Which contractor should I hire?


When it comes to hiring someone to work on your house, certain conditions can make it more likely that you – and the contractor – are happy with the outcome.


In last week’s column, we answered some common questions about hiring a contractor. You have more questions on the topic and we have more answers!


But let’s start by reviewing the basics from last week. We encouraged you to put in writing what you want done – that’s called a “scope of work.” The detailed scope of work includes listing what is to be done, materials to be used, and even who cleans the job site. It can even include drawings from an architect or designer if it is a more complex job.


Once that is complete, ask for bids from two or three different contractors after soliciting recommendations from family, friends and neighbors.

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Q. How do I choose which contractor to hire?


A. Once you have received bids from several licensed, bonded and insured contractors, you need to make a choice.


If the bids aren’t relatively close to each other, you should try to determine why – perhaps there was a misunderstanding of what materials are to be used or a different approach one contractor plans to take.


While cost is a primary consideration, it isn’t the only one. Good referrals are important too. And sometimes you “click” better with one contractor – perhaps they understand the project better or you feel more comfortable with them. You may choose them even if their bid isn’t the lowest. Think about low-stress and quality control!


Q. How do I know if someone is licensed, bonded and insured?


A. It is appropriate – and wise – to simply ask if the contractor you are considering is licensed, bonded and insured. In addition, you can easily check if their license, bond and insurance are valid and in-force. It is important for your safety and for theirs! You can call Labor and Industries at (360) 533-8200 to check on a contractor’s credentials or go to the L&I website to check online.


Q. Is a contract necessary for my job?


A. We’ve already mentioned how helpful a scope of work is, that’s doubly true for a written contract. A rock-solid written contract is the legal glue that binds a well-intentioned contractor to the job. It should describe what is going to happen, for how much, when and how long it will take and what will happen when either party fails to perform to the contract.


Some projects are so complicated and expensive they warrant legal help to create a proper contract. A good contract attorney or architect can be very helpful toward providing preventative management practices and can increase the chances for a successful project for both parties.


Q. What should be in writing?

A. In addition to your name and address, a contract should name the construction company, all of its owners, all pertinent addresses, phone numbers and the contractor’s license number, bonding agent, bond amount, as well as his insurance company and the liability coverage amount and any expiration dates available.


To verify this information and check for complaints about the company and the owner as well, call Labor and Industries and the Better Business Bureau.


Your contract should include references to a dated scope of work and any drawings or other specifications (such as a manufacturer’s installation specifications). If you’re not capable of doing this, there are construction management firms and architects in the area who can help you for a fee.


Also, include general conditions of the work site such as the hours available to work, keeping a clean site or even toilet use by workers.


The contract should clearly state the price agreed upon for the job, including all materials, taxes, fees and permits. If you are working on a cost-plus-materials basis, find out the cost of each person on the job and if there is a mark-up on materials. Do what you must to have no surprise extra billings.


The contract is also the place to define progressive payments. Use a brief description of the progress required for each payment. It should also state that before any payment, the contractor, any sub-contractors and any materials company having delivered materials on your property will each turn in an “unconditional lien waiver.” Small incremental payments are better than large payouts, and seem to keep things moving along more quickly and steadily at the worksite.


Q. Should I include specific dates for completion in the project?


A. Yes! While time delays may occur, you’ll want to codify ahead of time what happens if the contractor simply doesn’t call or show up for a couple weeks. It happens more often than you might expect! This is one place where material and sub-contractor lien waivers for work already paid for can save you from paying twice!


So, your contract should include clearly stated language that makes adjustments to time and penalties for not showing up or not finishing the job on time. A 10 percent withholding of each payout is reasonable leverage to finish the work.


What about other changes to the contract? Your contract should say something like this: “The owner and the contractor expressly agree that no material changes or alterations in the work, price or time shall be made unless in writing and agreed upon by both parties and signed.”


Q. What about small changes in the project?


A. It may seem a little formal or awkward, but don’t mix verbal agreements with written contracts. Write every little change down for everybody to sign and date. If it changes the money, adding or subtracting from the contract amount, write the new money changes down and have everybody sign.


This protects the poor contractor too when one spouse has a conversation and wants to change something and they end up caught in the middle.

Q. What about building permits and inspections?


A. If your project is big enough to need a building permit, then the contract should address who will be responsible for any permits, building code requirements and arranging for city or county inspections.


Permits are required for most work done on your property and initially you should be the person to call your local official when writing up what you want done. If you have a designer or architect drawing up a plan, they should be held responsible for knowing and designing with respect for the applicable building codes.


Your contractor is also expected to follow the local building code and certainly to follow any professionally designed plan provided and that has been “plan checked” by the city or county plan checkers, before a building permit is issued.


This very important step in the process is often not communicated and causes lots of problems that end up in the courts. Do not allow any work to start until the permit is in a sealed bag and attached to the outside of your house!


In addition, make yourself aware of each required inspection. The building official will clearly mark on the permit card when they want to inspect the work. Pay attention to any notes written on the permit card by the inspector and attend the inspections whenever possible.

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