Don’t Let Your Dream House Become a Nightmare

Nine Steps to Finding a Contractor

GET REAL REFERENCES: REMS: Most contractors will hand out names of their allegedly pleased customers. Call these people. Go and see the work. Ask how the contractor handled complaints, how closely he kept to schedule, how neat his workers were. How safe did you feel with his workers in your house? Did he communicate well? Did he run over budget? Would you hire him again?

Ask about the subs, too. These are the folks who actually will be sawing, hammering, and drilling around your house for several months.

Their references should be recent and local. If the only references you get are from Anchorage or Honolulu, cross this contractor off your list.

GET PROFESSION AFFILIATION: Texas does not require licenses for home builders and remodelers, but a card-carrying member of the North Texas Remodeling Association makes an effort to keep up with his trade. Proof of membership also assures you that the builder can’t be realty awful; otherwise, they wouldn’t let him join. And NTRA provides recourse for filing a complaint against him if he severely disappoints you.

AWARDS: If he has won any awards, he’ll let you know. This is a good sign. Grab this contractor; however. Prince Charming will not be cheap.

DUN & BrUDSTREET: Run a check to see how solvent he is.

INSURANCE COVERAGE: It is crucial that your contractor carries insurance to cover his subs and release you from liability. You also want hazard insurance through your homeowner’s policy.

Contractors should carry general liability insurance. Check to make sure the policy exists. If he says he does not carry insurance because he’s never needed it, tell him to get in his pickup and go.

GO ID THE BANK: Call your banker and/or mortgage lender to see if the remodeler you’re considering is on their list of approved contractors.

CHECK M BETTER BUSINESS BUREAU. AND CHECK FOR LAWSUITS: A private investigator we know ran a background check on one remodeler and found the contractor had 10 civil lawsuits pending against him, as well as a criminal charge for assault and a few drug possession charges.

GO TO EXTRAORDINARY WHS: Find one of the contractor’s current jobs, and interview his subs when he’s not around. How is he to work for? Does he pay on time? Does he have trouble getting or keeping workers?

BE REALISTIC: Anyone who tells you they had a perfect experience remodeling their home is doubling up on the Prozac. Things are going to get screwed up-guaranteed. Just about the time you think you can finally play Martha Stewart, the roof will leak all over your mahogany commode. So does this contractor make house calls? Find out how he handles post-punch list problems, just in case.

What’s Your Idea of Fun?


don’t know what my huddled family thought as I scurried around, drilling holes in our dining room ceiling. They might have wondered why the trapped rainwater pouring down on them was brown (ask the raccoons). or why I was unconcerned with electrocution (sheer desperation). Perhaps the children thought this was normal and people all over town routinely made Swiss cheese out of their ceilings, just for the thrill of it.

In truth, I was fighting the good fight, single-handedly stemming the tide of invasive raccoon water. Sound fun? If so, you may be general contractor material.

Besides having such a good lime, why would anyone willingly take on such a thankless chore? 1 spell it M-O-N-E-Y.

Say you spend 520,000 to remodel your own kitchen, the equivalent of about $30,000 in gross income. Thai hurls, but not so much if you eliminate the $3,500 or so that otherwise would have gone to your general contractor. Do the contracting yourself-most people feel as if they do anyway-and by my calculations that’s like earning about $5,400. Divide your total hours worked into that amount, and you’ll be quite pleased with yourself.

The following quiz will help you assess your suitability for the job.

1> In the grocery store checkout line, do you peruse the Enquirer story on an alien invasion of Nebraska or dig into “Detailing a Rot-Proof Deck”?

When the toilet quits working, do you tell your spouse, or take the tank top off?

When you hear the word “stud,” do you think of Troy Aikman or a vertical framing member?

01 course, it takes more than interest. You’ll need to school yourself to fill in ail those blanks between what one tradesman and another can (or will) accomplish for you.

In this area, the female self-contractor has a definite advantage. The gentlemanly subcontractors will knock themselves out for her-PC doesn’t apply when it comes to contracting.

Which brings us to the broader questions of personality and attitudes. Remember: Tradespeople create more physical evidence of their existence at the end of the day than any desk jockey. Treat them with respect, and they will be more cooperative and helpful.

Now that you’ve checked off desire, knowledge, and personality, how much flexibility and lime do you have, realistically? Hint: If you commute to and from work in the dark, this Bud’s not for you.

Hang out in your bookstore, and browse the home section until you find the types of books that speak your language. My favorites include House by Tracy Kidder, as well as Graphic Guide to Frame Construction and Graphic Guide to Interior Details, both from Taunton Press. Hiring Contractors Without Going Through Hell by Ellis Levinson is a practical walkthrough of the process.

When you think you are ready, call the city and see if you need a permit. They’re inconvenient to deal with, but building inspectors can protect you against poorly executed work by subcontractors. Bow and scrape to them at every opportunity. You have to walk a tightrope between acting like you know what you are doing while trolling for information at the same time. Ask questions: It’s better to look stupid than to be stupid.

If, after careful analysis, you decide you can handle it (and your spouse agrees), go for it. Hey, the worst that can happen is you lose a bunch of money, destroy your marriage, and die penniless and alone.

The Art of Pricing


Interview six to eight contractors, then choose three to ask for bids. Use the same specifications each lime. Or you can negotiate a price-get a conceptual design, then gel a ballpark price from a contractor.

Most price differences come down to specifications of materials and quality of labor. If the average kitchen is $30,000, says contractor Chris Miles, you might get three bids: $24,000, $29,000, and $34,000. You won’t get the $30,000 kitchen if you take the $24,000 bid.

Always allow a 10 to 15 percent cushion when planning. If you have a $30,000 bud-gel, get your bid in there at $27,000.

Get It In Writing

You know that remodeling a kitchen or adding a den while you’re living in the house will turn your life upside down. By spelling out the job’s specifications, allowances, time table. and payment schedule, you can (almost) ensure that you’ll get what you want, even though you Ye being driven crazy by subcontractors walking in while you’re still in your bathrobe.

“If you have a $50,000 remodeling job and your contract is on a single piece of paper, you are in a world of hurt,” says Miles, president of the North Texas Remodeling Association/NARI.

Spell out even small things like who’s going to apply for the building permit. (In the city of Dallas, a homeowner can apply for his own permit. Contractors have to have a repair license to apply for one.) Make sure the contractor provides proof of liability and workman’s compensation insurance.

Describe even/tiling in detail and list who will be responsible for purchasing it.

Provide dates for payment draws. You don’t advance a contractor any money unless it’s for custom and specialized work.


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