Home improvements can enhance your home’s value and comfort, but choosing the wrong contractor can make the process frustrating and expensive. The wrong contractor can leave you with shoddy work and a poor outcome that you’ll need to correct. A few precautions can help you locate a reputable contractor and minimize these kinds of problems.
Quick Tips: Hiring a Contractor
- Seek referrals.
- Solicit bids from at least 3 contractors.
- Be wary of “too good to be true” proposals.
- Research the contractor for previous complaints.
- Insist on a written contract that outlines your project and includes starting and completion dates.
- Review all documents before you sign them, including contracts, warranties, and plans.
- Make sure there are no blank spaces on anything you sign.
- Insist upon a written warranty on all materials and work.
- Secure building permits (if necessary) before starting the project and identify the contractor on the application.
- Withhold final payment until the project is completed and inspected.
- Secure a contractor’s affidavit that all subcontractors and material suppliers have been paid before making final payment.
- Report any problems to the appropriate licensing board.
Locating a Contractor
- Avoid contractors who use aggressive, high-pressure tactics to scare you into working with them. Decline unsolicited pitches from contractors who are “just in the neighborhood,” use overly-friendly sales pitches, or quote you a price too good to be true.
- Comparison shop. Obtain bids from three contractors and ask for three references from each. Ask neighbors, friends, or relatives who have recently completed a home improvement project for their recommendations.
- The Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR), which licenses contractors, provides information about specific contractors, including their addresses, length of time licensed, and whether they’ve been the subject of DPOR disciplinary action for violation of DPOR rules. DPOR does not investigate unethical business practices. Visit the DPOR website or call the DPOR at 804-367-8500.
- To learn if a complaint has been filed by a Fairfax County resident against a contractor, search the complaint history files of the Consumer Affairs Branch.
Hiring a Contractor
- Always ask the contractor for a copy of his contractor’s license from the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. Verify the license and contact information via the DPOR website or by calling the DPOR at 804-367-8500. Any contractor seeking work through home solicitation also must carry a solicitor license issued by the Fairfax County Department of Cable and Consumer Services (DCCS).
- Ask the contractor for his current liability insurance policy. Verify with the contractor’s insurance agent that the policy is still in effect and covers your type of project.
- Some types of work require a permit. Call the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services’ Permits Branch at 703-324-1555, TTY 711, to determine whether a permit is necessary. The Permits Branch also can provide information on each contractor’s licensing and disciplinary status.
- Don’t rely on verbal agreements. Ask the contractor you’ve selected to prepare a written contract that includes, at a minimum, the contractor’s name, street address (not a P.O. box number), license number, a description of the work to be performed (including clean-up) and timetable, the materials to be used, subcontractor names, if any, starting and completion dates, warranty provisions, and a payment schedule based on completion of specific stages of the job.
- Read and understand the contract before you sign it. If you don’t understand it, consult an attorney. Never rely on the salesperson to read or explain the contract to you. Verify that all oral promises have been put in writing. Make sure all blanks are filled in before signing.
- Con artists and fly-by-night operators typically insist on a large down payment or that you pay in cash before work is done. Once they have the money, they may never return. Your down payment should be as little as you can negotiate with the contractor, but typically no more than 25-30 percent of the total cost. Pay by credit card, not cash.
- Don’t allow payments to get ahead of the work.
- Withhold the final payment until the entire project is finished and inspected and you receive a contractor’s affidavit affirming that all subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. You don’t want to have a mechanic’s lien placed against your property if you’ve paid the contractor, but he hasn’t paid the subcontractors and suppliers.
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