Choosing a Contractor
Whether you are planning to build, remodel, repair, or add on, your home improvement project may require the services of a contractor. Home improvement projects can easily cost thousands of dollars, making selection of the right contractor very important. Although most contractors are reputable professionals, there are some who lack necessary skills or business expertise. Less reputable contractors may try to sell you items you don’t need, may be unqualified to perform the work, or may not be financially viable should a problem arise.
Research Your Project
The first step to selecting a contractor is to research the project so you will be knowledgeable about what the job involves. Your research should include what has to be done, the best ways to do the work, and the types of materials that may be used and their cost. You may also wish to contact your local building inspector to find out what building permits and inspections you need and what your legal obligations are regarding permits and inspections. In some cases you may discover that you have the expertise and time to act as your own contractor. Then, you can hire and direct the necessary subcontractors. While acting as your own contractor may provide substantial savings, it can also require substantial knowledge and commitment on your part. You will need to know exactly what has to be done and when to schedule the various jobs, and you will be obligated to oversee the subcontractors when they are working on your project. Anything that goes wrong may be your responsibility to resolve.
Get the Names of Several Contractors
If you decide to forego acting as your own contractor, your next step is to get the names of several contractors and obtain bids. Although there is no surefire way to obtain a list of reputable contractors, there are some good sources of information to consult. Start with friends and neighbors who have undertaken similar projects. Direct experience with a contractor and knowing how the contractor performed through a difficult project is often the best recommendation. If your project involves energy conservation, check with your utility company to see if it has a list of contractors with expertise in that area. Hardware, building supply, and home improvement stores have ongoing business relationships with many contractors. Their recommendations will tell you what their customers are saying, and may also be a clue as to whether the contractor has a good credit standing with the store. Trade associations can also be a good resource since your satisfaction with a contractor will be a reflection on the industry as a whole. Once you have obtained the names of several contractors, check with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which is the State agency with the authority to license and regulate a substantial portion of the construction industry in Minnesota. The Department of Labor and Industry can tell you if a contractor is properly licensed and whether enforcement action has been taken against a contractor.
This should be done to ensure the legitimacy of the contractors that you are considering. Your local building official may also be a source for information about problem contractors. Next, contact the Better Business Bureau to find out if any complaints have been filed against a contractor. Also, call one or more of the references provided by a contractor you are considering hiring. Former customers will tell you if they were satisfied with the contractor’s work, if any problems arose, and if they would change anything if they had the project to do over again. You may also want to look at work the contractor has done on other homes. Finally, you may wish to search Minnesota court records to see if any contractor you are considering is subject to any outstanding civil judgments or has been involved in lawsuits with its previous customers, subcontractors, or materials suppliers. A contractor’s litigation history may be relevant to consider before you enter into a contract with that contractor. The Minnesota court system has a free online service to search court records at www.pa.courts.state.mn.us.
Contact information for both the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and the Better Business Bureau can be found here.
Get Bids on Your Job
Next, it is time to get bids on your job. Prior to meeting with each contractor, you should prepare a detailed list of what you envision the scope of work to be, including the types of materials to be used. This will serve as a guide for your discussions with the contractors. This will also minimize any chance of a misunderstanding about what the project entails. Each bid should be similar enough so that you can readily compare them. When meeting with a contractor, be open to ideas or suggestions about your project. Remember, you are hiring a contractor for the contractor’s expertise, and any advice you receive can be very valuable. Beware that less reputable contractors may try to sell you items you don’t need, or try to persuade you to cut corners and diminish the value of the job so the contractor can submit a lower bid. Emphasize that the contractor must follow State and local building codes. For any significant home improvement project, you should obtain at least three written bids that detail the scope of the work, the types of materials that will be used, and the total cost of the project. Regardless of the scope of the project, you should never accept a verbal estimate.
Be wary of a contractor who says that it only works on a “cost-plus” or “time and materials” basis.
Carefully Compare Bids
Once you receive the bids, take time to carefully compare them. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Be sure each bid includes everything you want. If a bid contains unwanted or unneeded items, keep these in mind to negotiate with the contractor.
- Remember that the bid is the starting point in your negotiations
with the contractor and not necessarily the bottom line.
- Keep in mind that the lowest bid may not necessarily be the best bid, and that an unusually low bid may be cause for alarm. In that case, the contractor may not fully understand the project’s scope; may be inexperienced and is underestimating the amount of labor and materials required; may be planning to cut corners by using inferior materials or low-paid, inexperienced workers; or may be looking to get its “foot in the door” only to try to increase the price of the project as it progresses based on allegedly “unforeseen circumstances.”
- If you are hiring a contractor who offers “architectural planning” or “structural design,” be sure the contractor is licensed by the Board of Architecture.
- Make sure your contractor has liability insurance. Ask to see a copy of the contractor’s worker’s compensation policy. You may be liable if a worker is injured on your property. Check with your insurance agent to find out whether your homeowner’s insurance will cover you and to what extent.
Residential building contractors, remodelers, and roofers who contract with an owner to build or remodel a house (including buildings that house up to four families) must have a license to operate in Minnesota. This licensing requirement even applies to persons that you hire when you are acting as your own “general contractor.” But there are exceptions to this rule, including: contractors that make less than $15,000 annually and obtain a certificate of exemption, specialty contractors that provide only one “special skill,” and homeowners doing work on their own homes. A contractor who does not need a State license may still be required to have a city license. If you have questions about whether a contractor must be licensed, call the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Licensed contractors must list their license number on their contracts and in any advertising, including signs, vehicles, business cards, published advertisements, flyers, brochures, and websites.
Licensed contractors must also maintain commercial general liability insurance, including premises and operations insurance and products and completed operations insurance, with limits of at least $100,000 per occurrence, $300,000 aggregate limit for bodily injury, and property damage insurance with limits of at least $25,000 or a policy with a single limit for bodily injury and property damage of $300,000 per occurrence and $300,000 aggregate limits. If you hire an unlicensed contractor, even one that is legally exempt from licensing requirements, be aware that you may have less protection if something goes wrong.
Unlicensed contractors might not carry liability or property insurance that licensed contractors are required to have, and you will not have access to the Contractor Recovery Fund if you obtain a judgment against an unlicensed contractor. The Contractor Recovery Fund compensates people who have suffered losses due to a licensed contractor’s fraudulent, deceptive, or dishonest practices; misuse of funds; or failure to do the work the contractor was hired to do. Beware that nothing may obligate the fund more than $75,000 per claimant, nor more than $150,000 per licensed contractor. If a licensed residential building contractor sells you a home that the contractor built and occupied prior to sale, the contractor must provide you with a written disclosure that the statutory warranties are inapplicable and that you will not be eligible for reimbursement from the Contractor Recovery Fund if the contractor occupied the home for one year or more.
Beware of Con Artists
Here are some possible tip-offs to “fly-by-night” home improvement scams. Be wary of working with contractors who do the following:
Listen to your instincts. If you have an uneasy feeling, just say “no” and don’t sign anything.
- Arrive at your home unsolicited or in an unmarked truck or van.
- Claim, “We’ve just done a job nearby and have material left over, so we
can do the job for half the price.”
- Can only provide a post office box address, with no street address (and even a street address should be checked), or a telephone number that is just an answering service.
- Use high-pressure sales tactics.
- Refuse to give you a written estimate or contract.
- Request that you obtain any necessary permits.
- Refuse to provide their license number (if they are required to be licensed).
- Require full or substantial payment before work begins.
Con artists can be persuasive: the longer you allow them to talk to you, the greater the opportunity they see to sweet talk you into making a decision you might regret. Don’t continue to engage with a salesperson whom you have already turned down.
Storm Damage and Insurance Claims
If your home sustains storm damage from hail, winds, tornadoes or the like, your homeowner’s insurance policy may provide coverage to repair your home. Typical coverage under a standard homeowner’s insurance policy includes the following:
- The amount of money it will pay to fix your home, including any upgrades that are required by local codes when the damage is repaired.
- Reasonable expenses you paid to live elsewhere while your home is fixed.
- The amount of money it will pay to remove debris from your home.
- Personal property such as furniture and clothing is usually covered, but limits vary by disaster. The standard policy contains actual cash value coverage on personal property.
Your mortgage provider (called a “mortgagee”) may become involved when your home sustains damage covered by insurance. This is because, as a condition of issuing any mortgage, most mortgagees require the homeowner to maintain hazard insurance on the property and to list the mortgagee as a “loss payee” on the policy. The result is that any payment for damage to the property is made payable to both the homeowner and the mortgagee. Generally, the security interest that the mortgagee holds in the property authorizes the mortgagee to oversee repairs and disburse insurance proceeds to ensure that the work is performed so that the property is returned to its pre-storm value. If you need to rebuild or repair your home as a result of a storm, watch out for unlicensed or fraudulent home repair contractors who make promises that they can’t deliver, and may even grab your insurance or emergency relief money and run.
Be careful, because if a con artist takes your money, it may be impossible to get it back. Likewise, some contractors who claim to specialize in storm damage claims may try to trick you into acting immediately, before you have time to shop around. Carefully read everything a contractor asks you to sign before you sign it. For example, some contractors claim that you must sign an authorization to allow the contractor to inspect your property, provide you with an estimate, or communicate with your insurance company about the damage to your home. While the contractor may further suggest that the form you are signing doesn’t obligate you to anything, the contractor may later claim that you signed a binding contract that requires you to use the contractor’s services on your insurance restoration project. A reputable contractor should not offer to pay your insurance deductible (which is against the law in Minnesota), ask you to sign a “blank” contract, or require you to sign anything to inspect your property or to provide you with a repair estimate.