Seven essential things to ask your contractor


YOUR UNCLE came through with the name of a guy who built his garage, and somebody at work raved about the contractor who did their kitchen. Your neighbor liked the crew who remodeled his bath and you got a couple of names from the local homebuilders' association. Somewhere among these names is the person who will do your remodeling job. How do you single that person out?

By interviewing them all and asking enough questions. Here are some things to ask:

* References -- You will always find the most reliable information about your prospective contractor from previous clientele. Request a list of references and take the time to call them. Ask for recent projects, no longer ago than a year or two, and for something currently under construction. Most people will be happy to talk to you about their project. You might ask to see the project yourself if you feel that is appropriate.

* Experience -- How long has the company been in business? Have they completed other remodeling projects with a similar scope of work? Be sure you are confident that the contractor is capable of completing your project. One of the most important aspects of a remodeling job is the on-site supervision. Ask who that person will be and what experience they have.

* History -- Check with the Better Business Bureau and the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Ask if there are any unresolved complaints and how long the company has been licensed with the MHIC. All people doing any kind of home improvement work in Maryland are required to have a MHIC license.

* Insurance -- The law requires that remodeling companies carry liability and worker's compensation insurance. (There is an exception: a sole proprietor with no employees is not required to carry worker's compensation.) Be sure to verify that the company you choose does have proper insurance. Ask for an insurance certificate from their insurance company that is mailed directly to you; do not accept a copy of a certificate. If you hire a person or company without proper coverage, by Maryland law you accept liability for that person or company.

* Subcontractors -- All remodeling companies use subcontractors -- the plumber, electrician and heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractors, for example. Ron uses independent tradesmen for all the trade tasks involved in a project, because he believes it's better to have specialists. A roofer does the roofing, a painter does the painting. Whether a tradesman is independent or an employee, however, is not as important as that they know what they are doing and that they are reliable.

* Warranty -- The industry practice is to extend warranties for one year. That allows for a full cycle of seasons. Different materials are affected differently by different weather -- resulting in expansion, contraction, even shrinkage. A building literally moves with temperature and humidity changes. This will cause some cracks and nail pops (in drywall) to develop. Conventional wisdom says that almost everything that might go wrong will happen in the first year. Be sure your warranty is in writing and any exclusions are listed. (For instance, manufacturers' warranties on things such as appliances usually supersede the contractor's warranty.)

* Price -- Beware of the low bidder. If you have a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is. This is a common source of problems. Think about project pricing this way: The materials (the sticks and bricks) and the labor (the installation of the materials) are fixed costs. When they have that price, contractors add a certain percentage for overhead (the standard costs of doing business), and another percentage for profit.

Prices will vary somewhat depending on what suppliers are being used, how large a company is, and how much profit they make. However, if there's a large discrepancy -- a price that's considerably lower, for instance -- you have to ask yourself what is not being accounted for.

No one wants to pay too much for something, but it is important to be sure that there is enough money in the budget to pay for everything, and to finish correctly and on time.

Next: What to expect when construction begins.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and current president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at or Karol at Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

New magazine

Every aspect of remodeling from planning to financing to selecting a contractor and understanding building trade terms is covered in the new Remodeling in Maryland magazine from the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

The magazine follows a fictitious couple's remodeling project from planning to completion and includes charts (a copy of Remodeling Magazine's cost vs. value report on various remodeling projects) and tips. There is also a list of Remodelors Council contractors and associates.

The magazine is free. For a copy, call 410-265-7400.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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