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Published: Monday, 5/27/2013

Contractor trust, budget awareness keys to renovation success

BLADE NEWS SERVICES
Tim Brandvold, left, and Scot Waggoner show plans for a kitchen remodel to Chris and Jen Romans in Minneapolis. Experts advise homeowners to be sure contractors are licensed to do the job. Tim Brandvold, left, and Scot Waggoner show plans for a kitchen remodel to Chris and Jen Romans in Minneapolis. Experts advise homeowners to be sure contractors are licensed to do the job.
MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE Enlarge

When you hire a contractor for your home renovation, should you really have to worry whether the new refrigerator will fit? Whether the outlets are wired to current standards? And who will be responsible for paying the plumber?

Choosing the right contractor and knowing how best to work with him or her can make an expensive and stressful project run better.

The first question, said Ryan Teicher, president of HIT Construction Group in Scotch Plains, N.J., is whether the contractor is licensed and insured. And he or she should be someone you trust, said Kim Moldofsky, a Chicago-area homeowner who renovated her fixer-upper.

“The contractor we chose came with strong word-of-mouth recommendations,” said Ms. Moldofsky, who documented her home’s overhaul at ReluctantRenovator.com. “No major renovations go off without some problems, so having someone you can trust, who is keeping your best interests at heart, goes a long way toward making the process easier.”

At the start, understand your style and budget, so the contractor can properly price the project. “I need to know if they want a Cadillac, a Yugo, or a Mercedes,” Mr. Teicher said.

Once the process starts, it’s easy to ask for additional upgrades or improvements that will cost more, Ms. Moldofsky said. “It was rare that a contractor presented us with an idea that raised our price. It was usually us. We were the ones who drove up the cost, not our contractor.”

Permits are required for any structural, mechanical, electrical, or plumbing residential changes, said Devra Goldstein, senior building inspector for New Orleans.

That said, not everyone pulls permits. “There are contractors who will say they don’t need permits, and they’ll offer a better price,” Ms. Moldofsky said.

But permits and inspections protect the homeowner. Showing that the upgrades were permitted can help when you refinance or sell a home. “You can show the work was done to code,” Ms. Goldstein said.

It may be cheaper to hire an unlicensed or uninsured electrician or plumber, but “it’s against the law,” Mr. Teicher said. “If the guy gets hurt or does something wrong, he doesn’t have insurance to back it up. It’s a state requirement to be licensed.”

Melaney Arnold, a manager at the Illinois Department of Public Health, which regulates and licenses the state’s plumbers, said homeowners and contractors can be fined for using an unlicensed person.

One thing to hammer out is who buys and pays for supplies, whether it’s paint and drywall or tile and countertops.

“On bigger jobs I try to supply everything,”Mr. Teicher said. “My philosophy is that this work should be relatively stress-free for the customer. If they’re paying me to build something, they shouldn’t have to worry about anything. I also don’t want to have to run out to the hardware store during the day.”

Sometimes, Mr. Teicher said, clients want to buy materials. One of his clients saw a $300 farm sink on eBay that typically sells for $1,500. “I refused to install it because I don’t know its quality. I don’t know what I’m in for when it arrives.”

For a homeowner, even changing your mind on a lighting fixture is a problem and may cost you extra. “If someone wants recessed lights, we have to know that in advance,” Mr. Teicher said. For bathrooms, a large vanity might have one long fixture with eight bulbs or two smaller fixtures. That means placing different electrical boxes in different places.

Mr. Teicher prefers that the plumbing, lighting fixtures, and appliances are picked out toward the start of the job. “I don’t like doing things on the fly,” he said. “There are too many moving parts. The wiring and plumbing roughs have to be in the right place.”

Get a contract and make sure you agree with everything in it. Mr. Teicher provides his clients with a detailed estimate, including a scope of work, payment schedule, and list of who supplies which materials. Permitting fees are excluded.

Setting up clear expectations at the start will help your project move forward with ease, as will choosing a contractor with personal and technical skills. Keeping your initial vision and budget in mind keeps things streamlined, making a smooth project for your contractor and ultimately, you.



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