Consumer Guide to Hiring Home Improvement Contractors

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screwdriver and wrenchA Home improvement project gone wrong can cost you in time, equity, and peace of mind. Do your research and cover all of your bases.

The first step of any major home improvement project is finding the right contractor.

Here are some of the steps you can take to make an overwhelming project go a little more smoothly.

Find a Contractor

The very first step is determining which type of contractor is right for you. There are plenty to choose from!

To figure this out, you’ll need to know what type of project needs to be done. You might need a general contractor to handle everything for you. They’ll manage everything, like hiring and supervising subcontractors, getting building permits, and scheduling inspections.

Or maybe you’ve got a project that needs a specialty contractor who will install specific products like cabinets and bathroom fixtures. If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking to accomplish, an architect or a designer can help you map out the entire home, additions, or major renovations.

No matter which type of contractor is right for you, you’ll need to do your research.

Start by asking friends and family which contractors they’ve used before. But don’t stop your search there! If someone comes recommended, take a look at the work they’ve performed and asked detailed questions.

The internet can be your best friend or your worst enemy when looking for a contractor, so be (discerning). Read a contractor’s reviews, find out how long they’ve been in business, and make sure they’ve got a solid reputation.  

One good place to check that you may not think of is the Maryland case search.  You can check to see how many lawsuits the contractor has been involved in.  While it may not tell you much about the cases you can at least see if they sue or have been sued a lot.

Before You Hire a Contractor

Once you’ve narrowed your options start by getting written estimates from different companies. Don’t just choose the guy with the lowest price! You’ll need to ask lots of questions to get a clear picture of who you’re hiring.

Find out if your project is going to require a permit.

This is something most states require. A good contractor is going to take care of getting the permits before they begin your project. Permit laws can vary by county, city, or town, so choosing a contractor who is familiar with the permitting process in your area can save you a lot of pain down the road!

Get a list of references.

This should include names, addresses, and phone numbers of clients with similar projects like yours so you can ask questions about how long the project took and whether they were truly satisfied with the results. You can also ask if the contractor will allow you to visit in-progress work sites. If the contractor doesn’t want to fulfill this request, run in the other direction.

Make sure the contractor is up to date on licensing and insurance.

That includes personal liability, worker’s compensation, and property damage coverage. Get copies of up to date insurance certificates, otherwise, YOU could be the one held liable for related injuries and damages that occur. This applies to any subcontractors that work on the project, so find ask about that too. One good way to research a contractor license in Maryland is to check out the Department of Labor and Licensing’s website for Home Improvement Public Query. Here you can search contractors by name, location, and license number.

Get a written contract.

Once you’ve made a decision, you’ll need to get a written contract. This is NOT optional. The contract needs to be clear and concise and needs to include the who, what, where, when, and cost. Don’t sign without making sure it includes the following:

  • The contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number.
  • An estimated start and completion date.
  • A detailed payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers.
  • The contractor’s obligation to get all necessary permits.
  • An outlined process for making changes or additions to the work detailed in the original contract.
  • A detailed list of all materials including each product’s color, model, size, and brand.
  • Description of all warranty coverage.
  • Things the contractor is not responsible for, like site clean-up and trash hauling. (If you can, ask for a “broom clause” that makes the contractor responsible for all clean-up work, including spills and stains.)
  • Any and all promises made during conversations or calls.

A written statement of your right to cancel the contract within three business days if you signed it in your home or at a location other than the seller’s permanent place of business.

After You Hire a Contractor

Document everything!

Make copies of the contract, and keep copies of any correspondence and payments (which you might need for tax reasons). It’s a good idea to keep a log or journal of all phone calls, conversations, and activities. You also might want to take photographs as the job progresses, which could come in handy if any problems arise.

Don’t make the final payment until you’re satisfied.

Not only do YOU need to be happy with the job, you also need to make sure all the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid, otherwise they could file a mechanic’s lien against your home to compensate them. Protect yourself by asking the contractor, every subcontractor, and every supplier for a lien release or waiver. If a problem does arise and you’ve done everything you can to rectify it in good faith, but to no avail, you have the right to contact your credit card company and withhold payment on the service.

Use a Sign-Off Checklist

Before you sign off and make the final payment, check that:

  • all work meets the standards spelled out in the contract
  • you have written warranties for materials and workmanship
  • you have proof that all subcontractors and suppliers have been paid
  • the job site has been cleaned up and cleared of excess materials, tools, and equipment
  • you have inspected and approved the completed work

Signs of a Home Improvement Scam

How can you tell if a contractor might not be reputable? You may not want to do business with someone who:

  • knocks on your door for business or offers you discounts for finding other customers
  • just happens to have materials left over from a previous job
  • pressures you for an immediate decision
  • only accepts cash, asks you to pay everything up-front, or suggests you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows
  • asks you to get the required building permits
  • tells you your job will be a “demonstration” or offers a lifetime warranty or long-term guarantee
  • doesn’t list a business number in the local telephone directory

Report a Problem

If you have a problem with a home improvement project, first try to resolve it with the contractor. Many disputes can be resolved at this level. Follow any phone conversations with a letter you send by certified mail. Request a return receipt. That’s your proof that the company received your letter. Keep a copy for your files. If that fails, consider getting outside help like through your State Attorney General or local consumer protection office. Or to file a complaint go to the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. For help resolving a contract dispute, call our office at 301-645-4100 to schedule a consultation.

Next Steps

Want to know more? Discover what you need to know about Maryland law. Click here to see our Free Legal Consumer Guides and get answers to your questions today. Know your options. Be informed. Protect yourself.

Need an attorney? Please contact us for a consultation today if you need an experienced lawyer in Waldorf and Lexington Park for your legal case.

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