If you've decided to improve rather than move, you've got a lot of company. In 1989, Americans spent $100.9 billion on home renovations and the figure escalates yearly, says the National Association of Home Builders.
Why the trend?
One increasingly important reason is that homes are tough to sell in many communities. Many discouraged sellers have decided to spend their capital where they live rather than trading up to a new place. So in come the French doors, new kitchen cabinetry and basement paneling. Across the land, roofs are being raised, bathrooms modernized, carports converted to garages, and family rooms being built on.
But perils await those who would hire a home improvement contractor. Even those in the society supposedly best equipped to engage a contractor have jobs go sour, says Ralph L. Tisei, president of Building Inspector of America, a chain of home inspection companies with offices in Maryland.
"There's a better than 50-50 chance that something major igoing to go wrong with your job," Mr. Tisei says.
Conventional wisdom has it that when hiring a contractor, you should look to neighbors and friends for referrals, restrict your search to licensed contractors and get at least three bids. Yet such usual pointers may not be enough to protect you.
That's what Cary Cooper of Columbia learned the hard way. One would imagine that as a mechanical engineer with 17 years as a home inspector, Mr. Cooper would be able to engage a contractor without a hitch. But even he had problems after he lined up a Laurel firm to install a new brick and concrete walkway in front of his ranch house.
Despite the fact that Mr. Cooper had painstakingly obtained three estimates and checked references, he still got burned. The walkway was improperly installed, and the contractor refused to make corrections. It was only after Mr. Cooper's wife took the matter to the Maryland Home Improvement Commission that the work was redone.
"The unfortunate fact is that no matter how good and competent a contractor appears to be, things can break down along the way," Mr. Cooper says.
Regrettably, there is no one-step answer to the knotty problem JTC of obtaining good and reasonably priced home renovation work. But pointers abound in a new book called "The Consumers Guide to Home Improvement, Renovation and Repair."
Published by John Wiley & Sons, the book is a compilation of home remodeling wisdom from the Columbia-based Enterprise Foundation, which has helped more than 100 non-profit groups throughout the United States to build or renovate low-cost housing. Through the foundation, the book's three co-authors have learned much that applies to renovation of property at all income levels.
Co-author Peter Werwath, director of the foundation's Rehabilitation Work Group, which has overseen the renovation of 8,000 housing units, offers these pointers to homeowners planning to hire a home improvement contractor:
* Seek out names of qualified home improvement contractors from building material suppliers, hardware stores or lumber yards. Neighbors and friends may be a fine source of referrals, but retailers in the home improvement receive more feedback about the performance of local contractors. Although large chains may be unwilling to pass on names, smaller retailers will often do so generously.
"These people are in business and since they want to stay in business, they're unlikely to give you the name of someone who will do a terrible job," Mr. Werwath says.
* Pick someone who is full-time. Moonlighting schoolteachers and police officers may have the best of intentions, but if they're not full-time contractors, the likelihood is that they're less skilled than someone who makes home renovation his business.
"True, someone in the field full-time will have higher overhead and may charge more. But you're going to be taking a chance with a moonlighter. The exception would be a moonlighter who is already working in an established home-improvement trade and is working for you on the side," Mr. Werwath says.
* Find someone specialized in the field related to your job and don't pay for an overqualified contractor. You generally need a specialist if your job involves plumbing, electrical or roofing work or outside painting, for instance. But a generalist with lower
prices will often suffice for interior painting, paneling, drywall, framing doors or installation of a drop ceiling.
* Roll small jobs into large ones to save money. If you need a powder room painted, you're likely to pay a premium price for such a relatively quick job if you seek a separate bid for the work. That's because the contractor will be taking into account travel time and other costs related to the brief stint.
The price of your powder room job, however, is likely to come down if you combine the work with a larger undertaking, such as the repainting of the living and dining rooms -- projects you planned to do later anyway. The larger job will give the contractor a better economy of scale.
"For a larger job, you'll also be able to attract more interested contractors," Mr. Werwath says.
* Consider hiring a professional home inspector to write the specifications for a large job. Too often, homeowners seeking bids fail to spell out precisely what is wanted or needed. The result is that the contractor may perform to a standard he considers acceptable but which the homeowner rejects. For instance, if a homeowner failed to specify that he wanted his new shingles to be nailed, the contractor might assume that stapling would suffice.
Although a home inspector is likely to charge $50 to $100 to write detailed specifications for a job, Mr. Werwath says it can be worth thecost for a major undertaking -- such as a new roof, kitchen remodeling job or home addition. Using detailed specs also assures that all contractors will be bidding on the same grade of work.
* Withhold full payment on a job until completion of the work and consider hiring a home inspector to assure the work was done properly.
If you've withheld at least 20 percent of the payment until after the job has been completed, you'll have more leverage over a contractor that fails to perform.