Q: Everyone complains about builders before or after the building process. My concern is that builders don’t deliver what is promised, or they trick me in the paperwork I’m supposed to sign. How can I protect myself from fraud? Are there laws protecting me against these giants? –Ron Z., via e-mail
A: First of all, I feel you’re being too broad in your statements. Most contractors are small-business owners, not the giants you allude to, and while there are certainly dishonest and unscrupulous contractors — as there are practitioners of any trade — after 27 years as a contractor myself, I know of very few who “trick” clients into signing paperwork.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that many construction projects are somewhat subjective in nature. A person may want to have a bathroom remodeled, and mentally he or she has an image of what the remodeling should accomplish. However, he or she may be unwilling or unable to accurately convey those expectations to the contractor, who then has to form his or her own mental image of what’s expected. Without good, clear, ongoing written and verbal communication, it’s doubtful that those two mental images are going to coincide exactly, and in my experience that’s when the problems are going to occur.
To answer the other part of your question, yes, almost every state has laws in place to protect the consumer against contractor fraud to some degree or another. But you need to rely on yourself first and foremost, and toward that end I would have the following general recommendations:
- Know your contractor: Try to select a contractor who has been referred to you by someone you know and trust. Most contractors are not huge, faceless corporations; select a small company, meet the owner in person, and get a feel for who you’re dealing with. This is a two-way street, and remember that as contractors, we’re just as leery of new and unknown clients as they are of us. For every horror story of dishonest contractors, there’s another story of the “clients from hell.” Try to start your relationship on a footing of mutual trust and respect.
- Check references: Get the contractor’s license number as well as bond and insurance information, then check the status of them with the state contractors board. The contractor can give you the necessary information and phone numbers, and if they won’t, drop them from your list immediately.
- Check past clients: Request a list of past clients from the contractor, and contact some of them to see what their experiences were. Again, if the contractor will not provide you with references, then don’t even consider using them.
- Get it in writing: When you hire a contractor for anything — a new house, a remodel, a repair — get an estimate in writing of what they are going to do and how much it will cost. Make your wishes as clear to them as possible; then be sure as many specifics of your agreement as possible are spelled out in a written contract. Make sure you understand the contractor and your rights and obligations under it; if you don’t, then ask questions. As the job progresses, if there are any change orders you need to make, be sure they are in writing as well.
- Have a written contract: Obtain a contract in writing that spells out the details of your agreement, including work to be done, price, payment details, and remedies in the event of problems.
- Never pay upfront: It still amazes me the number of people I hear of who pay all or a large part of the price of the job in an upfront payment, and then despair as to why they have no recourse if the job goes awry. Incidentally, it’s one of the major objections that I have to contracting with a home center. Never pay the contract in advance for promised work, even if they offer you a great discount.
It’s not unusual to pay a contractor a small deposit at the time you sign the contract — never more than 10 percent of the job — but never pay for work that hasn’t been done. As the job progresses, pay your draws as each part of the job is fully completed — the draw schedule will be spelled out in your contract.
- Don’t ask for “contractor pricing” or other discounts: How many people would walk into a restaurant and ask for the steak at the owner’s price, or ask the tire dealer for tires at his cost? You wouldn’t think of it, yet it’s a very common question that contractors hear every day. Contractors are business people, and if they are able to purchase something at a wholesale or discounted price — as business owners of all types do — that is part of their profit margin, and it’s certainly not yours to ask for. Treat the contractor with respect, and you will receive the same in return.
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