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Hints for Homeowners #3 - Hire a Contractor

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Hints for Homeowners #1 - The Spring Inspection
Hints for Homeowners #2 - Live Green
Hints for Homeowners #3 - Hire a Contractor
Hints for Homeowners #4 - Ice Dams
Hints for Homeowners #5 - Landscaping

Hiring a Contractor

Hiring a contractor can be a scary process. They can take apart your home, make a thorough mess, you don't know who they will have working for you and who knows if they will do a good job? There ARE lots of good contractors out there, and there are some who are not.

Maine has a webpage about hiring a contractor: https://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer/housing/home_construction.shtml, and it's useful.

The first step is to know what you are going to have the contractor to do. If you have a tight budget, and several different things that need doing, divide the work up into phases, with phase 1 being the most urgent. The contractors can propose costs separately for different phases. Remember that a bigger contract, doing phase 1+2+3 in 2021, may have less overhead cost to the contractor than doing the phases separately, doing phase 1 in 2021, phase 2 in 2023, and phase 3 in 2025.

Write everything down. Start with addresses and contact information for the property and the person the contractors will be dealing with, and when your house was built, the Book and Page numbers from the deed, and any easements that might come into play. Then list the work to be done.

Next, who will you ask to bid on the work? Ask your friends and neighbors who they have had do similar work. Your real estate agent or property manager may have contractors they see often. There are often business cards posted in the building supply stores, and the contractor’s service desk at the building supply stores may also be a source. Once you have some names, call, ask for their references, and look at their work; they will show you photos, and you can ask to see the buildings they have worked on. I provide names of contractors that do a particular kind of work in a given location to my clients (if I have any), but not references or referrals because it's not legal due to my professional engineering license.

Call the references. Just do it. Ask how the contractor dealt with changes or problems, including both technical things like finding rot or that a big column was in a wall to be removed, and billing issues. How were the workers onsite - as in, clean and safe and didn't let the cat out or the dust in? Was the area around the work cleaned regularly? Did the contractor do what he said he was going to, when he said he was going to? Bear in mind that no job EVER goes completely smoothly, and every building has its surprises - especially existing building renovations.

Make a list of three to five contractors, and have them come to the property. Walk them through your list of work, and what you might do for phases. The more detailed the list of work, the better the proposals will be from the contractors, and the more likely you will get apples for apples bids.

An experienced contractor will take your list, and ask a lot of questions. Say you are replacing those old windows. Are you changing the outside trim? The inside trim? What if rot is found in the sheathing or the siding is not in good enough condition to be reinstalled? Do you want vinyl-coated wood outside and inside? What if the inside trim work dings up the drywall or wallpaper? Are you having some electrical outlets added at the same time? There should be lots of technical questions.

You should also be ready to specify other work conditions. Can they use your electricity, water, bathroom? Can they work early in the morning, or on Saturdays? Are there any limits on noisy work? Many owners specify that the workers will not smoke on the job in the house. You should schedule time for meeting with the contractor during the project.

If you aren't comfortable with this process, call an engineer in and have her look at what you want to do and make up the specifications. She can also set up a schedule and inspect the work as it progresses.

Every building contract over $3000 in Maine is required to have a contract signed by both parties. Signing the contractor's proposal is not enough. There is a model contract on the Maine Attorney General's website, with a change order form, which is a good starting point. (See the link on the Builder's Tools page.)

When the work is ready to start, take lots of photos, then take more once a week. Keep the lines of communication open. Your builder may find problems that will cost money, but may have good ideas to add to the ones you started with - or to fix the problems found economically.

Updated 2/17/20