Although a major home improvement can prove to be a rewarding project, it can also turn your life upside down if you are not prepared. I’ve heard of some worst case scenarios involving people who have lost their homes because they got in over their heads and others who ended up with incomplete project nightmares that cost them thousands of dollars to correct.
Following is a list of the top ten mistakes homeowners make when undertaking home improvement projects and tips on how to avoid them:
1. References. Do enough research and background checking to satisfy you. Walk away if the contractor is not willing to provide references from former clients. Do an online search of the contractor’s business and personal name. Check with local courts for judgments filed against them and with the Better Business Bureau for any consumer complaints. Look at previous work completed (in person). Check with material suppliers since a good contractor will have a long-standing relationship with suppliers. Contact other contractors who have worked with them before. Check their credit standing – contractors with bad credit are often disorganized and don’t manage their business well. Inquire about insurance, workers compensation and licensing.
2. Project management. You need one person to help you manage your project. Most issues occur when inexperienced homeowners try to manage their own project. A project manager is a single point of contact between the homeowner and other contractors and is responsible for scheduling and workflow.
3. Contracts. Make sure your contract is solid. As obvious as this may sound, failure to get a contract or signing an incomplete contract is one of the most common mistakes. Put all the details in writing – never take someone’s word for it. Following are items that should be included in the contract: (1) the full name of the company and the person you are doing business with and their contact information, (2) an addendum consisting of the complete set of plans, (3) an addendum consisting of the materials to be used, (4) the price of the goods or services, (5) the manner and terms of payment, (6) a description of the work to be performed, (7) a start date and an estimated completion date, (8) a default clause in the event either party defaults that specifies how damages will be calculated, (9) warranties and (10) signatures.
4. Warranties. Make sure you receive a warranty with detailed terms and conditions. Don’t accept a contract that simply states that all work is guaranteed. There is often confusion as to who is responsible for the warranty. Get the following in writing: (1) Who is backing the warranty? (2) What is covered and what is not covered? (3) How long is the warranty valid for? (4) What can void the warranty? (5) What is the process for placing a warranty claim?
5. Changes. During the project, you may change your mind on certain design aspects which may require more or less work from contractors. It is critical to document every change order and note the exact cost or savings. Changes should be signed and dated by all parties.
6. Plans. Get a clear description on what will be done, how it will be done and the materials to be used. For smaller projects, contractors can draw up plans. For larger and more complicated projects, find a qualified designer or architect. And, for example, if load-bearing walls will be altered, find an engineer to review the structural side of the plans.
7. Costs. Estimating costs tends to be a big problem because people do not make realistic comparisons. Homeowners may hire the contractor with the lowest price but that price may turn out to be much higher in the end. “Allowance items” tend to be the main culprit in estimating costs. For example, contractors may give you allowances for flooring, lighting or hardware that are artificially low. The bid looks enticing until you examine it closely. Request a line item for straight costs on materials and labor since some contractors mark up materials and labor so they can make a profit on it. Ask the contractor to pass along costs to you and to add a line item for their fee. This creates a more clear and honest assessment of the job.
8. Financing and payments. Before signing the contract, figure out how you are going to pay for your home improvement project. Make sure you maintain control of the money – don’t let your project manager or contractor control the money. This sounds obvious but many homeowners allow contractors to make draws on construction accounts only to realize that the draws were not used for the intended purpose. What does this mean? It means your contractor scored a new truck, you’re out of money and the project is incomplete. Tips: (1) don’t pay a lot of money up front, (2) pay when materials are delivered, (3) pay when work begins and (4) pay as work progresses. Pay only after work and materials are inspected and approved.
9. Inspections. Don’t wait until your home improvement project is almost complete to do the inspection. Plan phased inspections along the way so work doesn’t need to be re-done. Don’t rely on city and county building inspectors to protect you since the codes they enforce don’t guarantee quality (and they often miss things too!). Before paying for work, hire an independent inspector to do periodic phase inspections.
10. Materials. Stick with products that are tried and true. This rule especially holds true when it comes to windows, doors, framing materials, roofing products, concrete coverings, epoxy floors, plumbing, light fixtures and electronics. You don’t want to be the guinea pig that test runs the supposed latest and greatest new products or materials only to find out that these items don’t last or turn out to be fire hazards!