Nailing a good contractor
June 13, 2000: 11:04 a.m. ET
Booming business, shrinking ranks can mean hard work for consumers
By Staff Writer Rob Lenihan
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - No, it's not your imagination. A good contractor really is hard to find.|
The booming economy has been providing business for lots of people, including the ones who work on your house. You want someone to come over and take care of a small job, but you can't even get anybody to return your phone calls.
Well, it's not just you — at least not this time, it isn't. Experts say a hyperactive economy has sparked a nationwide building and remodeling boom, which in turn has made contractors very popular people.
"It's a very serious problem," said William Young, director of consumer affairs at the National Association of Home Builders. "A lot of trade contractors are not just working in the residential field, they're also working in commercial construction."
The association has made the recruitment, training and retention of workers in the home building trades a top priority for 2000.
Consultant Henry Goudreau of HG Associates in Sarasota, Fla., said the contracting sector is being thinned by a wave of retirements as veterans hang up their tool belts and younger professionals fail to join the ranks.
"There's just not enough young people in this industry to pick up the slack," he said. "It's a major problem and everybody is feeling the effects of it. Ten years from now, it's going to be horrendous."
True enough, but don't let desperation cloud your judgment. Even if you do have to work harder, you want the job done properly at a decent price. And the Internet offers consumers another avenue for the great contractor hunt.
Once you decide exactly what you want done to your home you can search for a contractor. The NAHB has some suggestions on how to begin. You can:
· Seek referrals from friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and others who have had remodeling work done.
· Talk to independent trade contractors, building materials suppliers, architects, engineers, home inspectors and local lenders.
· Contact trade associations.
Beware of anyone who solicits business door-to-door. Don't thumb through the phone book and pick the guy with the coolest looking advertisement. Business people pay for that space, they don't earn it.
"Any idiot can take out an ad in the Yellow Pages," said Barbara Ling, author of "Avoiding the Contractor from Hell".
Ling said you might ask neighbors, but if you don't know them that well, you might get bad information. She suggested visiting your local hardware store during a slow period and asking for some names.
"Mom and Pop stores have a vested interest in seeing that you're a happy customer," she said.
You may also want to look to cyberspace for a contractor. Ling's advice about the phone book applies here as well, since anybody can set up a Web site.
Remodel.com, ImproveNET.com and Contractor.net are three sites that allow consumers to search for contractors via the Internet.
Nora DePalma, vice president for public relations at ImproveNet.com (IMPV: Research, Estimates), said the company screens contractors to see if they are licensed and bonded, have a clean business record and have been operating for at least three years.
The company then matches up contractors who are interested in a particular project and are available on the homeowner's time frame.
"We do the homeowner's legwork," she said.
Posting questions about contractors on the Internet is a possibility, but Ling said you never know who is answering the question.
"You have to have a healthy dose of skepticism," she said.
Consumer advocate Tom Landis said he has spoken with consumers who have used Internet contractor sites and were not pleased. The consumers, he said, either failed to get a response or got calls from contractors who didn't have time to do the work and wanted to bring in sub-contractors.
"Give it a few years and all the problems will be worked out," he said.
Landis, who hosts a radio show in the Pacific Northwest, suggested contacting manufacturers who make the products you need — roofing materials or plumbing fixtures, for example — and finding out who the distributors in your area are that sell directly to the trades people. Then ask the distributor for a list of four or five contractors.
"You want to work from the supply side of the economy," Landis said.
The price is right?
Once you find a contractor, check the references. Ask for the names and phone numbers of current and former customers and interview them, preferably in their homes so you can look at the contractor's work.
Ask the former customers if their projects were completed on time and within budget. And ask if they would hire the contractor again.
Find out if the contractor has the proper insurance that protects you from claims connected to property damage or injuries on the jobsite. If someone gets hurt on your property, the homeowner is responsible.
"Homeowners are sometimes too nice and contractors will take advantage of them," Ling said. "There's the intimidation factor."
And finally, "Don't get focused on the cheapest price," Goudreau of HG Associates said. "Make sure you ask the right questions." The lowest price isn't always the best price, especially if the results are a nightmare.