How To Avoid An Expensive Bargain

You don’t have to be a home improvement expert to look at Leon and Jodi Johnson’s bathroom floor and see the Johnsons are victims of inexcusable incompetence. The tile floor looks horrible with discolored, cracking grout and misaligned rows, but the problem is more serious than mere aesthetics. In some places, multiple coins can be stacked beside the tiles and be even with the surface. The raised tiles present edges and corners sharp enough to cut someone and in fact, have cut the Johnsons.

On top of all these problems, the installers dumped waste from the job down the shower, which clogged the drain and left stains. Elsewhere in the house, workers for the same contractor spilled paint that stained the Johnsons’ bedroom carpet, and in the living room used the wrong paint color on areas of the cathedral ceiling.

“It’s just a mess,” Jodi says.

It’s an expensive mess. The contractor, who is licensed and whose business is an LLC, is refusing to answer the Johnsons’ calls. He has told them he is filing for bankruptcy, yet he continues to take on new jobs.

This story is upsetting – but not unusual.

“This stuff happens over and over again,” says Dave Griggs of Dave Griggs’ Flooring America, whom the Johnsons have hired to come in and redo their bathroom.

Other contractors with good reputations in Columbia sadly affirm Griggs’s assessment.

“We hear the horror stories all the time,” says Charles Clark, owner of Majestic Homes and Remodeling, and he says the down economy has made the situation worse. “Right now, it’s a real tough time out there, and a lot of people are undercutting to get the work, and then not following through. You are going to get some good prices, but it may be too good to be true.”

So what can homeowners do to protect themselves? Griggs and Clark, along with Sonny Johnson of Designer Kitchens & Baths, and Keith Windham, vice president of Legacy Construction Group, offer several tips for finding a good contractor and developing a successful working relationship.

  1. Ask for references – and check them! “I think the most important thing people can do is check references,” Clark says. Homeowners must at least call the references, and when possible, go see the work. Questions homeowners can ask previous customers include: Was the job completed in the expected time frame? Were there any problems? How were problems resolved? Was the job finished within the original budget? If not, why not? How easy was the contractor to reach?
  2. Check out the company Web site. While lack of a Web site is not necessarily a red flag, a well-developed Web site is a good sign and can offer a wealth of information, including an explanation of the contractor’s process, pictures of past jobs and a company history, Windham says.
  3. Only hire contractors with insurance, both liability and workers’ compensation. Liability insurance is there to cover the contractor’s mistakes (for example, to replace the stained carpet in the Johnsons’ bedroom), while workers’ compensation helps protect the homeowner from being sued for injuries workers might sustain on the job.
  4. Get a detailed, written bid. Homeowners should expect a bid that breaks down labor, materials and overhead costs, says Sonny Johnson, and never accept a bid that’s just based on hourly wages. Johnson and Clark also say to beware of contractors who offer a bid on the spot. “The contract has to be detailed,” Clark says. “You as a homeowner need to know exactly what you’re getting for the price. Just because a contractor says, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll do that,’ that doesn’t mean anything. If it’s not in writing, you’ve got nothing to fall back on.”
  5. Closely compare competing bids. “Another mistake people make when they’re getting bids – they’ll just look at the bottom line, the price, and go with the cheapest one,” Clark says. “They need to go through those bids line by line and compare them. Someone might be the cheapest because they aren’t including everything.”
  6. Get a written warranty. No one is perfect, Griggs says, adding: “We mess things up, too. The difference is, we fix whatever we mess up.” A standard labor warranty will last for a year; consider that a minimum, Griggs says.
  7. Don’t pay for everything in advance. “I suggest not paying any type of deposit until the workers are on site starting work or delivering materials,” Windham says. Jodi Johnson says she paid hundreds of dollars for work that was never even started. “Pay for labor a little bit at a time,” she suggests.
  8. Communicate. Contractors should ask a lot of questions and repeat the homeowners’ answers back to them to make sure everyone is on the same page, Sonny Johnson says. Homeowners, too, should ask questions and express concerns. “As soon as you recognize there’s some kind of problem or issue, you’ve got to start talking and not let it build,” Clark says. “Daily communication is key.” Jodi Johnson adds that if homeowners do not get a satisfactory response, they should stop the job (and payment) immediately.
  9. Be flexible. While there are plenty of examples of unethical, incompetent contractors, there are also several instances when it’s the homeowners’ unreasonable expectations causing frustrations. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding because it’s hard for homeowners to know all the details that go into a remodel or the hazards you can find when you open a wall,” Sonny Johnson says, offering as an example the discovery of termites. “And I understand,” he adds. “I don’t want things to be open-ended when I have a contract either, but not everything can be known in advance. So it comes down to finding out who the person is you’re dealing with and choosing someone you can trust.”