Q. We are planning to do a major remodel of our 30 year old home in the spring. We know what we want done; kitchen redo, new windows, two bathrooms make over and removing a wall to enlarge the family room. We have never done anything quite as big as this and wonder if you could advise us on how to avoid the horror stories weíve heard about with contractors.
A. From time to time I teach a class at the Edgewater Senior Center and although the course name is Basic Home Repair I can tell you that the number one thing my class wants to know is how to avoid getting the shaft when having work done. So Iíll take it from the top to get you started down the right path. Of course youíll want to get competitive bids and to do that intelligently the very first thing you need to do-- if you havenít already-- is to sit down and compose a document called a scope of work. You want to spell out in as fine a detail as you can exactly what you want done. You wont be able to do that in an afternoon because youíll want to be as specific as identifying the brands of cabinet, fixtures, windows-- everything you can think of that will end up in your project. Once you have that you can begin the bid process in a way where every bidder is bidding on the same thing. Some bidders may propose substitute materials or approaches and if they do be sure you understand exactly what it is they are proposing. By so doing some bidders may spot ways to save you money-- called value engineering, but others may even cost you more-- so be wary. If they are going to use sub-contractors have the bidders identify them so you can check them out. As you narrow your selection process down, ask the bidders you are most interested in for references-- at least three. Ask specifically for the names and phone numbers of past clients. Call them and ask them what their relationship with the bidder is or was. Eliminate relatives or friends. Go the DLLR (Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation) website to see if their licenses are current. In this slow economic environment, marginal contractors may allow their licenses to slip. Itís been estimated that some 30% of those representing that they have some sort of a trade license donít in fact have one. In all my years I have only been asked to produce my license once. Asking only insults the unlicensed. Get an insurance certificate from their liability carrier. This is a real litmus test because if they balk at this request itís an almost lead pipe cinch that they arenít insured. Insurance carriers freely and happily mail insurance certificates when their insured asks for them. As you approach the actual act of signing a contract and youíve done all your homework and the selected contractor appears to be the one youíll be going with sit down with them and develop a payment and completion schedule. Maryland law allows up to a third of the contract price to be requested upon contract signing but no more. Donít let the ďI need more now to buy materialsĒ ploy to allow the contractor to get way ahead of you with money. Itís your money. Keep to the payment schedule. If anything changes during the work, donít allow it to be done without a written change order, regardless of who initiates the change. Run the initial contract past your attorney before you sign it. Identify a start date and a completion date. The start date may be an easy thing to stick to but those completion dates tend to become elusive. Youíll need a building permit-- so get one. The next decision you need to make is where are you going to live if the kitchen and baths are torn apart. I never recommend living in a construction jobsite. Itís a mess by definition and Iíve seen it wreck a marriage. Hire an independent like an experienced home inspector to do progress inspections. Donít write the final check until the job is 100% done and cleaned up-- no piles of scrap or tools left around. If you think Iím being overly stern relisten to some of those folks who have horror stories. After medical procedures, people love to talk about their home improvement nightmares. Last but not least, rent the movie ďThe Money PitĒ and watch it. Itís funny but contains many kernels of truth.