- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

G.L. Carter of McLean needed to find a contractor to fix a leak in his basement, so he asked his neighbor for a referral. He was familiar with the name — Mid-Atlantic Waterproofing of Maryland, a basement waterproofing and foundation company based in Columbia, Md. — from radio advertising.

“We thought the house was built like a fortress, but the water is there,” Mr. Carter says. “After 22 years, it found a way to seep through [the window wells] so you get dampness in the basement.”

Like anyone wanting to find an experienced, dependable contractor for a home improvement project, Mr. Carter checked to see if the company he was considering hiring was reputable and able to fix the problem.

Remodeling contractors can be found by checking the Web site for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (www.nari.org), a membership organization based in Des Plaines, Ill., that promotes professionalism in the remodeling industry. Other options include asking friends and relatives for recommendations, using the Internet and checking the Yellow Pages, particularly large advertisements that could indicate business stability.

Contractors should be licensed (required in Virginia, Maryland and the District), bonded and insured and have an address, not a post office box, says Stephen Scholl, a certified remodeler who is associate vice president and general manager of the remodeling division of Case Design/Remodeling Inc. in Bethesda.

A physical business site makes it easier to contact the business if something goes wrong with the project, he says.

“Keep in mind that a lot of contractors get into remodeling on a whim; they’re not professionals,” says Doug Fauth, a certified kitchen and bathroom remodeler and NARI member. He is president of Carriage Hill Cabinet & Millwork Co., a kitchen design company in Frederick, Md.

Mr. Fauth recommends asking contractors how long they have been in business and adds that NARI requires members to be in business for at least one year.

“How does the business operate? Does it have its own employees do the work, or does it supervise the project and use subcontractors?” Mr. Fauth says to ask. “What subcontractors does it use, and are they reputable?”

The business’s reputation can be checked, in part, through references, says Daniel McDowell, NARI member and a national realty manager for Mid-Atlantic Waterproofing. References can provide insight into the quality of work on past projects and whether the work was completed within budget and on time, Mr. McDowell says.

At the same time, “Who’s going to give a bad reference?” he notes.

John D. Hall, a certified remodeler, NARI member and owner of John Hall Construction Co. in Falls Church, recommends checking with the state and county for any complaints filed against the contractors. The Better Business Bureau and the Bureau of Consumer Protection also can provide this information.

“You have to be careful, because there’s a number of people out there who don’t do a good job,” Mr. Hall says.

Also check for the contractor’s level of professionalism, says Gordon Teakle, director of home services for Home Depot Inc.’s Mid-Atlantic division in Baltimore.

“You have to feel comfortable that you’re hiring somebody who’s going to deliver what you’re contracting for and that they’re going to fulfill any warranties,” Mr. Teakle says.

Part of that comfort is having a point of contact for the project, such as the project manager or head carpenter, and agreeing how communications will be carried out, such as by phone or e-mail, Mr. Scholl says.

Lowe’s Inc. recommends that homeowners develop specific, detailed plans of their proposed project and the work they want done to help the contractor estimate the cost and length of time involved, according to an online article, “Choosing a Contractor,” at www.lowes.com.

“It’s one way you can help ensure the end product will be what you want,” says Karen Cobb, spokeswoman for Lowe’s. “Looking at your total project, you can prioritize your requirements for the contractor.”

Before making a decision, the homeowner should call at least three contractors and ask each for its license number, a banking or financial reference, trade and professional organization membership, and the number of years in business, according to the Lowe’s Web site. Also ask for any required permits and an itemized estimate of the project that includes materials, labor, overhead and a time frame with estimated start and finish dates, the site says.

“The bottom line is to be sure to get everything in writing. Remember, if it isn’t documented, it never happened,” Ms. Cobb says. “A professional contractor has the responsibility to provide a written contract with detail on all of the work that is to be completed. This helps minimize any possible problems that come up in the project and after work is done.”

The contract should include starting and estimated completion dates for the project, estimated cost of work, scope of work and payment schedule, among other things, Ms. Cobb says.

Maryland, Virginia and the District require a one-year warranty for completed work, but the warranty does not apply if the company goes out of business, Mr. Teakle says.

A final point is whether the contractor took the time to understand the actual project goals, Mr. Scholl says.

“The role of the contractor is to give the client options. If they don’t listen, they won’t know what the client wants,” he says.

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