Home improvement is not immune from the housing downturn, but the decline is modest compared with the slump in buying, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
If you are thinking of hiring a contractor, the Maryland Home Improvement Commission suggests you follow these tips:
Vet the license. The state is seeing more contractors operating without licenses, and some are offering license numbers that are fake or that belong to someone else, says Steven Smitson, executive director of the commission.
Look up the number at dllr.state.md.us/pq or call the commission at 410-230-6309. (You also can ask for a complaint history when you call.) After that, you might call the company associated with the license and ask for your guy. One homeowner did that recently, Smitson says, and was told, "He doesn't work here."
Don't judge a contractor by the advertising. It is easy to create the appearance of respectability with a Web site, business cards and slick handouts, Smitson says.
Ask for references. Give former customers a call to find out how satisfied they were and whether the contractor delivered on the agreed terms. Better yet - visit to see the work yourself.
Seek out competing bids. "It's always a good idea to get at least three," Smitson says. The lowest bid isn't necessarily the cheapest, he adds, if it means shoddy work.
Don't overpay upfront. "By law, contractors can only request one-third of the contract price as a deposit, and that's once the contract is signed," Smitson says. Anyone who asks for more might have financial problems, he adds.
What if you get cold feet after signing a contract? Homeowners have three business days to cancel without obligation if they negotiated it at their home, thanks to the state's door-to-door sales act, Smitson says.
You can complain to the Home Improvement Commission about contractor problems. If he or she is licensed, you also can file a claim with the home improvement guaranty fund, which covers homeowners' losses of up to $15,000 per contract. (There's a cap per contractor, so you could end up with less if you're one of a long line of claimants.)
Over and above that fund, the state has recovered more than $1 million for homeowners through restitution payments and settlements since July, Smitson says.
Find Jamie's blog at baltimoresun.com/realestatewonk.