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Choosing a Qualified Contractor
by Broderick Perkins
When you hire unlicensed, uninsured help, you get what you pay for -- the work of an unlicensed contractor with no regulatory oversight.
When you hire unlicensed help, there's often no way to check on the worker's credentials, registered complaints or quality of workmanship. Should something go wrong, redress is up to you and, perhaps, civil court -- criminal court if he or she happens to be a crook.
Nevertheless, one in 10 residents polled in a recent survey said they would hire an unlicensed contractor to save a few bucks.
"The tragedy of hiring a casual laborer is that it can cost homeowners hundreds of times the money they saved, and worse, it can jeopardize their safety," said Jon Osterberg, spokesperson for PEMCO Insurance.
PEMCO, the Seattle-based pollster of an insurance company, hired Informa Research Services Inc. to ask 606 Washington state residents about their choice of hired help.
Providing anecdotal evidence to underscore what can happen, the insurer recalled refusing a claim on a lean-to car port, that, well, leaned too far.
A homeowner hired an unqualified contractor to retrofit the lean-to onto his home, but the builder used materials that were too heavy and fastened them to the home's siding instead of the studs.
The carport collapsed, immobilizing a mobile home.
"The sad part of the story is that PEMCO had to reject the insurance claim after an engineer determined the carport was improperly built," Osterberg said.
Osterberg said without educational and sometimes in-the-field experience requirements typically required by law for a license, you could get stuck with a builder lacking current building code knowledge. Building codes are designed to keep the occupants safe and healthy.
"It only takes a few minutes for a homeowner to verify if a contractor is licensed and bonded," said Osterberg. "It takes much longer to repair shoddy work."
"Unlicensed, uninsured and unskilled" can also describe some homeowners who insist they can do it themselves.
"It's usually more expensive to fix work done improperly than to pay to have it done right the first time," Osterberg said.
Electrical work can result in some of the most shocking errors, said Osterberg recounting the homeowner who connected aluminum and copper wires of different gauges without using a junction box. The resultant fire led an inspector to order the entire house rewired to the tune of $20,000.
"Do-it-yourselfers should never fool around with bearing walls, foundations or serious plumbing, electrical or mechanical work. These are areas for professional contractors only. The cost in potential damage can far outweigh any advantages," says Ken Willis, president of the League of California Homeowners, an online resource for home remodeling and related issues.
Beyond verifying the license status, liability insurance, bonding or other documents required by local regulations, here are some additional pointers for finding good help.
- Get at least three referrals from family, friends, co-workers and others you trust who were recently satisfied by work performed similar to work you need completed.
- Choose a specialist in the work you want completed -- a carpenter for wood work; an electrician for low-voltage lighting; a mason to build a fireplace.
- Trade group affiliation doesn't guarantee quality performance, but membership, which typically mandates licensing, can be considered as a positive factor. Trade groups often provide another level of education, ethics, standards of practice for the professional and redress for the home owner should a problem arise.
- Ask the contractor for referrals to recent customers, customers from a year ago and customers from three or more years ago to determine how the work holds up. Examine the work and interview the referrals to learn about the contractor's habits, cleanliness, on-time performance and other concerns related to your job at hand. Privacy concerns about you entering strangers' homes to examine work is a good reason to get referrals from those you know.
- In addition to the license check, check the company's trade group status and contact the Better Business Bureau to determine if any complains have been filed, how they were resolved and if they are still open. A resolved complaint or two may not necessarily exclude a contractor. Look for patterns of unresolved cases.
- Accept only written estimates and contracts from contractors who also pull the required building permits and work with blueprints or professional drawings. Refuse to work with any contractor unwilling to put out when it comes to paperwork. The lowest bidder isn't always the best choice. Refer to completed work you've examined.
- Be sure the contract is complete, clearly indicating the steps of the job, supplies and materials, payment schedule and time line for completion. Don't sign a contract with blank spaces. Don't sign an incomplete contract. Deposit 30 to 50 percent of the total price to initiate the job and to cover most of the contractor's materials expenses. Never pay the balance until the job is completed to your satisfaction.
- The same regulatory body that enforces licensing requirements can provide you with information about hiring contractors, often from the comfort of your personal computer.
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