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Tips for finding the right home improvement contractor

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) Finding a reputable contractor is important for families who are planning home improvement projects, not only to ensure quality work but also to avoid getting bilked.

Complaints against roofing contractors, general contractors and home remodeling contractors ranked third, fourth and seventh, respectively, on the list of the top 10 consumer problems reported in 2002 to the nation's Better Business Bureaus.

Sheila Adkins, a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va., said many of the complaints come in after natural disasters, such as floods or tornados, when home contractors come out of the woodwork, perform shoddy work and in general take advantage of desperate families, and then disappear.''

Adkins said, however, that some of the fault lies with consumers: They don't do necessary background checks. They don't ask the right questions. They don't get it in writing.''

She advises consumers to be especially skeptical of contractors who go door-to-door.

Make sure they have a permanent address, a working phone number, a tax ID number, a certificate of insurance and bonding information,'' she said. More tips can be found on the group's Web site at www.bbb.org.

Adkins said that one of the best ways for consumers to find reliable contractors is to ask friends and family for references.

That's what Kenneth Chamlin, a 46-year-old lawyer, did to find a contractor to help him update an 80-year-old cottage he bought in Ocean, N.J., late last year.

It wasn't a handyman special, but it needed some renovation work,'' he said. I just didn't know how much.''

He sought out a contractor who had done work for his parents, and so far, Keith Kinsey of Slocum Builders has had his crews level the sagging floor of the second story, turn two small bedrooms into a master bedroom suite and relocate radiators to clear walls for built-in bookshelves.

I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, but I'm a lawyer not a builder,'' Chamlin said. It really helped to work with a contractor who knew what could be done and what it would cost.''

Kinsey said one sign of a good contractor is the willingness to discuss a potential customer's wants and needs.

People can ask anything, and a good contractor will be happy to respond,'' he said. In most cases, he said, he gets new clients by referral from old clients.

Jennifer Westhoff, a public relations specialist who lives near St. Louis, said finding a good contractor reduced the hassle of remodeling projects she and her husband Jacob tackled on their new home.

Westhoff, 25, said that within hours of closing on their brick bungalow, they were tearing up the matted green shag carpeting in the living room, discovering to their joy that there was a beautiful hardwood floor underneath.''

They hired a contractor to do the refinishing, and praised his work.

It's usually a really messy job,'' she said. They were so careful, covering the outlets and keeping the dust down. The floor is beautiful, and we are very pleased.''

Recently they hired another contractor to install a cedar fence around their yard.

I try to talk to at least two or three contractors, and I always sit down with them to make sure they understand what my budget is, what my vision is,'' she said. They often have interesting ideas to present.''

She said, for example, they're pleased they took their fence contractor's advice and put in a doublewide gate, which will make it easier to get a riding lawnmower or a vehicle into the backyard if necessary.

Linda Schoffman of the Design Link remodeling firm in Portland, Ore., said consumers should ask a lot of questions of contractors and designers before hiring them.

One of the best ways to find a contractor is to talk to people who have had similar work done,'' Schoffman said. If you don't know anyone, drive around the neighborhood. If you see an addition going up, ask about the contractor.''

She suggested the questions should be probing and personal, like: Did the contractor listen to your ideas? Does he or she quickly return calls? Are workers courteous, and did they clean up? Did they get the proper permits and abide by local building codes?

Schoffman, the former executive director of the Oregon Remodelers Association, also advises that consumers get everything in writing,'' down to the brands of appliances or plumbing fixtures to be installed, and a deadline for the completion of work.

Most people spend more time choosing a stereo than they do choosing someone who's going to tear down part of their house,'' she said. The home is most people's largest investment, so they should be very careful who they choose to work on it.''

Tips on evaluating contractors can be found at www.remodeltoday.com, a Web site run by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry based in Des Plaines, Ill.



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