Working with Contractors: Preparation Prevents Problems

Winter is prime time for indoor remodeling jobs. But don't jump in just because a contractor suddenly has all the time in the world to work with you. When it comes to working with contractors, proper preparation is everything. You'll get the best price, best experience and best results--any time of year--if you follow these guidelines.

Plan ahead: Before you even call a contractor, think through the parameters of your remodeling project and work up a detailed description that can be shared with all pros who bid on the gig. Architects and designers call these "specifications" (specs) but even a less formal detailed description can help make sure you're comparing apples to apples as those bids come in, and sets up proper expectations for the contractor who lands the job. Do thorough product research and include brand, model and style information for all fixtures and finishes; otherwise, you run the risk of the contractor defaulting to the cheapest choices available.

Shop for the best match: Protect yourself and your investment in your home by choosing a contractor with the proper credentials and the right approach for your remodeling style. Get contractor recommendations from people you trust, then follow up by checking other customer references and the pro's standing with the local Consumer Affairs office and Better Business Bureau. Be certain that the contractor has the proper insurance (usually for property damage, personal liability and worker's compensation) by requesting a copy of their insurance certificate and contacting the insurer to confirm coverage. Many states also require contractors to be licensed or bonded, so make sure that yours meets local standards. Another option is to use a site like to help narrow your choice, which provides access to detailed information on contractor's backgrounds, services and previous customer ratings and reviews on what it was like working with a particular contractor.

Get the lead out, safely: If your home was built before 1978, it likely has some lingering lead paint issues, and the remodeling contractor you choose must have the credentials to handle them. The new Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that work be done by an EPA Certified Renovator and registered firm, a distinction received only after completion of a training course covering lead-safe work practices that protect both contractors and the occupants of an older home.

Know who pulls the permits:Getting building permits for a remodeling project is critical to both its immediate success and a smooth home sale in the future. Building permits are the means by which cities regulate construction and ensure its safety, and are required whether you're planning a major remodel or a minor modification. Also remember that the person who acquires the permits is considered the contractor for the project and held liable for its proper completion by local building inspectors, so it's definitely in your best interests to leave this duty to the pro you hire. Your contractor can also save you time and money through their understanding of local permit practices, building codes and fees, and knowing how to negotiate points that could easily be missed by an uninformed homeowner.

Schedule to your advantage: Timing is key to working with the contractor of your choice, as well as to the cost of your remodeling project. Look to early or late-season scheduling for better contractor availability and the possibility of lower pricing. As noted above, winter is a great time for indoor projects, as the weather keeps many contractors from involved exterior projects and puts time on their hands.

Read that contract to the letter: Some of the most costly and unwelcome surprises to working with a contractor are hidden in the fine print of a remodeling contract, so make sure you read and understand every line of yours. Be clear on each contingency and the potential costs of project change orders and additions.

Keep careful project records: For your own protection and backup in case something goes wrong, keep a daily journal of contractor comings and goings, what's accomplished (or not accomplished), and conversations you have with any of the pros involved. It may seem like a lot of work, but you'll be glad to have the record if a dispute arises. Also be careful to document changes to the project scope through use of a "change order," which is a written document that spells out the change along with the resulting cost or credit associated with it.

Get an Affidavit of Final Release: When you make the final payment for your remodeling project, request that the contractor provide you with an Affidavit of Final Release and final waiver of mechanic's lien. This ensures that you won't be liable for any non-payment claims issued by materials providers or subcontractors.

Working with a contractor who is an honest, committed professional will make all the difference in your home remodeling experience. For more guidance and resources for working with contractors and planning your project, visit the website for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. The organization also offers a contractor certification process and code of ethics.

Tom Kraeutler is a home improvement expert for AOLReal Estate and host of "The Money Pit,"a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program offering tips for finding and hiring home improvement contractors.

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