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How to Hire a Contractor, Not a Conman

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Hiring a contractor can be intimidating, even a bit frightening, especially if you know someone who has been taken advantage of by a conman.

So how do you find a reputable contractor?

Word of mouth from satisfied clients is a successful venue to try. Ask around--friends, relatives, co-workers, and anyone you know who has built a home or had improvements made on an existing residence. Beware of a contractor that offers you or a friend a discount for spreading the word about their services. A good contractor doesn't need to reimburse for praise. If you or your friends are satisfied, you'll happily tell others about your good fortune in finding this contractor without being paid to do so.

If you're new in an area, you can look up contractors in the phone book, or visit a local hardware or home improvement store and ask a clerk there which contractors seem to be trustworthy and good craftsmen. Beware of a contractor soliciting door to door to gain work. Good contractors are usually so busy that they don't need to look for work--it comes to them.

Once you find a list of contractors, interview them.

Find out how long they've been in business, and how much experience they have working on projects like yours. Ask about prices, keeping in mind that cheapest isn't always best. You'll also want to know if they are licensed, if they will obtain the proper permits, if they offer a guarantee or warranty on their work, and can you have a list of references? Can you view houses they've built in the past?

You'll want to ask your contractor if he uses subcontractors (plumbers, electricians, painters, masons) and how he does business with them. Ask to see the licenses and permits of these subcontractors.

Lastly, make sure your contractor has current personal liability insurance, property damage insurance and workman's compensation that covers himself and the subcontractors. This may sound stringent, but think about it--if your plumber installs a pipe that breaks and ruins the new hardwood floors, you're going to be thankful he has insurance.

Call those references!

Word of mouth can break or make a contractor, but it can also save you a bundle of headaches. Ask former clients about the quality of work, quality of materials, the relationship between building and subcontractors? Was the house completed on time? Did they listen to complaints and take care of issues promptly? Were phone calls returned? Were there delays that the contractor could have avoided? Asking these questions will help you to know if you'll have problems down the road or if you'll be pleased with the home the contractor has created for you.

Just as money can ruin a good marriage, it can be the source of many headaches when dealing with a contractor. First, you'll want to beware of contractors that only take cash as a payment. Cash is un-traceable, so if you're unsatisfied, there's no way to stop payment, such as with a check. Also beware of a contractor that requires the money paid in full, up front. Once you've paid the contractor, you have no way of ensuring he'll get the job done.

You'll want to ask your contractor about subcontractor payment--will he pay, or will you? If your contractor does, you'll want to take steps to protect yourself. A conman will take your money, never pay the subcontractors and skip out of town, leaving you with a pile of bills and even a lien on your home. You'll want the contractor and subcontractors to sign waiver of lien forms to protect yourself.

When paying the contractor, you'll want to set up a schedule of fees that coincide with a payment schedule. For example, task X must be finished before receiving a certain amount. This way, if the project falls behind schedule, the contractor will be more likely to step up the pace to get his payment. Finally, before you make that last payment and sign off on the work, make sure the subcontractors have gotten their money and that all outstanding bills are paid.

Following these tips will help keep you from hiring a conman instead of a contractor, and will help you survive the construction experience.

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