Thursday, October 29, 2015

10 Industry secrets for hiring the best home improvement contractor at the best price.

Are you hiring a home improvement contractor to do remodel your kitchen, put on a new roof, or even install an addition to your home? Hiring the right contractor can be a risky, often scary proposition for a homeowners, especially since horror stories of shoddy work and frauds abound.  So we tok the time to poll several contractors themselves, to give you their insider information and tips how to hire the right person, get the best work done, and save a ton of money.  Here's what they said:

1. Schedule work in the off-season.
Too many homeowners wait until the busiest time to call a contractor, but then get frustrated that everyone is booked for months or charging top dollar.  Don’t wait until the hottest week of the summer to get your air conditioner serviced, or the nicest stretch of weather to get your house painted.  Plan ahead and try to book contractors in their slow season – usually winter, rainy times, or even holidays for a lot of businesses.  By being flexible with the timing and getting things done off season, you’ll be able to get the best price because they’ll just want to stay busy and make payroll for their crew.

2. Utilize preventive maintenance.
We see people wait and wait and wait until a small problem becomes a big problem and then becomes an emergency.  It’s almost like homeowners are afraid of bad news (or the cost) if they find something wrong, so they ignore the problem.  I assure you that will cost way more in the long run.  Neglecting common maintenance, like loose gutters, missing roof shingles, dirty filters, uncaulked windows, etc. can lead to bigger problems and even major water damage, so don’t be afraid to get a handyman to give your house a “check up” or look over every spring or fall, so you can find problems when they are still small and easily addressed. 

Also remember that when it comes to house painting, caulking, etc. 2 sides of your house – the south and west in sunny areas, or wettest and least sunny in cold weather climates, usually weather the fastest.  Too many people wait until the whole house needs painting, leaving those 2 sides way too neglected.  Instead, don’t be afraid to get half the house painted, or even the single most weathered side, as needed, without having to paint the whole thing.

3. Know when to use a general handyman and when to use a specialized pro.
A handyman is someone who handles a lot of small jobs, but probably doesn’t specialize in just one thing.  They’re great for every day tasks, like installing a ceiling fan, painting a room, installing tile on a kitchen floor, or changing a toilet, but bigger, technical jobs may be out of their realm.  Always use licensed contractor who specializes in their one vocation when it comes to significant electrical, major plumbing issues, roofing, or foundation or structural issues.  However, calling these big-job pros for very small jobs on your honey-do list might cost too much, and be suitable for a handyman.

4. Research them online.
Do a little digging into the online reputation of the contractors you are hiring.  There are plenty of websites out there – Google, the Better Business Bureau, Department of Consumer Affairs, Angies List, Home Advisor, etc. who will alert you to any problems or complaints against home improvement firms.  Of course you don’t want one subjective review from one customer to make the decision for you, but if there are major violations on file, or consistent complaints by multiple consumers, it’s probably best to move on.

5. The art of asking for references.
This is a tip that will really help you out – and might put a few contractors on the defensive!  Of course homeowners always ask for references (usually 3 for some reason, but I recommend 5) but too often the contractor just gives them the names and numbers of 3 people who were very happy with their work.  Instead, for referrals from the last 5 jobs they did chronologically – not just 5 total.  That way they won’t be able to pick and choose only the positive ones, and if they give you a list of names and numbers and there’s a time gap, you know something was less-than favorable during that time.

6. Work begets work.
Understand that good contractors always want to stay busy, and getting new work is a big part of their focus.  So when negotiating a price (always negotiate) let them know you’ll give them good reviews online, testimonials for their websites and social media, act as a reference for future clients, you’re your neighbors and friends about them, and allow them to put signage up in your front yard while they work.  They’ll appreciate your efforts to help them market, and probably will offer a better price.

7. Hire the tired-looking family man.
Trust me on this, you want to hire the family man who’s been in business for a while who looks tired.  They’re the ones who really need to work to feed their families and their own mortgage.  Be wary of the young college kids with nice tans who come in under everyone else’s price – they probably won’t have the same experience, or motivation to work hard.  Definitely be careful of the slick-talking salesman who offers to give you some special deal that no one else will, promises the moon, and just happens to have a completely free schedule starting Monday.  If it’s too good to be true, it ALWAYS is when it comes to home improvements.  

Make sure to ask who will be doing the actual work - the contractor himself?  His crew?  Unlicensed subcontractors or cheap day laborers?  Ask if he'll be on site at all times.

8. Get it all in writing.
A written contract is your only legal protection if things go south and the work isn’t performed correctly. Therefore, take some time to make sure the contract for services looks good.  Ask questions and make sure all points are covered.  Make sure you have their home address, office address, all contact information, and a copy of their contractor’s license on file.  Clarify start time and when the work will be completed.  This is very important because too often contractors take on more work than they can chew, just to get the deposit or some up front money, and then they keep juggling between jobs.  Clarify if they will only be working on your job exclusively, and if the job runs behind schedule, build in a reasonable per-day discount fee for your inconvenience (and to motivate them.)  Make sure it’s clarified who will pay for and transport materials (and what quality they’ll use) and if they’ll clean up trash once the job is done.  

Very important – NEVER pay everything up front.  Once you hand over all (or most) or the money for the job, it’s amazing how quickly their motivation will wane.  Plus, it’s illegal, and most states have regulations on how much up front money then can charge.  I usually break the total cost into 3 payments – the day the work is started (or to pick up materials,) halfway through at some predetermined completion point (like when the house is prepped and primed, for house painting) and then upon completion when you are happy with the work.  Make SURE to have their money when you say you will to keep it fair.

9. Understand the three levels of estimates.
Get at least three estimates for the work you need done (but five is even better.)  Type out a “spec” sheet with the exact work you want done, specific materials, etc. so you can compare apples to apples once they submit bids.  Ask for references with their bids.

There are usually three levels of estimates – one contractor who will charge through the roof, basically trying to get as much as the customer will pay.  They lose a lot of jobs this way, but take advantage of uninformed homeowners or people with means.  Hey, God bless America, they can charge whatever they want!  The second estimate is middle-of-the-road, work that is priced moderately and consistently by several contractors.  The third is work that is drastically less than even the mid-range bids.  I highly recommend you throw out the highest bids and stay the heck away from the lowest bids – choose someone with a middle-of-the-road price that is fair for you and fair for them, but most importantly they will do the work correctly and finish the job to your satisfaction.

10. Cash is king!
The last tip is one that is sure to save you money.  Honest contractors work extremely hard for their money, and love to keep ever cent in their pocket (by not giving it to the IRS) as possible.  Therefore, they LOVE customers who pay cash.  Whether they declare the income on their taxes or not is none of your concern, but at the very least it gives them a lot more flexibility.  So AFTER you get a written bid from them, ask what they would knock off if you agreed to pay cash.  Most contractors will entertain a cash discount, and may even knock off 5-10% off the price. 

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