How To

Getting the Most Out of Your Contractor

Dealing with contractors is as costly as it is aggravating. A friend told me a joke that says it all.

“How can you tell if a contractor is lying?”

“I don’t know, how?”

“His lips are moving.”

From dealing with dozens of contractors for home repairs beyond my DIY powers, I’ve learned these essential tricks for getting a fair deal.

Get it in writing.

Always, always, always get it in writing. I cannot overemphasize this enough. At the minimum, get the cost, a detailed description of the work to be done, the start date, the end date, the payment schedule, and who will perform the work in writing. And these are just the basics. When in doubt, put it on paper.

Request changes.

It is rare that the contract the contractor sends you meets your best interests. Make sure to request as many changes as you feel appropriate and politely refuse to sign until they are agreed to.

Address overruns.

A contractor once sent us a bill for 50 percent more than the agreed upon price. His reason? His worker had done more than stated in the original contract. But not once had the worker asked us, or gotten our written permission, to do additional work. I truly regretted not having added the following statement to the contract: “Any additional work not outlined in this contract will not be paid unless the additional work is submitted in writing and approved by (homeowner) before being performed.”

Pay in full after the work is done.

I prefer to pay no more than 25 percent up front (although, I would go up to 50 percent if materials were a significant cost.) The remainder of the money is due after every single nail has been hammered in. Don’t pay up a second earlier.

Get multiple quotes.

When we gutted our kitchen, we received three quotes from electricians. The highest quote ($4,500) was more than double the lowest ($1,800). I let each electrician know I was getting multiple quotes and, in one case, I used a rival quote to negotiate a lower estimate.

Get recommendations.

Hire whomever you have a personal recommendation from. Not only is there pressure on the worker to do a good job because whomever recommended him will find out if he doesn’t, but it increases your chances of a job done well. If your friend had a good experience, it’s likely you will, too.

Buy materials yourself.

Otherwise you will end up paying the contractor’s hourly rate for him to shop at Home Depot.

License and proof of insurance, please.

Make sure the contractor is licensed and insured. Should there be an accident on the job, you don’t want to get into any liability issues. Running the contractor’s license number is an easy way to check for past complaints or problems.

Include clean up.

Construction is a messy job. That’s a big part of why you hired someone else! But if you don’t specifically ask the workers to clean up after themselves, verbally and in writing, your yard or home will be strewn with dust, scrap wood, trash, and nails. Depending on how much debris he leaves behind, you may have to pay to get it carted away. Avoid the mess and the cost by requiring the contractor to leave the work site as he came to it.

Be professional.

It’s not a friendship. The contractors I’ve dealt with have all been very friendly and very accommodating when visiting to formulate an estimate. That ends as soon as a contract is signed. Don’t be fooled into hiring someone just because they seem like a nice guy. Part of their job is selling themselves. Remember, this is a business agreement, not a friendship.

Julia Scott writes the money saving blog, BargainBabe.com. The backyard fence fell down, so it’s next on her list.