Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Info: Hiring a Good Contractor

Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. – Nelson Mandela

Photo: haavoc, Flickr ccl
The following information is (extremely) abridged from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Association. Go to their website for full information. It’s a necessity for you to read it as it will protect you from heartache, disappointment and potential financial loss. It will help you through the process of finding a good contractor, entering into a contract and what to expect.

The original, full article, with links, can be seen at http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/renoho/refash/refash_009.cfm. It is a very necessary read if you plan to contract tradespeople, either now or in the future.

Photo: iamthechad, Flickr ccl
Who Do You Hire?
The contractor you choose needs the necessary skills (both technical and interpersonal), tools and experience to complete the job to good trade practices. That means they perform to the standard present in whatever their trade may be. Look for contractors that have experience in similar projects. 

For larger projects you can hire a contractor to oversee the whole job as many projects require specialized trades. That means they may include obtaining all necessary permits, hiring sub-contractors and the supervision of the work.

Choosing a Contractor
Start searching reliable sources. They may include family or friends. Other sources may be local homebuilder associations, supply stores and possibly municipal building departments. Many contractors also have their own web sites so you can check them out before contacting them.

Contact and meet with a few you feel can do the work and listen to their suggestions and advice on how they would do the work. Some may even give you a rough estimate on the costs associated with your project before a finalized costing.

Ask a lot of questions, some of which are:
• How long have you been in business?
• What work are you licensed to do?
• Have you done similar work before?
• Will you use your own crew for the work or will you subcontract ?
• How and when do you clean up?
• What work schedule will you follow?
• What kind of warranty do you offer and what does it cover?
• Do you carry workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
• Will you provide a written contract?
• Will you take out all required permits (e.g., building, plumbing, electrical)?
These questions won’t offend a reputable contractor. If they do not know the answers, or seem evasive or vague, it is definitely time to look for a different potential contractor.

It is important to meet before the job to ensure you get along with the contractor. Sometimes things get misunderstood or misinterpreted and tensions can arise. Feeling comfortable with your contractor will help you through these times.

Quality contractors have good references. They should be able to quickly supply the names of at least three previous clients. Don’t accept them at face value. Call them and find out about all of their experience with the contractor and the finished work.

Good contractors will also prove that they have appropriate insurance, such as workers’ compensation and third-party liability insurance.

Checking their status with the Better Business Bureau is a bit of a craps shoot. Small problems may be submitted for arbitration through the BBB, but large complaints often go directly to court. Just because a business has a A+ does not mean there have not been difficulties with their work in the past. They just may not have been dealt with through the BBB.

Photo: Tim in Sydney, Flickr ccl
Getting Estimates
There is no rule for how many you should get. Some people prefer to have several full written estimates before choosing a contractor. Others feel good enough about one to make the decision. The most important thing is that you feel knowledgeable enough to make an informed decision. The usual amount, though, is three – complete with any detailed drawings of work to be done if applicable.

Even a small job should have a full set of written specifications about the products and deliverables to be part of the project.

Large or small, it is wise to meet with the contractor to go over their proposal so you can ask questions to clarify what they have submitted. Also make sure they supply a construction schedule, complete with start and finish dates.

Look for a fair price, not a cheap price. Factor in any differences such as reputation, offering of advice and the likelihood of standing behind their work. Choose the contractor you feel will give you the best overall value for your money.

Get Everything in Writing
Do not be tempted by a contractor who doesn’t want a written contract and offers a discount if you pay cash. This should sound loud alarm bells to you.

Asking for cash may mean they are uninsured or unlicensed. Also any payments have no tracking mechanism. They could also not get the required permits and warranties could be invalid. They also could do the work quickly and cheaply. Without proper insurance you could also be liable for any damage or accidents that may happen.

Paying cash also leaves you with little or no legal recourse either. It could make it almost impossible to prove the contractor was even there. The list of problems – of all sorts – you may encounter by not having a clear contract are endless.

Photo: iamthechad, Flickr ccl
Get a Written, Detailed Contract
You must have a written contract with your contractor for your own protection, no matter what the job. A place to find a simple contract is located on the web site where this information was gathered. For more complex jobs you may want to build in a cancellation clause. This outlines the parameters of cancelling the contract. There may be a financial penalty for using this safety net.

Completion Certificate
You may be asked to sign a certificate of completion when the job is finished. Do not sign anything until you have properly and thoroughly inspected the job. 

Note any shortcomings in writing and arrange a time and date for the contractor to come back to finish the work. This also should be in writing. Professionals will also honour any warranty they have stated and will come back to rectify problems during that period.

Working with your Contractor
In spite of a clear, detailed contract, disputes can arise for any number of reasons. Good communication can go a long way in settling any disagreements. As a first step, you should sit down together to discuss the problem calmly and seek a solution that you both can live with comfortably.

Try to be reasonable. Don’t overreact if something is not proceeding as you hoped. For example, bad weather and backordered components can delay the job which is not the contractor’s fault. As a last resort, if you were wise, use your cancellation clause.

If you think that some of the work is not up to local building standards, report it in writing to the appropriate inspection department, with a copy to your contractor. If the work doesn’t meet building code requirements, the contractor should have to correct it at his or her expense.

Also, you can report poor workmanship and unsatisfactory business practices to the government department that granted the contractor a business licence, where applicable.

Photo: zenhikers, Flickr ccl
Consumer Protection Laws
There are laws protecting consumers. Provincial and territorial consumer affairs or consumer relations departments usually administer consumer protection laws. Sometimes a phone call is enough, but a letter outlining the problem (giving names, dates, addresses and details) is often required before any action can be taken.

Often their presence will be enough to rectify the problem. If it isn’t, and it goes to court, they can offer you assistance in how to do so.

If legal action is necessary, you may be able to take the contractor to small claims court without having to hire a lawyer. Although small claims court is relaxed and informal, its decisions are binding. The maximum size of the claim depends on the province or territory where you live. 

In summation
If you want a good quality job ensure you hire a reputable contractor. This means you have to do some homework. The job may cost you more, but the safeguards built into proper contracts and skilled tradespeople is well worth the additional cost. Remember you get what you pay for.

If a contractor is leery about supplying you certain information you should be very wary. They may not have proper insurance or the experience necessary for the job, or a myriad of other problems.

Remember, get everything in writing and ensure that it is adhered to. This includes materials as well as schedules. If you are not vigilant you may find yourself in great difficulties.

There is an excellent checklist on hiring a contractor available on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Association web site listed at the start of this post.


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