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Avoid home remodeling snafus -- Page 2

"Communications are a critical component of your arrangement," says DiPrimio. "Make sure all details of the work are spelled out in a written contract, including specifics about material to be used and the time frame for starting and completing the work. And never, never give an advance deposit greater than one-third of the contract amount."

When something goes wrong
Even with your best efforts to choose the right contractor, everything may not go smoothly. That's why it's important to keep good records. From the initial estimate to a running journal of progress and problems, make sure it's in writing.

If you have a grievance, communicate it to the contractor in writing as soon as possible. Your letter should clearly spell out your concerns and include a reasonable timetable for the contractor to respond. Deliver your letters in person or send them certified mail, return receipt requested.

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Laws in most communities allow contractors the right to make a reasonable effort to correct unsatisfactory work, and you should, too. Better Business Bureau files on complaint cases show that most contractor problems can be resolved through better communications between the parties. "I have mediated enough complaints to realize that sometimes the real issue has nothing to do with the quality of work," says Richard Davis, executive director of the Remodeling Contractors Association, "but everything to do with the quality of the relationship between people."

If your good faith efforts to resolve things with the contractor prove unsuccessful, your next step should be to file a complaint with the local Better Business Bureau and the Department of Consumer Protection in your state.

When complaints don't help, small claims court may be an effective option. In most states, filing a small claims suit is a simple process that requires only the payment of a small filing fee. The services of a lawyer are not required.

The disadvantage of small claims judgments in many states is the lack of teeth in the enforcement procedures. "Even if you win," says DiPrimio, "if the contractor does not voluntarily comply with the judgment, you may have to hire a constable to repossess property and auction it off to settle the claim."

While seeking full legal redress in court is always an option, most experts agree that taking your problem to a lawyer should be your last resort. "That's why it's so important to avoid situations where litigation of any type may become necessary," says DiPrimio. "Never make the final payment to your contractor until the work has been completed to your satisfaction."

Doing it yourself
"Some homeowners are capable of producing beautiful work at minimum cost," says DiPrimio. "However it's important that you be honest with yourself about your level of skills. When homeowners attempt jobs beyond their abilities, the results can be disastrous."

Even if you're handy with hammer and saw, you should consider the time that will be required to do the job, your own work schedule, and how it all will fit in with family commitments. If a kitchen remodeling that should take two weeks drags on for months, your family will have to find expensive alternatives for meals. And sometimes the cost of the tools or equipment you'll need to do the job will offset some, if not all, of the financial benefits of doing it yourself.

Partial upgrades worthwhile
You may also want to rethink whether it's really necessary to completely overhaul a particular space. Bahman Azarm, president of Remodeling Contractors Association of Connecticut, says, "Many times changing a countertop, backsplash, and faucet in the kitchen will make it look and feel like a new room, and changing the vanity in a guest bath to a pedestal sink can make a small bathroom feel much more spacious and inviting."

Bill Lynott is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.

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-- Updated: April 15, 2005

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