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Issue Date: January 2007 Issue


Going Pro


Beth Stallings

The question homeowners most commonly ask when hiring a remodeling firm revolves around what the project will cost and how long it will take. But those queries merely skim the surface of what every homeowner should carefully research in order to protect himself and his home. We talked to local experts, who helped us draft these five rules to help guide your decision:

Find the needle in the haystack: A smart decision starts with how you recruit your contractor. A phone book may be the easiest way, but it’s unlikely to yield the best results. “That’s the last thing you want to do,” says Ken Badalamenti of Solon’s Riviera Construction. 

Badalamenti, who is also president of the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Greater Cleveland, recommends you ask relatives, friends and co-workers about reliable firms they’ve used.

Nate Coffman, HBA of Greater Cleveland executive director, recommends checking with local trade agencies as well. Consult with reputable associations such as the HBA, Professional Remodelers of Ohio (PRO) or Better Business Bureau to find reliable contractors. Since Ohio does not require licensing or registration for contractors, professional associations can verify whether a business is certified and has promised to adhere to the organization’s code of ethics.
 
Trust first impressions: When meeting with a potential remodeling firm, find out how long it’s been in business. If a contractor has a long and successful track record, he will be happy to share that information, says PRO executive director Brenda Callaghan.

Also be sure the contractor has more than just a post-office box for an address and a permanent phone number, not just a cellular phone. Throughout your initial meeting, ask yourself if it seems like the contractor understands what you’re looking for in the job, Badalamenti advises. Remodeling a home is about what the owner wants, not what the contractor feels the need to provide.

“If it’s not a good fit, regardless of how skilled the contractor is, it won’t be a good job,” Badalamenti says.
 
Conduct a background check: Ask to see pictures of past projects the firm has done that are comparable to yours. If you want to remodel your kitchen and the contractor only has pictures of living rooms, question whether he has the experience you need.

Also pay attention to the trade affiliations — the letter designations after a contractor’s name — that are often overlooked by consumers. Those are licenses granted by reputable trade organizations that have to be renewed. It is a way for a remodeling firm to show it is staying current and aware of new trends in the industry.

Another indication of reliability can be determined by getting a list of references from the contractor. No firm will ever supply you with the name of someone who will give it a bad report, so the key here, according to Badalamenti, is how you interview those references.

You should ask open-ended questions that require the contractor’s former customer to explain the job. Why did they like the contractor? What kind of job was it? How large was it? Would they hire the contractor again?

Listen for any hesitation in their answers and ask for specifics. Just because one homeowner loved their remodeler doesn’t mean you will.
 
Prepare to talk dirty: Now that you know your contractor has the knowledge and experience to get the job done, consider the day-to-day aspects of construction, because it will get loud and messy.

Be prepared for inconveniences by asking your contractor what parts of the home may be inaccessible and how daily routines may need to be adjusted, Callaghan suggests. For example, if a bathroom or kitchen is being redone, you need to know how long you will be without those amenities.

And be aware that a lot of dust will be stirred up during the project. Does the contractor tape off supply and return registers to help keep air ducts clean? Do they cover your carpet and furniture with plastic? Both are questions you should ask. 

Inquire about where material for the job will be stored and ask the contractor to explain how he will protect your home during the job, suggests Fred Freer owner of Four Square Restorations in Mayfield Village.

“Those are not things that most [homeowners] ever ask about,” Freer says. “Those who haven’t been through it before never think about it.”
 
Put it in writing: Because the cost of any one project can vary extensively, ask for an estimate and a range of prices. Also, find out if you are responsible for a down payment. Some firms may ask for 25 percent to 50 percent of the cost at the beginning of the project, according to Freer.

“We rail against that in the industry,” he says, adding that his firm never asks for more than 15 percent of a project’s cost before starting, unless a lot of custom materials need to be purchased.

Examine your contract closely. Be sure it includes a payment schedule that you and the contractor agree upon and how the cost of unexpected expenditures will be covered.

If you want to be informed before every add-on to the job, make sure that language is in your contract as well. Callaghan recommends all invoices, additional charges or changes to the original agreement be in writing and kept on file by the homeowner.

A warranty should also be part of your original contract. A typical warranty, according to Callaghan, is no less than one year and covers all facets of the project. Warranties should include the name and address of the party responsible for fixing whatever goes wrong, be it the contractor, distributor or manufacturer.

And before you sign anything, Freer adds, make sure you see an outline of the job that gives the plan in detail with accompanying costs, start and completion dates and how, as a homeowner, you will be given updates on the construction process.

Ask how early work will begin each morning and how late it will go each day. If you aren’t happy about the answer, don’t be afraid to say so.

 “Communication is very important,” Freer says. “It’s an intangible sense of trust.” v

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