Most times, when Kevin Nau's phone rings, it's would-be customers jabbering excitedly about a glittery new kitchen or that two-story addition they've been dreaming of for years. But every once in a while, Nau gets another type of call—from a distressed homeowner who's sunk time and money into a renovation project only to discover the hired hand isn't up to the task.
One such call last year came from a woman who'd paid $40,000 to a fly-by-night remodeler who walked off the job, leaving his tools and even his coat behind. "That was probably the worst one I'd ever seen," Nau says. "It looked like he got up and left for lunch and never came back." The homeowner had been frantically trying to reach her AWOL contractor for weeks and finally called Nau to finish the job.
"She didn't have a contract, just a piece of paper with the contractor's name and phone number on it," recalls Nau, who, in addition to being the owner of Odenton-based Design Build Group, is also president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry's (NARI) Greater Baltimore Chapter. (Its website at nari.org lets you search for qualified contractors by ZIP code.)
Contractors have a nickname for small operators like the one who disappeared—Chuck in a Truck. No staff, no office, nothing more than what they can carry in the bed of their pickup. "They're not running a business," Nau says. "They're just running themselves."
Nau quickly discovered the contractor wasn't licensed and had outstanding arrest warrants for performing remodeling work without a license. And though he'd done major work on the electrical system and remodeled two bathrooms and a kitchen, he hadn't gotten the required permits.
Nau gave the homeowner the bad news—and an estimate to complete the work.
"It's almost always going to be much more expensive when you have to get someone else to finish the job," says Nau. In the end, it was the homeowner who disappeared on Nau, most likely in search of a lower price, but the whole episode stands out to him as a stark example of what can happen when homeowners fail to heed some simple rules.
"A lot of people struggle with this because there's a lot of emotion involved," says Nau. "And whenever you have emotions involved, you sometimes miss important cues." Even when there are no obvious red flags, a mismatch between expectations and reality can cause an otherwise fine project to backfire.
Of course, there's plenty you can do to keep your renovation dreams from turning nightmarish. We asked Nau and others to weigh in on best practices for hiring a contractor you can count on.
Cover the basics
The best contractors get most of their work from word of mouth, so start by asking friends and family if they've hired a contractor they were happy with, says Michael Owings, president of Eldersburg-based Owings Brothers Contracting and past president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "Ultimately, when we look at our data, that's our strongest customer."
But don't just take their word for it. Prequalify several contractors with a little research. In Maryland, anyone doing work on a residence must be licensed with the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. So your first stop should be its website (dllr.state.md.us/license/mhic/), which allows you to check a contractor's licensing status. To be licensed, a contractor must pay a fee, take a test, show proof of experience, have insurance, and meet financial solvency guidelines.
Steer clear if they're not licensed—and some 30 to 40 percent of the 3,000 consumer complaints the commission fields each year come from people who've hired (usually unknowingly) unlicensed contractors, says Steven Smitson, executive director of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Not only do they not meet the basic requirements, but if the deal goes sour, you won't be eligible for mediation or for reimbursement through the Commission's Guaranty Fund, which pays out more than $1.4 million a year and compensates homeowners up to $20,000.
Your second stop should be the contractor's own website. Having one doesn't offer any guarantees of professionalism, but take note if your would-be contractor doesn't have some sort of online presence.
"Almost every contractor should have a website," says Owings. A good site should help you understand what type of work the company does, who's in charge, and how long they've been in business. It may also include before-and-after pictures of their best projects. Nau goes a step further by posting YouTube videos of actual projects.
A contractor's website might also clue you in to affiliations with professional organizations like NARI and The Homebuilders Association of Maryland's Remodelers Council.
Your last stop should be your favorite search engine or neighborhood listserve, where you may find others' opinions of the contractor in question. Just be wary of any site that requires contractors to pay to participate or offers anonymous or unqualified opinions, cautions Owings.
Look for a Partner
For most remodeling projects, you're going to be working closely with your contractor—think weeks or even months. "They're almost going to be a part of your family for the life of the remodel," says Nau. To make it work, "You really have to look at the contractor from a relationship point of view. The service becomes a crucial element."
Service, of course, often comes down to personality and professionalism. To gauge that, you'll need to do an in-person interview. When you meet, "Look for a contractor who sparkles when he talks about his work," says Nau. "It's important that a contractor has a passion for what he does."
And consider his interpersonal skills, says Owings. "Was the guy on time for your appointment, was he listening to you, were his communication skills what you're looking for?" says Owings. If you're not impressed, be wary. "Always rely on your gut," he says.
Gauging the fit
Even if the contractor is enthusiastic and something tells you you'll get along, you'll still need to ask questions that help you determine if the business fit is right.
Perhaps most important is determining if your contractor's experience is relevant by asking how long he or she has been doing the type of remodeling work you're interested in. Keep in mind that the recession has prompted some home builders to switch from new construction to remodeling—not necessarily the same skill set—so mere "years in business" may not tell you enough. "You don't want a contractor experimenting at your expense," says Owings.
Be sure to ask basic questions about how the work will be done, such as who exactly will be working on your project, how many days and hours per week they'll be working, what exactly they plan to do, how they'll protect your home or limit disruption inside the home, and how long the project will take.
And ask if you can see comparable work and talk to past customers. You'll no doubt be passed along only to happy clients, but it's still worth the effort, says Nau. "Ask them what they really enjoyed about the project and what would they have done differently," he suggests. "A lot of things can be gleaned from that conversation. Every project has hiccups, so anyone who tells you that everything went perfectly is probably not being honest."
You'll also want to ask the reference if the contractor kept to his schedule, stuck to budget, and communicated well, says Smitson. "Those are the biggest complaints we receive."
Decide what's important to you
There's nothing wrong with going the low-cost route, provided you work with a qualified, professional contractor and—here's the key—that you understand the trade-off in quality, says Smitson. "There's a huge difference between a Kia and Cadillac," he notes. "We find a lot of homeowners are paying for Kias but expecting Cadillacs."
Think, then, about what matters most to you. For some, craftsmanship is so important that they're willing to pay a higher price. Or maybe cost is the primary concern. "For many people though, it comes down to a contractor that's going to give you the best balance between price, quality, and service," says Nau. "I tell my customers that you can demand two of them, but you'll rarely find all three."
Beyond matters of craftsmanship, the size or setup of a company may factor in, especially when it comes to service. Smaller companies may offer a more family-like interaction and a lower price, but they may subcontract some work or take longer to complete a project. Larger companies may get the job done quicker but may be more expensive or less homey-feeling to you.
Compare Apples to Apples
The contractor has the lowest bid and seems great to work with. Too good to be true? Perhaps. You should always give extra scrutiny to the über-low-ball bid. Some contractors "are so desperate for work that they're submitting bids for which they cannot possibly do a complete and satisfactory job," says Smitson. In other cases, there may be outright fraud, or more likely, says Owings, "a specification issue." The lowest bidders "usually are leaving out some part of the work," he says. "So it's really important that the homeowner does his or her due diligence."
If you do find a proposal to be lacking in detail, don't be afraid to call the contractor and ask for a new, more thorough, proposal.
Get it in writing
Once you've decided what you want and who you want to do the work, it's time to sign a contract. "Be sure that both parties understand exactly the workmanship and the quality of materials that are being paid for," says Smitson.
Your contract should stipulate, in detail, what the contractor will and will not do, materials to be used, start and completion dates, and financial terms—including the total price, payment schedule, and any cancellation penalty. The contract might also stipulate any warranty for materials or workmanship. If it does, be sure the contract specifies the terms of the warranty (full or limited), whether or not the time period is valid, and the name and address of the party who will honor it, according to the NARI website.
If the project changes once work has begun, be sure to have your contractor create and sign a "change order" that details the adjustments.
And if you have questions or concerns, don't be afraid to ask hard questions before you sign, says Owings. "The homeowner is in the driver's seat. There are not that many projects out there, so there's nothing wrong with pushing into that next level of questions."