Painters. “Most homeowners don’t know how to ask about the process, so it’s important to work with a company that will explain it proactively.”
Finally, contractors suggest homeowners move beyond what is being done to why. “It’s really important to know the purpose behind the work,” says Stein. “For example, if the room being painted is going to eventually be a nursery, then maybe the customer would like us to use an odor-free paint.”
Also consider the level of fix needed. Are you planning on living in the house for some time, or are you just trying to spruce it up before putting it on the market?
What Should Homeowners Expect in Terms of Payment Schedule?
In Maryland, a contractor is legally permitted to request a one-third payment up front, says Kunze. “Anything above that amount is generally not a good idea and a reputable contractor will not ask for more,” she adds.
Stein’s Blue Door Painters request one-third down and two-thirds toward the end of a project. Most contractors ask for one-third down, one-third in the middle and one-third on final delivery. Much shorter or much longer jobs may sometimes alter these schedules, contractors agree.
What Should Homeowners Do If Something Goes Wrong?
“The first line of defense is to walk around with a contractor each day before they leave,” says Stein. “In this way, homeowners may prevent a problem.”
Perhaps the most important thing is to not immediately become confrontational, says Budman. “Address it in a workman-like fashion and try to be open and honest,” he says.
According to Kunze, if the job supervisor is not able to solve the problem, then homeowners should call and ask to speak to the company’s owner. “Since contractors are businesspeople, they should do their best to try to resolve conflicts because there is no better referral than a repeat, satisfied customer.”
If the company owner is not responsive, then the homeowner may try to contact the MHIC. The very last resort, says Kunze, should be legal recourse. “The only ‘winners’ in that forum are the lawyers involved.”
Published in the March/April 2012 issue of Montgomery Magazine.