Spring is just around the corner — a time when thoughts turn to home repair and renovation projects. For many, that means hiring a contractor. That can be especially true in the case of older homeowners who are no longer able to do their own repairs or who formerly relied on a spouse to do or oversee building projects. Because not all businesspeople have their customers’ best interests at heart, Golden Times turned to three local specialists for advice on how to find a trustworthy builder.
“Older folks ... are vulnerable to deception because they were raised in an age when a handshake and a person’s word was a promise,” said Lewiston contractor Shann Profitt. “I began working construction at the age of 12 for family members. There were no written or signed contracts. A contractor’s word said the job would be done and done right.”
But that’s no longer always the case, according Profitt and other local builders.
“The world’s changed. The once-trusted word can easily be distorted and whitewashed as truth,” Profitt said. “Elderly people don’t have inside knowledge about new methods of construction or what they should look for in good workmanship; consequently they place confidence without seeking information.”
The results of a poorly done repair or remodel can be aggravating and expensive.
Lewiston construction contractor Gary Kazda tells of a Lewiston woman who paid a large amount to a contractor — three years in a row — to fix the leaking roof on her trailer (see photo at top of Page 9). It was still leaking when she called Kazda. He discovered that her first contractor had coated only one foot around the edge of the roof, where it could be seen from the ground. The handyman also had initially under-bid the job, Kazda said, and used the wrong product.
“There’s a big problem in the valley with unlicensed handymen who take on jobs they’re not qualified for,” Kazda said. Older people on a budget often fall prey to a lower estimate instead of paying more to have the job done right, he said.
“In the long run, they get taken. It hurts me to see that happen,” Kazda said. “Question the cost differences. If (a contractor has) no license, the cost will be lower. Be sure to ask for three jobs recently finished so you can check for references. Remember, no one brags about being cheated.”
Lewiston contractor Jim Mertsching was called in to clean up after a local roofer who didn’t bother to remove three layers of old shingles, then used a staple gun to fasten the new shingles over the old. The new shingles were soon falling off.
“Elderly couples and singles are vulnerable to fast-talking salesmen,” Mertsching said. “Take time to research, ask questions and know what you want. If you don’t feel good about a contractor, don’t hire. You have to live and work together through this project, and you want it to be a good relationship.”
A contractor can be licensed and bonded and still not do a job correctly. Some states require contractors to take a test to be licensed. Neither Washington nor Idaho has this, Mertcshing said. Here, contractors are required only to purchase a license and insurance. Washington has an inspector who randomly shows up at job sites. Idaho has only one inspector for all of northern Idaho.
Mertsching shared this anecdote of a roofer doing an Idaho job: When asked why he didn’t use a certain building material, he answered, “Why should I, when the job’s not being inspected?”
That’s why it’s important that property owners get a few estimates and check contractors’ qualifications, references and previous jobs before hiring. But even when clients have done their homework, Kazda suggests they closely observe what’s happening on their projects.
He described being called in on a Sheetrock project in which a Pullman contractor mudded wall strips but didn’t use enough coats, then caulked the joints instead of mudding. Knowing that caulking would crack in a few months, the homeowner fired the contractor.
Hasty paint jobs are another common corner-cut — the contractor will apply just one coat when two or three coats are needed.
Kazda also urged homeowners to beware of instant, cheap remodels — especially in bathrooms and kitchens. He shared pictures of a botched instant bath installation in Clarkston (see photo at bottom right). The tub wouldn’t fit through the door, so the installers cut around the doorjamb, installed the tub, screwed the jamb back together and never came back to repair the gaping hole around the door. The tub overlay was thin skin, and it cracked with the first use.
A bad building experience can leave victims feeling angry and foolish, Profitt said, but he encourages people in that position not to blame themselves and to report shoddy work to the Better Business Bureau (find information on how to file complaints in the sidebar, at right). Next, seek another contractor’s help. Often, Profitt said, “They just live with the problem. If you know someone in this position, encourage them to seek a trustworthy contractor who can right the wrong.”
Business — Better Homes Construction & Renovation, since 1983.
Title — Owner and contractor.
Credentials — Licensed and bonded in Washington and Idaho.
Employees — Two full-time journeymen.
Contact info — 1121 Snake River Ave., Lewiston; (509) 751-5757 or (208) 790-3481
Services — His specialty is renovation.
Project pricing — Mertsching uses estimates to price each job. “You can’t give hard numbers when you don’t know what your getting into.” he said.
Mertsching said his goal is to do a job right the first time. He offers this checklist for hiring a competent contractor:
- Ask to see a license, insurance and warranty on work. There are three licenses: county, city and state. Most contractors offer a one-year warranty. Better Homes provides a five-year warranty.
- Ask about the difference in contract bids, Mertsching said, especially if it’s wide. He emphasized that going with the cheapest bid isn’t always the best. The more information you have, the better decision you’ll make, he said.
- If one contractor’s estimate includes permit costs and one doesn’t — that’s a red flag. Mertsching has known of cases in which a handyman will tell customers no permit is needed to shave off that cost, and the homeowners later get in trouble with the city or county over work done without the required permit. The contractor should know what permits are needed, secure all permits and show those fees in the estimate.
- Ask if the contractor does background checks on workers and how workers are trained. The materials may be excellent, Mertsching said, but if it’s installed incorrectly, it can quickly fall apart.
- Ask for and call on references; drive by and look at previous jobs. Ask where the contractor buys materials, then check with the supplier on the contractor’s work ethic and honesty.
- On remodeling projects, be sure the subcontractor is licensed for plumbing, electrical, air conditioning and heating.They should have four years of training.
- If a remodel is a kitchen or bath, be sure plumbing and wiring are updated and included in the cost. Have the roof vents checked.
- Never hire a contractor who knocks on your door out of the blue or is out of the local area. A customer will have no accountability if something goes wrong.“If you hire an unlicensed or uninsured contractor, you, as the homeowner, will be liable for workman’s comp and medical expenses,” Mertsching said. In one such case, he said, a worker fell and ran rebar through his leg. The homeowner’s insurance covered only part of the medical expenses, and the job became far more expensive than if he’d hired an insured contractor.
- Be willing to wait until a contractor’s present jobs are finished. The exception would be electrical and plumbing, which most contractors consider an emergency.
- Never pay up front for a job, which puts a customer at the mercy of the contractor. Putting just a percentage down gives the homeowner some leverage over the project, Mertsching said.
Business — Handyman Home Services, since 1987.
Title — Owner and contractor.
Credentials — Licensed and bonded in Idaho and Washington.
Employees — Eight, mostly journeymen.
Contact info — 528 Bryden Ave., Lewiston; (208)-746-4603 in Lewiston, (509) 334-7989 in Pullman; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Services — All phases of home remodeling, including kitchens, bathrooms, decks, additions, door and window replacement, and most home repairs and maintenance.
Pricing — Kazda calculates the expected price of a job using a fixed-bid contract. In appreciation of customers who pay their entire bill on time, he refunds a percent of the total.
Kazda’s list of steps to take when hiring a contractor:
- Foremost, make sure a contractor is licensed and bonded. If your project isn’t done right or not finished as promised, you can go after their $6,000 bond for repairs or to finish the job.
- Get at least three bids for the project. Make sure each company has exactly the same information on what the job entails.
- Make sure you get an itemized bid for your project, or you really don’t have any idea what is in your bid. Contractors must ask you to show them exactly what you want. That determines the final cost. High-end products have to be paid for by the homeowner. Expect to put down a deposit. A deposit and a signed contract protects both client and contractor.
- Find out how long a contractor has been in business. “Because of my over 40 years in this business if on one of our projects a foreman is not sure how to do something, instead of guessing how to fix it and maybe guessing wrong, they call me,” Kazda said. “I walk them through it over the phone or show up to the job site and do it in person. If they are a rookie, do you want rookie mistakes?”
- If the contractor can start today or tomorrow, that could be a red flag. “We always have a waiting list of repeat customers. It’s longer in the summer than in the winter. Emergency situations are an exception to the waiting list.”
- Ask for a schedule with a start and completion date. Realize many things can cause changes to a completion date. What you don’t want is for a contractor to start a job and not return for a month or two.
- Get references. I put this low on the list because it can easily be manipulated. Their so-called last three clients might actually be three relatives or — worse yet — the bar stool to the left or right.
Business — Shann Profitt Construction, since 2000.
Title — Owner and contractor.
Credentials — Licensed and bonded in Idaho and Washington.
Contact info — 2760 Grelle, Lewiston; (208) 791-1632; email@example.com.
Employees — Four full-time journeymen, paid $45 per hour plus benefits, and one part-time employee.
Services — Profitt said he builds every house as if he was going to live in it. His business also remodels older homes for energy saving. His specialty is energy-efficient Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) custom homes.
Pricing — Profitt uses cost-plus bidding when calculating the expected price for a job. A fixed-cost job is harder to bid, he said, because if a customer decides to make changes, costs will be added for materials and man hours. A cost-plus bid passes discounts to the customers that the contractor gets from resource purchases and subcontractors, he said, and cost-plus bids offer flexibility and a good chance the job will be finished under bid. Profitt includes a slush fund in his bid for extra things like door handles, towel bars and cabinet knobs, which he has the customer choose.
“Keeping a good relationship between builder and customer is vital. If there’s a problem, call,” he said. “It’s important to communicate even small details.”
When hiring a contractor, he recommends:
- Don’t hire without a contract. Read the contract carefully. Use a second party you trust, if needed, to verify your understanding.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the contract or during the building process.
- Ask contractors for proof of license, insurance coverage, bonding and weekly updates on labor and material costs. “There must be total transparency, showing the customer receipts, cost lists (and) worker’s time sheets, and (contracts should include) a markup of 13 to 15percent in case of cost overrun,” he said. “The bid should include guestimates in a higher number of man hours in case challenges arise. A timesheet should be shared each period with the customer.”
- Ask for a lien waiver between contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and the bank to ensure payments are made to the right business.
- Check what the company’s insurance covers and what your homeowner’s insurance will cover.
- Ask for two or three references of customers who had similar work done by this company.
- Ask how long the contractor has been in business.
- Check on the quality of equipment, appliances and utilities the contractor will provide.
- If you need to cut corners to make this affordable, where will you cut? Discuss this with your contractor.
- Be sure the contractor will secure all permits and that costs are included in the total price, along with taxes.
- Ask if a company’s workers are certified or journeymen, how long they’ve been with the company, and what they’re paid.