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8 Tips for Dealing With Contractors

There seems to be a communication gap between homeowners and their contractors. Too often, homeowners are suspicious of contractors, worrying that they're about to be taken advantage of. Meanwhile, contractors have been known to roll their eyes at the naïveté of some of their clients. Both parties could benefit from trying to speak the same language.

Here are a few tips for dealing with contractors and home improvements -- they may help you when it comes time to repair or renovate your home.

1. Know what you want
This is critical. Too many people sign up with a contractor to have a certain job done, but in the middle of the job, they realize that they want something else. Maybe they wanted to expand a living room, for example, but later decide they'd rather devote some of the new space to an expanded kitchen. That's a big deal, and can wreak havoc in a contractor's plans, perhaps causing him to have to undo some of what he's done, or to spend more time than he'd budgeted on your home. It can also end up costing you a lot more than it would have if you'd been more sure of what you wanted at the outset.

2. Expect messes, then work to minimize them
Contractors often scratch their heads when they run across clients who are surprised that working on a house can be messy. ("How come there's so much dust?") If you're going to have work done on your house, take some time to find out from your contractor what you can expect, mess-wise, and how you should prepare the work areas. You'll save yourself from some unpleasant surprises and you can minimize the pain, too. For example, if a wall is going to be torn down, you can prepare for that by removing as many objects in the room as possible and covering as many things in that room and nearby rooms as you can. (Clouds of dust don't know to stop at thresholds.)

You might also want to find out ahead of time about any safety issues. When certain kinds of work are done, there may be fumes or dust that's best to stay away from. If you have asthma, for instance (and even if you don't), you might want to sleep somewhere else for a few nights while some work is being finished.

3. Don't assume the world revolves around you
It's easy to forget that the world doesn't revolve around us, but trust me, when it comes to home repairs and renovations, you're probably not the only client in your contractor's life. Some contractors may be able to work only for one client at a time, but many will be juggling a few while they work for you. Part of the reason for this is that they may have promised to start work somewhere at a certain time, while work at another site has dragged on a bit longer than originally expected.

Think about this: If your contractor is a cooperative one, she might oblige you when you enlarge the scope of the job over time. ("Actually, we now think we'd like a new sink as well as a new toilet." "Before you paint, could you change all those light fixtures?") But if she's doing this for you, she's probably doing the same for other clients -- and that can consume extra time.

4. Be prepared for delays
Have you been watching a lot of HGTV? If you're a devotee of the many home-improvement television programs out there, don't let them lead you to believe that major projects can be completed in half an hour -- or even a day. And remember that on these programs, the craftspeople often have plenty of assistants working with and for them, behind the scenes. Simply installing a door or sink can take much of a day if there are a few unexpected developments, which isn't unusual.

Don't forget the role of weather in all this, as well. If you're having outdoor work done, rainy days will likely delay things. Temperatures also matter -- it might be too cold to paint, for example. Even indoor work can have such delays -- sometimes wood that gets installed indoors (floors, cabinets, etc.) needs time to dry out or warm up or otherwise get comfortable before being locked in place.

A final timing consideration is one of language. Make sure you're on the same page with your contractor. If he estimates that the job will take "10 days," don't assume that that means two weeks. It could end up taking 10 days of work over the course of a month, due to the weather or the contractor's schedule.

5. Your help can hurt
Sometimes clients like to hang around contractors while work is being done, helping out. This can be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Find out from the contractor exactly what kind of help is and isn't welcome. If a floor is being torn up, you might offer your brute strength in tearing up some tiles. But think twice before attempting to install Sheetrock or change an outlet. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and if you do certain things on your own initiative, you may end up causing damage or generating more work for the contractor who may have to undo what you did.

6. Your job may cost more than you expect
You're on a budget, right? Well, make sure your contractor is fully aware of it. (A good one will probably discuss this with you, anyway.) Expect some variation between the estimate you get and the final cost. You might even want to plan to spend 15% to 30% more, in total, on the job. Why? Well, things happen. Over the course of a few months, the price of lumber may skyrocket. In the course of renovating your home, there may be some expensive discoveries, such as lots of rotten wood under vinyl siding that's removed. The cost can also rise if you keep adding to the scope of the work, or if you opt for more expensive materials, many of which are good to opt for, as they may last longer or look better.

One good way to discuss your budget with a trusted contractor is to say something like, "We'd like to spend no more than $X on this job, but if need be, we can spend an extra $X -- and absolutely no more than that." This can help him decide where he can upgrade materials and where he must be as frugal as possible.

7. Not all contractors are shady
Many of us are used to thinking negatively about contractors, having heard horror stories about inept ones or, worse, scam artists. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the home-improvement area received the second most consumer complaints in 2002 (after automobile sales), according to a recent survey.

Still, remember that bad experiences are typically shared more often than good ones. While there are certainly more than a few dastardly contractors out there, preying on unsuspecting homeowners, there are also lots of skilled and honest ones.

You've probably read about various contractors ripping off clients -- but believe it or not, contractors get ripped off, too. After doing all or part of a job, they may end up with a check that bounces or a client who refuses to pay. Don't assume that your contractor is automatically an adversary. He may well be a valuable ally in your quest for a lovelier home.

8. Find a good contractor
Now that you're ready to hire a contractor and spiff up your house, here are a few tips on finding a good one:

  • Do try to find a contractor you really like, one you feel you can trust and whom you'll be comfortable communicating with. You should be able to ask questions and get answers you understand.

  • Don't just rely on the Yellow Pages in your search. If a contractor has been working for more than a year or two and is good, he probably doesn't need to advertise. He likely gets offered much more work than he can take on.

  • Ask around. Find people who have had done to their homes what you want done to yours. See who had good experiences with their contractors.

  • If need be, try asking for referrals at your local hardware store. Yes, you might end up with a mediocre professional this way -- but possibly not, since the store should want to keep its customers happy.

  • Make sure she's licensed and insured. (Yes, she -- there are some female contractors out there.) You don't want someone uninsured working on your home. If your state requires any licenses, make sure your contractor has them.

What do you think?
Are you a contractor, or someone who has used one? Share your opinions on this topic on our Building/Maintaining a Home discussion board -- or just pop in to see what others are saying. And pop into our Home Center for even more home-related guidance.

Selena Maranjian is still trying to get over learning that things in a house can be fixed.For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.


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Selena Maranjian
TMFSelena

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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