Choosing a Contractor

Everyone's heard the horror stories — the contractor who rips out the back of a house, has a nervous breakdown and disappears, one day before the homeowner leaves town for vacation. Or the builder who never shows up on time, does poor work and overcharges.

Home renovations don't have to be traumatic. With a bit of luck, and lots of preparation, homeowners can boost the odds for a happy ending.How to Chose a Contractor

"We're working on the heart of a person's life. We're house doctors. Choose your doctor carefully," says Jerry Levine, a Washington D.C.-area remodeler with The Levine Group. He says remodeling is sensitive business, because it forces occupants to think about their lives together and to make myriad decisions.

"I've seen marriages fall apart," Levine says, adding contractors often act as much as therapists as builders. When a couple starts arguing about whether they want stripes on the wall, he says they may really be talking about whether to stay in the marriage.

"It's a very personal relationship (between customer and contractor). You have to like the person," says designer Stephen Saint-Onge, author of No Place Like Home (Wiley), encouraging people to get referrals from friends and neighbors. "You don't want to have someone in your house you'll dread seeing everyday."  He says the contractor and the homeowner have to be flexible and respectful in working with each other, adding: "There's a certain dance that has to go on."

Yet, how to know the right one? With homeowners crushed for time, the selection process often becomes a sort of speed dating, and contractors say they're often asked the wrong initial questions:

How long will it take? How much will it cost? When can you start?

"People are too focused on getting it done and the price," says George "Geep" Moore Jr., a remodeler from Elm Grove, La., and the 2012 Remodeling Chairman for the National Association of Home Builders.

"The cheapest price is not always the best price," he says, noting some contractors may underbid to get a job, then either tack on higher fees later, do poor work or possibly not finish.

He recommends homeowners learn more instead about the contractor's qualifications, licensing and insurance by asking for proof of each and verifying the information with licensing boards and insurers. Unless the insurance covers workers' compensation, he says a customer can be liable if a workman gets hurt on the job, and many homeowners' policies don't cover those expenses.

How to Chose a ContractorThe right questions are especially important in older homes because of new federal rules for handling lead-based paint. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency began requiring that contractors who work on pre-1978 homes be certified in lead-safe practices or face daily fines of up to $37,500. Not all remodelers have been certified, and homeowners may unknowingly hire less expensive, untrained workers.

Of 129 million U.S. housing units, 76.5 million were built before 1980 and half of those — about 38 million — contain lead, according to the EPA.

"Always call and get references," Moore says, adding it's wise to check on the contractors' record with the Better Business Bureau, as well as with local builders' associations. And he adds: "Don't ever do a job without a contract."

"I would interview three people" when hiring either a contractor or an architect, says architect Sarah Susanka, co-author of Not So Big Remodeling (Taunton Press.) "I wouldn't go much more than that, because you'll drive yourself crazy."

She recommends homeowners check the person's work via online pictures to see if they have the desired style. And in checking references, she advises people to ask if there's good communication with the client.

"Is the chemistry good? Oftentimes, the person you meet with is not the person you work with," she says, suggesting a homeowner request to meet both a firm's principal, as well as the associate who will manage the project.How to Chose a Contractor

Susan Matus, a project designer for Case Design/Remodeling, a large Washington D.C.-area firm, says homeowners often benefit by picking a contractor who also offers design services. That way, she says, the project is designed to meet the client's budget.

"You don't want to go through the design process and find you're off track" financially, she says, referring to cases where an architect designs something that the client can't afford to build.  When hired separately, however, architects can represent the owners' interests in checking the work of contractors — up to a point. Who checks the architects? In some large projects, homeowners hire an independent third party to make sure everyone is doing his or her job correctly. Usually, though, that task falls to the homeowner.

That's why homeowners are advised to take the time to hire qualified people.

"Direct experience is the No. 1 priority… Have they really done this kind of project before?" says Duo Dickinson, an architect and author of Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want.

He adds: "The one thing you have to do is not hire a brother-in-law."

| By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY