Educational Consumer Tips

Home Improvements

Author: Better Business Bureau

The following is Better Business Bureau (BBB) general information and is not intended as a report on any specific company.

Home improvement projects may range from installing drywall to putting an addition on your house to hundreds of projects in between. The type of home improvement professionals you hire will depend on the size and scope of your project. 

*General contractors manage all aspects of the project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, getting building permits, and scheduling inspections. 
*Specialty contractors  install particular products. 
*Architects design homes, additions, and major renovations. If your project involves structural changes, you may want to consider an architect who specializes in home design. 
*Designers  have an expertise in specific areas of the home. 
*Design/build contractors see projects through from start to finish. 

Planning your project 

Before contacting a professional, you should carefully plan your project to determine what you need and what your budget for the project will be. Decide what materials you want, the structural changes necessary and investigate the cost of permits and other expenses, as well as labor time. To finance your project, consider a personal bank loan, home equity loan or a loan from a credit union (compare various interest rates, amounts, terms, and taxes). You may also wish to complete some research on your own before calling so you can explain specifically to the contractor what you would like done. Be sure to approve any architectural plans that are involved in the remodeling job before the contractor begins the work. 

Choosing a contractor 

When you're ready to call a contractor, consider the following advice:
*Check with BBB for Business Reviews on any contractor you are considering 

*Check with your town/village/city to see if a building permit is required in your area for the work you need done and if the contractor needs any licensing. Many cities, villages and towns require licensing, so look carefully! Without the proper licensing, you could be liable for bad work or injuries sustained while on the job. 

*Before making a financial commitment, solicit at least three bids from prospective contractors based on the same building specifications, materials, labor and the time needed to complete the project. 

*Obtain at least 2-3 references from former customers of the contractor to determine if they were satisfied with the work that was done and inspect the work yourself. 

* Review your estimates carefully to make sure that they fall within your budget. Also, remember the cost of labor and materials can fluctuate all the time which could cause your estimate to fluctuate as well. 

*Remember that the contractor with the lowest bid may not be the best suited for the job. If an estimate is significantly lower than others, the contractor may plan to cut expenses by using inferior products, hiring unskilled workers, failing to have proper insurance funding - or he or she may not fully understand your work requirements. 

*Once you have found a contractor, request proof that the company has insurance covering workmen's compensation, property damage and personal liability in the event of accidents. Ask for a copy of the insurance certificate for you records. 

*Before signing the contract read over in its entirety. Do not sign if there are blank lines or if there are statements you do not understand or do not agree. Ask for a copy of the signed contract if it is not offered to you. 

*Don't pay for the entire job in advance or pay cash to a salesperson or contractor. However, if the contractor asks for some money up front, do not worry: Contractors may ask for a third or even half of the estimate as a down payment before beginning work. Make sure you get a receipt from the contractor and that the contract properly accounts for the amount you've already paid. 

*As the work progresses, stay in contact with the owner of the company if you have any questions or concerns. 

*Request a receipt marked "Paid in full" when the job is completed. 

Proceed with caution if a contractor: 
*Solicits door-to-door 
*Offers discounts 
*Only accepts cash payments 
*Asks you to pay for the entire job up front 
*Doesn't list a business phone number in the local telephone directory 
*Offers exceptionally long guarantees 

New York State Law 
According to the New York State Attorney General, NYS law regulates the sale of home improvement goods and services and is applicable to most types of home improvement costing more than $500. The law states that home improvement contracts must be in writing, in plain English, and customers must receive a copy of the contract before work begins. Contracts must include: - the contractor's name, address and telephone number; - the approximate start and completion dates, including any contingencies which would change the completion date; - a specific description of the work and materials, including brands, model numbers and other identifying information, along with the price; - a consumer notice that reads as follows: "The customer has an unconditional right to cancel the contract until midnight of the third business day after the contract was signed. Cancellation must be done in writing. 

The contractor is legally required to deposit all progress payments received prior to completion in an escrow account or post a bond to protect these payments. If the contractor or subcontractor who does the work is not paid, he may have a claim against the customer's property under the Lien Law." Under the law, a customer may sue for actual damages, plus a $500 penalty and reasonable attorneys' fees if the contractor has used fraudulent written statements to get the customer to sign the contract. The Attorney General may also go to court to stop illegal practices as well as order contractors to compensate defrauded customers. Contractors can also face $100 civil fines for violating the Home Improvement Contract Law, and fines from $250 to $2,500 for violating provisions of the law dealing with the protection of a customer's payments. 

For more information, contact: 
Better Business Bureau of Upstate NY 
(800) 828-5000

New York State Department of State Division of Licensing Services
(518) 474-4429 

New York State Consumer Protection Board
(800) 697-1220

New York State Attorney General
(800) 771-7755 

This report is general in nature and is not intended as a Business Review on any company, service or product.