Do your homework when shopping for a contractor
So your home is looking a little weathered and
needs paint. Or maybe you've outgrown those three bedrooms and need
to renovate or build a custom home.
The options are simple: You can tackle the project
yourself and show the world how skilled you are or, if you're toolbox-challenged,
you can do what most sane people do -- hire a contractor.
But be warned: Hiring a contractor is not for the
faint of heart. You should not simply flip a coin or dial up the
first name in the phone book. Rather, you need to take your time
to research who you want to tackle the project. You have to live
with the results, so make sure you get it right.
Before you start contacting contractors, understand
what you want them to do. Plan your project and put it on paper.
The more details you include, the better. This will be important
when you meet with contractors since you will have to explain to
them what you want in a consistent manner.
Where to find a contractor
While the phone book is a good place to start looking for contractors,
don't stop there. Many contractors belong to trade associations
and agree to follow an ethics code and join a provincial home warranty
program, says Grant Ainsley, executive director of the Alberta
Home Builders' Association.
Most provinces have a home builders' association,
and there is also a national body, the Canadian Home Builders' Association.
Web site features a search function that lets you find members
in your area, but not every province is covered. It also features
information about buying a new home and renovating.
In addition, Construction
Canada.com, an on-line directory, contains information about
contractors and building associations across the country.
Next, canvass family, friends, and work colleagues for names of
contractors they recommend or suggest you avoid. Also pay attention
to work going on in your neighbourhood, where you can see contractors
in action. Most newspapers also have a real estate section where
contractors advertise their services.
Narrow the list
Once you have a list, winnow it down to three names and contact
them for quotes. Make sure they provide you with a written bid based
on the same requirements, says Ainsley. Then you can properly compare
the bids. The bid should include materials, labour and time needed
to remodel your kitchen, unfinished basement or addition.
Check them out
Ask the contractors for client references and take the time to contact
them and ask to see the contractor's handiwork up close. Contact
the local home builders' association and verify they are members.
Also contact the local Better
Business Bureau to see if anyone has complained about the contractor.
You can also talk to some of the contractor's suppliers to see if
the company is financially stable. The last thing you want is for
the builder to go bankrupt in the middle of your project.
Unfortunately, Ainsley says, most home owners simply
"hear from somebody that such and such is a good builder, and
they won't do a lot more to check them out."
He says it's important you probe the contractor on things like
how long they have been in business under that name. One sign of
financial instability is the use of multiple names over a period
"Ask the right questions," Ainsley stresses. Request
documentation like the contractor's goods and services tax number
to make sure they're above board. Get copies of insurance policies
and confirm with the insurer the policy is valid.
Get the contractor's workers' compensation account
number and contact the provincial workers' compensation board to
confirm the coverage is valid. If it isn't, Ainsley warns you could
be liable for injuries workers suffer while in your home.
Assessing the bids
When it comes to assessing bids, money isn't the only concern. If
one bid is out of whack with the others, it could be an indication
the contractor has missed something or is using inferior materials.
Make sure the bids cover the same work and materials. If not, note
the differences for follow-up questions. Probe the contractors about
their bids and the points on which they differ. Look for skill and
craftsmanship and ask yourself if you'd be comfortable working with
Find out from the contractor who will do the work
-- his employees or subcontractors? If the answer is subcontractors,
do the same type of check and make sure they are licensed, bonded
and properly insured.
Get it in writing
Once you decide on the contractor, the most important thing you
need to do is incorporate the quote into a written contract, according
to Ainsley. It should list such items as:
- the full name and address of the company. You'll need this in
case things go wrong and you have to sue or report the company
to the BBB or a builders' association.
- an explanation of what work will be done. It's important you
agree on the details of the project. Make sure you set out who
will be responsible for garbage removal and the length of any
- an established work schedule. Include start and end dates. As
well, set the ground rules as to when workers will arrive and
leave and what days of the week they'll work and whether they
will work on holidays.
- specific materials to be used and brand names. Ainsley says
if a contractor installs the wrong countertop and then promises
to "give you upgraded tiles for free, get it in writing."
Otherwise, you could be left out in the cold.
- a payment schedule. Don't pay the contractor the full amount
in advance. If the contractor wants a down payment, Ainsley says
"put the least (amount of money) down as possible."
Your best bet is to pay the contractor as the project progresses
and milestones are met.
- a holdback and a date for release of payment. This protects
you in the event that minor repairs are needed at the end of the
- a firm price. Make sure it covers everything, including the
subcontractor's fees and taxes.
If the contractor presents you with a standard-form contract, scratch
out the things you don't like and initial them. Don't leave any
lines or spaces blank. Fill in "not applicable" if a provision
Ainsley says while the lowest-priced bid is attractive at first
blush, consumers must remember, "You get what you pay for."
Jim Middlemiss is a freelance writer and lawyer based in Toronto,
Ontario. He's a frequent contributor to National Post, Investment
Executive and Wall Street and Technology.