Curbing contract conundrums

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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Getting a quality contractor involves doing homework second in a two-part series

When Bob Andrews offers advice on hiring a contractor, he speaks from experience.

"Don't be flexible or a bit reasonable," he says. "You say, 'This has got to be done.' "

His opinion was gained as he and wife Gerri built and settled into their current home in Paradise.

They moved in during the fall of 2003 and have encountered some big headaches since.

- Photos by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

When Bob Andrews offers advice on hiring a contractor, he speaks from experience.

"Don't be flexible or a bit reasonable," he says. "You say, 'This has got to be done.' "

His opinion was gained as he and wife Gerri built and settled into their current home in Paradise.

They moved in during the fall of 2003 and have encountered some big headaches since.

Among them was an almost three-year ordeal to get leaking windows fixed and the discovery last fall that a sub-contractor's wiring contained fire- and life-safety hazards.

The Andrews would approach things differently if they built again.

"The bigger pain you are," says Gerri, "the better you are treated."

The issue of reputable contracting made headlines last Wednesday when the verdict was handed down in the Corey Winter case.

The 34-year-old was found guilty on 10 counts of fraud - and as many counts of breaching probation - for duping customers out of tens of thousands of dollars for work he either didn't start or didn't finish.

Lisa Riggs' organization hears of such problems all the time.

She is executive director of the Better Business Bureau of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Problems with contractors made the bureau's list of the top 10 complaints for 2007, landing at No. 8.

"It is very disturbing and stressful for (people)," says Riggs. "And when something does go wrong, yeah, it is very emotional. It's not just the money. Your home is disrupted to whatever degree."

Still, there are obviously excellent contractors out there.

People in the industry say that, like anything else, there are a few making it tough for many.

To help people land a credible and quality contractor, The Telegram contacted numerous organizations to get a sense of what steps people can take to avoid being ripped off or let down.

The consensus: consumers must do their homework before hiring someone to do a deck, repair a roof or build a house.

"They really do," says Pat Mulcahy, CEO of Atlantic Home Warranty Program. "(A house) is the largest investment most of us will ever make in our lives and it does amaze me that people will go for a Sunday afternoon drive, stop at a model home and decide to buy a house.

"Nobody goes and buys a shirt that way, certainly my wife would never walk in and buy the first blouse she saw. And I think any consumer is usually meticulous about shopping ... and yet this decision is sometimes made because the colours are right."

Contractor John Roberts echoes the need for homework, and opines that communication is the key to a healthy customer-contractor relationship.

The operator of a company called John Roberts The Trimmer, he says open exchanges should start at the beginning.

Roberts suggests that the first step is setting up an interview with a potential contractor to find out if he or she is right for you - and vice versa.

At that meeting, he says people should ask lots of questions.

He says they should seek proof a contractor is insured and bondable, and has clearance from Worker's Compensation.

The consumer should also confirm the builder belongs to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, Atlantic Home Warranty Program and the Eastern Newfoundland Home Builders Association, Roberts adds.

He stresses the importance of getting references and asking what policies are in place if something goes awry.

As well, Roberts suggests questioning who has the know-how, the contractor or his crew, and if the builder uses sub-contractors, he advises seeking info on them, too.

"You can ask to see who is doing what. You can get a sub-contractors report from them, showing that they are bondable, insurable."

And if a sub-contractor concerns you, ask the builder to use someone else, he says.

Roberts adds that people should not be intimidated by asking such questions.

If they are uneasy making such inquiries up front, he suggests searching for another contractor, one they are comfortable with.

It's vital to put such effort into it, he says.

"(People should) ask themselves, how long did it take to make that $200,000 that you are going to spend with that contractor, or $150,000, what have you? That's how much homework you should be doing."

Riggs notes that part of a person's research can include logging onto www.bbb.nl.org and checking the Better Business Bureau's reports on companies.

Clay Hedderson agrees with availing of the Better Business Bureau's services. He knows what it is like to get a bad contractor, after receiving shoddy work from a guy he hired last fall to roof his new home in Bay Bulls.

The shingles started flying off when the wind gusted 10 days after the job was done. Unable to get any satisfaction, Hedderson took the contractor to small claims court.

But the roofer declared bankruptcy before the matter was heard and the homeowner is out more than $5,000.

Hedderson's advice: don't take the smoothest talkers at face value and don't jump at the best price. "Sometimes the cheapest guy is looking for a quick buck," he says. "Sometimes the more expensive guy will put more quality into his work and you are going to get a better job in the end."

Mulcahy agrees. He says consumers who make decisions based on price could find themselves in a pickle.

After the homework is done, and once the right contractor is found, experts stress the importance of getting agreements in writing.

It should be a warning if a contractor isn't prepared to put the deal down on paper, Mulcahy says.

"You and I shake hands and I give you $5,000 and you walk out the door. I may never see you again. It's sad, but it happens," he says.

Riggs suggests making sure the details are the same as what you agreed to. And never pay upfront, she warns, noting that's a big mistake many people make.

"A deposit? Perfectly acceptable and standard in the industry, but you don't pay the full amount upfront," she says. If problems arise once a contract is signed and the builder starts, Roberts advocates keeping the lines of communication open and trying to talk it through.

If that fails, his advice is to get Atlantic Home Warranty Program or another contractor to mediate and try to resolve the issue.

If those aren't options, or mediation fails, Roberts suggests it's time to look at legal options.

Mulcahy notes that problems aren't always a contractor's fault. He says it's often tough for a builder to meet consumer expectations.

Roberts agrees, and says he has fired clients in the past because he wasn't able to please them.

The bottom line is that consumers have to be realistic.

Mulcahy says a good resource for homeowners is the construction performance guidelines list found at the Atlantic Home Warranty Program's website, www.ahwp.org.

"It's a good tool for the consumer who may think the glass is half-empty when they look there," he says. "They may see that what's happened is quite normal, so therefore the issue isn't anything wrong."

Roberts notes that a lot of the contracting concerns in this province could be resolved soon if the industry succeeds at getting what he calls core certification.

It's a legislated set of standards for contractors that he hopes will get passed in the House of Assembly later this year or early next year.

"It's good for the customer," he says. "It's good for the contractor. It gives everybody the insurance they need to feel protected."

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Better Business Bureau, Eastern Newfoundland Home Builders Association

Geographic location: Paradise, Bay Bulls

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Recent comments

  • liz
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    We're looking for a piece of land with a view to build a house and now I'm getting a little anxious what with so many obstacles to overcome before we can actually move in.

  • liz
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    We're looking for a piece of land with a view to build a house and now I'm getting a little anxious what with so many obstacles to overcome before we can actually move in.