How to hire a contractor

In party supply stores that trade in novelty cocktail napkins, there often can be found one stamped with the plaintive query: “Have You Seen My Contractor?” It is a droll commentary on a common refrain heard in the construction business that things can easily go south when lots of money and differing points of view collide over one's home.

We’ve all heard the horror stories. Or maybe it’s happened to you. The contractor who skips out mid-job. Or worse still, the contractor who absconds with all of your money, headed to another state. The protracted legal disputes that end up costing more than it would have to just cut your losses and find a new contractor.

“For most people their home is their biggest investment in their life. And any contractor can completely screw up the home that you’ve paid for and endanger your family," said Kevin Veler, an Alpharetta attorney who specializes in representing both homeowners and contractors in building disputes. "And often consumers do less research for somebody coming into their home and doing a repair than they do for buying a new car.”  To help homeowners negotiate the remodeling process, Veler's website offers advice on finding a good contractor.

Cartoon Network producer Calvin Florian learned a bitter lesson about putting your trust in a contractor and lost $100,000 in the process to a man his wife, Kelly Hart, an investigator with a criminal defense firm, described rather euphemistically as “a snake in the grass.” The couple eventually decided that the cost of going after the contractor would have squandered money needed to finish their home on legal fees, a dilemma many homeowners find themselves facing when they run afoul of a bad contractor.

From the beginning Hart suspected something wasn’t right with the builder who came in with the lowest bid of the five contractors they considered. Despite Hart’s misgivings, the couple began their ground-up home construction project designed by Brian Bell and David Yocum of bldgs. with the contractor in the fall of 2005 in the Old Fourth Ward.

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In retrospect Hart said there were several things she and her husband could have done differently, including not going with the lowest bid and checking the contractor’s references and credit. The couple also learned, too late, that they should have paid for all work after it was done rather than allowing their contractor to draw from a bank account set up for the job. And, perhaps most importantly, said Hart, “Trust your gut.”

Intuition, a sense of trust and communication are hard things to quantify, but those are the things that experts advise homeowners put at the top of their list when choosing a contractor.

Bill Golden with RE/MAX Metro Atlanta Cityside has been a real estate agent for 25 years and has seen his share of renovations gone bad. “I think that’s probably the biggest mistake people make, is going for the bottom line, saying, ‘this is the cheapest estimate I got,’” said Golden. “Aside from the numbers, you have to feel really comfortable with the person you’re talking to. Do you click?

“I know a lot of my clients use Angie’s List,” said Golden. “But in addition to that, the single most important thing is, do you know someone who has used this person and has been happy with them?”

Mary Fisher, a nurse practitioner, and Steve McLaughlin, a vice-provost at Georgia Tech, are an example of what can go right when it comes to a home renovation. After much thought and discussion, the couple decided on an architect to design their 1940-era Decatur ranch renovation, said Mark Cottle, associate professor of architecture at Georgia Tech.  “Steve and Mary did not rush into the project. They'd been thinking about it for a few years and had talked to a number of designers before they made the jump. Accordingly, they had a pretty good idea what they valued and enjoyed about their house and what they hoped to change,” said Cottle.

“I think it’s important to have a very thorough set of plans before you start anything. I like to work out as many things as possible before starting a project. That way you can have a much more accurate price up front and there’s no major surprises,” said Jerry Goux, the contractor the couple hired for the job.

One advantage of their home renovation was the fact that their architect had already worked with Goux and could vouch for the integrity and skill of the architect and fourth generation builder.

Involving a third party in your project, whether a bank, a real estate agent, a lawyer or an architect, is crucial to ensure a better outcome and an advocate for your interests. “An architect is a smart third-party choice for most big-ticket projects,” said Goux. “It’s very cheap insurance and you’re going to get a much, much better product in the end.”

“Most consumers do not do the work up front,” said Veler, who recommends homeowner have a lawyer read through the contract before they sign. “You can pay me up front, or you can pay me after the job, but it’s going to cost you more after the problem,” he said.

In the end Hart and Florian wound up with a great home that was featured on the 2010 Modern Atlanta Home Tour. "I loved our architects, they were great," said Hart. And their second builder, Russ Jackson, saved the day. "He did a fabulous job," said Hart. "He really was what a builder should be." With the proper research and preparation, homeowners can prevent gaining such hard-won knowledge after the fact.

Finding the right people also means trusting them to do the right thing said Fisher. “You really have to abdicate ‘it’s got to be my way, it’s got to be perfect.’ You really have to put some trust in your architect and your builder.”


Tips for hiring a contractor

Remember that you get what you pay for.

Find a contractor who shares your values and with whom you have good communication. The lowest bid isn't always the best option.

Check every reference and visit the contractor’s job sites or finished homes.

Require a written contract that includes a payment schedule, a list of specific materials to be used and the requirement that the contractor obtain all subcontractor lien releases.

Don’t ever pay for the entire job up front. On big jobs, a 10 percent down payment is typical. After that, pay as you go.

Document the project by taking pictures as it progresses.

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