Don't let your dollars fly away because of a crooked contractor.
By Laura Foster-Bobroff, Networx
Not everybody plays fair! That's a lesson you learn in elementary school. But when it comes to spending hard-earned money to build or remodel your home, unless you know what to watch out for, it's difficult to identify when a contractor is breaking rules at your expense. Don't assume your contractor isn't cheating at the home improvement game because everything appears in good order on the surface. These are common ways contractors secretly cheat you:
1. Cutting Corners: Contractors save themselves labor time by skimping in small ways that add up over the duration of a project. Homes hit by hurricanes suffer the most damage from improperly secured roofing and poor framing. Roofing installers may use a minimal amount of fasteners on shingles. Over time, shingles will buckle and may lift and separate under windy conditions, increasing risk of leaks in stormy weather. Skimping on fasteners allows a contractor to put together a home in record time, and reduces the expense of materials included in a basic building package.
Remodeling contractors practice this on a smaller scale, by not placing an adequate number nails in subflooring or minimally attaching sheetrock to save time on plastering. Eventually, seams show through poorly installed walls and screws hastily placed will work their way to the surface and appear as small bumps. Floors squeak from poor subfloor installation and at worst, wood flooring will warp and tile will crack after being installed on a loose subfloor.
2. The "Bait and Switch": Some contractors offer a package plan and wait until the project is well underway before advising a product is unavailable or "discontinued", offering more expensive upgrades. Likewise, some contractors promise high-end materials and switch to lower grades without clients realizing it. For example, they may install cedar shingles with galvanized nails rather than stainless steel. On the surface, it's difficult to distinguish the difference between fasteners when looking at the top of a small nail head embedded in the surface of the shingle. Another example would be switching out an aluminum drip edge with a sheet metal drip edge - a product the average homeowners may not recognize. The contractor walks away with a high-grade profit for a low-grade product.
3. Omitting the Prep: A contractor can omit prep work to reduce labor time and increase profit margins. Common infractions involve painting projects as well as roofing or installation of doors and windows. Painters skip out on priming new walls by painting only newer seams with primer (or in worst case, don't prime at all). In a short period of time, walls appear dull, colors fade and you begin to notice inconsistencies in surface appearance.
Roofers fail to flash properly, applying tar that dries out in a year or so and provides little to no protection from leaks. Exterior doors and windows are installed but not properly insulated - a "cheat" tactic that goes undetected once trim is applied to framing. Holes and gaps in doors and windows cost homeowners thousands of dollars in heating and cooling costs annually and greatly reduces the comfort of a home.
4. Materials Overcharge: Familiarize yourself with pricing on materials, especially big ticket items like doors and windows bought in bulk. Find out what suppliers your contractor is dealing with and inquire directly about retail and wholesale pricing. Ask your contractor if he intends to mark up his materials and set a cap in your contract; otherwise, you run the risk of over-paying and he gets more profit than he should to offset his overhead. Ask for credit for returned items, receipts for purchases.
How You Can Protect Yourself from Unfair Practices
First, make yourself available to inspect your project regularly, daily if possible. The best protection is a good set of eyes. For small projects, tap into the expertise of a family member or friend with more experience, or find people who have done similar projects on a site like Hometalk.com. Don't be shy about asking your contractor questions, especially if something strikes as you as incorrect. Look at details like spacing and the number of fasteners used in framing or flooring. Note whether construction looks neat or sloppy, a telltale sign of good or bad workmanship. Ask for "inspection" meetings at specific completion points. Good contractors will take pride in their work at every stage of the project.
Next, make sure the original contract protects you from the "bait and switch" by stating if a product included in your package become unavailable, a comparable product will be provided. If a comparable product cannot be found, ask for an upgrade at no extra cost.
Finally, if you don't have the time or inclination to act as an informal inspector, consider hiring an independent professional to act as your watchdog. Outside resources can educate and assist including local building inspectors. Blaine Illingworth, senior home inspector and technical consultant, has been an active member of the national board of The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) since 1992. ASHI is an organization "building consumer awareness…covering all of a home's major systems." Illingworth recommends homeowners consider hiring a home inspector to monitor building projects because "they have a pool of knowledge in every trade and know how they should interface and are fully equipped to recognize substandard work."
Related: A Guide to Contractor Jargon