What You Should Know Before You Hire A Home Improvement Contractor

Home Improvement Contractors (HIC) and Home Improvement Salesman (HIS) are required by law in almost every jurisdiction in the United States to be registered and licensed. Licensing procedures are generally done by Municipal or local agencies of the respective State. For example, HIC and HIS are licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs in New York City.

As you might be aware, many of these Home Improvements Contractors and Salesmen are “fly by night” operators who misrepresent and fraudulently swindle millions of dollars from innocent home owners every year. Many of whom run and operate their scams out of their Vans, Trucks and SUV instead of a physical business address. Many years ago, the home improvement trade was referred to as the “Tin Men” industry where high powered salesmen sold aluminum sidings to homeowners with over 500-1000 per cent mark ups in many cases. Many of those same homeowners ended up with huge second mortgages, mechanic liens and foreclosures in many cases against their properties.

If you are a homeowner making plans to renovate or improve your properties, these are some tips on how to select or chose the right Home Improvement Contractor for your next project. First and foremost, ask HIC and HIS for proof of license, business card showing address, phone number, website, email addresses, etc. Their licenses should be imprinted on business cards. Next, ask for references or testimonials. Try to get at least 3-5 references and make sure not only to call them, but go over and look at the work that was done first hand. Visual inspection is always crucial in deciding on a project. Most importantly, get at least 3-5 written estimates from other HIC/HIS and compare prices. It is never recommended to sign a contract on the spot with any of these high powered salesmen. Take time out to think about the quote or estimate, compare prices and most importantly, call your local municipal or agency to verify that the HIC and HIS are legitimate. It is also a good idea to find out if the HIC you are contemplating to do business with carry what is called a Home Improvement Trust Fund. This is a fund that each HIC is required to pay into so if a homeowner gets scammed, he or she can seek restitution directly from the Agency that licensed the HIC or HIS. Last but not least, try not to give a deposit during the execution of contract. Give yourself that 3 days cancellation right that you are entitled to, so you can think about the transaction or offer. If in any case you are required to give a down payment or deposit, give a very small deposit (less than 10 per cent) if possible. Always keep in mind, never give more than you can afford to lose. If the HIC or HIS is legitimate, they will not ask or insist on getting a deposit up front. They should be credible enough to have accounts/credit with Suppliers such as Home Depot, Lowes, etc., to get materials delivered to your property. Beware of HIC or HIS who desperately seek huge deposits up front. Some of them will demand that you write the check in their names or give them cash. Do NOT do it. That is the first sign to detect an illegal operator. You should write the check to the Company or use a credit card. If they refuse, you should show them the door or call the Police.

In conclusion, let me recommend that you seek a progress payment plan with your Contractor. In other words, you pay them as they go along based on your approval, and most importantly, the Municipal Building Inspector’s approval. You do NOT want to pay a Contractor until or unless the Inspectors give a green light certifying that the work is done professionally and in accordance with local building codes. Ask your Contractor to allow you to hold back at least 10 per cent of the final payment, or better yet, the total contract price for at least 60-90 days after completion, so as to make sure that the work was done correctly. Just imagine getting a roof done for example, and only to find out after a heavy downpour that your roof leaks. Many Contractors do not come back to repair their shoddy workmanship when they get paid. Hold back some money! If you financed your project through a bank or third party lender, get that finance company involved. Make sure that they do a visual inspection of the job that was done and also sign off with the job before they release final payments to the Contractor.

The Need for National Guidelines and Testing in the Home Improvement Industry

It is time for Washington to step up and put legislation in place that will force states to better regulate the home improvement industry. Up to now Washington has left the regulation of the home improvement industry up to state regulators, and for whatever reason(s) many states have fallen considerably short.

There are still some states that do not even have contractor licensing in place for home improvements. For some of the states that do have licensing, the license requirements do not include that the applicant demonstrate the ability to do any type of home improvement work. (That is like saying I will issue you a license to cut hair but you don’t have to demonstrate that you know how to cut hair……… ouch!) Then why do states bother issuing licenses if there are no requirements to demonstrate competence? Revenue? Or could it be that they need more consumer complaints for Consumer Affairs and BBB to handle? The unfortunate consequences of this problem are that homeowners are the ones who are paying the price by receiving poor workmanship and a cascade of home improvement problems.

Let’s be honest, the home improvement industry does not seem to attract the most reliable, honest and competent individuals. The lure of a quick buck and the relative ease to “qualify” to do home improvement work, brings many a “character” to your door. When I was a contractor I needed to hire people for a variety of field positions. Most of the people, who I interviewed and sometimes hired, seemed to have the same type of problems with past employers. These problems consisted of substance abuse issues, honesty issues, and reliability issues. The labor pool never seemed to have an over abundance of talent and employability to pick from.

I remember always reading article after article that dealt with the significant manpower shortage in the home improvement industry. The bottom line of each article would always be the same, “If you can find an honest, reliable and competent person to work for you, pull out all the stops to keep them!!!! Do whatever you need to do to keep that person happy because you’ll never know if you will be lucky enough to find someone to take their place.” As an owner, it was a very constant and stressful problem to deal with. You were almost afraid to try and increase project production because you knew you would have to try and find someone to do the additional work. Finding employees was always an adventure, an adventure that I never looked forward to.

For the last 10-15 years the number one problem in the home improvement industry is the lack of manpower. Many contractors are training and hiring minorities to try and solve this major problem.

If you were to talk to your state authorities about what is being done to improve regulations and screening in the home improvement industry, they will probably tell you something is in the works or there is no money for more regulations (testing). I have been hearing this for 30 years. The county in which I live (Suffolk County, New York) still does not require any demonstration of home improvement ability to obtain a home improvement license. The fee has consistently gone up but the requirements have pretty much stayed the same. We are one of the highest taxed counties in the country, so I refuse to believe there is no money to develop and implement a better policing and screening process in the home improvement industry.

The National Association of The Remodeling Industry (NARI) http://www.nari.org is the only national organization that offers certification of home improvement individuals. They have a number of different certifications that one could obtain. To obtain these certifications the applicant needs to demonstrate a variety of knowledge, ranging from good business practices to project knowledge. NARI’s main certification is called – Certified Remodeler (CR). This certification requires the applicant to prepare an extensive matrix or resume of their experience and knowledge as well as obtaining a certain score on an 8-hour exam. There are only approximately 1000 CR’s, out of the hundreds of thousands of home improvement contractors in this country. I earned this certification in 1994 and still proudly hold this certification today. I will admit that obtaining this certification is a time consuming process and does take considerable effort, but it was well worth it. What I also like about this certification is that it has to be renewed every year by demonstrating continued involvement and knowledge in the home improvement industry.

Why then couldn’t Washington mandate some type of screening, nationwide, that all people interested in doing home improvements must be able to “pass” to obtain a license? This license could be used nationwide. Use a screening process that emulates what NARI does for its certifications. You could make the screening as simple as a comprehensive test with multiple choice questions. A test that could be machine scored.

I think an ideal situation for licensing would be to divide up home improvement licensing into sub-licenses. For example, if you were a bathroom contractor you would obtain a license for bathroom home improvements only. This would refine what licensees are qualified to do, rather then issuing one license that could wrongly give the impression that the licensee is capable of doing any type of project.

The reason I think Washington needs to get involved with this problem is because the American public doesn’t have the time to wait for each of the 50 states to come up with a similar solution, individually.

However, if Washington were to step up and mandate a national screening and testing situation, you would still have to address the screening of the people who show up to work on your house. (if they were not the person(s) who was screened and licensed) These people would hopefully be employees of the person who was screened. Is the homeowner then back to square one with not knowing the qualifications of the people working on their house? I tend to think not, because the person who went through the screening and obtained the license would want to keep the license. It is in the best interest of the licensed individual to make sure the project is done correctly. Problems develop when a contractor has too much work and attempts to get it all done by using inexperienced and unqualified help. The lure of completing more work and making more money sometimes leads to his or her business getting “out of control”. This subsequently leads to quality and project completion problems. Employees of licensed and screened contractors need to “qualify” on some level similar to NARI’s lead carpenter certification.

Will any of these desperately needed changes occur any time soon? To be honest, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to step up to the plate and I don’t think your state or local governments will dramatically improve home improvement regulations either.

So what should a homeowner do to protect their home and property? Get the right “tools” and knowledge to be able to protect your home from poor home improvement decisions and situations.

Understanding More About Home Improvement Contractors

Home improvement contractors cannot legally take up projects and otherwise work as contractors unless they are licensed. There is one license issuing authority in every state of the USA. Note the following points:

- The license is proof of the competence and capability of the license holder to work as a home improvement contractor.

- If you employ an unlicensed contractor, the work carried out shall be considered illegal.

- If such a person is utilized to install a product, the owner of the product faces the risk of losing the advantages of all warranties and insurance policies on the product. If something goes wrong during the installation, the owner shall have no protection whatsoever.

- Any person desirous of starting a construction business should contact the proper authorities to obtain the licenses and registrations.

The process is time consuming one and should be commenced at least six months prior to the planned date of commencement of business. So plan ahead.

Construction Work Is Not As Easy As It Seems

It is dangerous to think that building or repairing most home projects is an easy task with no further specializations in the field. The truth is that each contractor, sooner or later, chooses to specialize in a particular aspect of his work.

The general areas of specialization are:

a. designing

b. plumbing

c. electrical work

d. engineering work

e. joining work

f. interior designing

You may notice that your home plans stretch over multiple areas. Hence, simply employing one contractor to do the entire job irrespective of his specialization may lead to shoddy work. Rather, it makes sense to have different contractors for doing different works so that you get the best quality. At the end of the day, quality matters.

The worst mistake that you can make is to presume that anybody can do the work of a home improvement contractor. That is not true. Pulling down parts of your home and rebuilding it or adding new parts to it is a specialist’s job.

Do not be penny wise and pound foolish!

Avoid undertaking projects on your own. Search for efficient and reliable contractors. Spread the work among your friends and relatives.

Get them to recommend a contractor they know. You can get good quality work done at very affordable prices. Your house will look good and your wallet will not end up empty. Many people hire specialists to remodel their home, but choose to do the interior designing on their own. All your efforts will go waste if your house looks ugly from the inside.

If you know nothing about interior designing, get a specialist to do it. These specialists will do a good job in making your house look pretty from the inside as well. However, they are expensive and the cost of the consultation, materials and labor can weigh down your budget. Prefer specialists only if you can afford them.

Before tackling a major project, be sure to your abilities and ask whether you can do the job yourself. Unless you are totally certain, do not do it yourself. If you decide to employ home an outside company, make sure you choose licensed contractors only. Irrespective of whether the job is big or small, quick or lengthy, cheap or expensive, never choose an unlicensed contractor.