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Home improvement projects depend on strong relationship with contractor

Carpenter Nick Rossi, of Newton, Mass., a contractor

Carpenter Nick Rossi, of Newton, Mass., a contractor who does home remodeling and renovations, works at a home in Watertown, Mass. (Oct. 1, 2012) Credit: AP

When you hire a contractor for your home renovation, should you really have to worry whether the new refrigerator will fit? Whether the outlets are wired to current standards? And who will be responsible for paying the plumber? Choosing the right contractor and knowing how best to work with him or her can make an expensive and stressful project run better.

The first question to ask, says Ryan Teicher, president of HIT Construction Group in Scotch Plains, N.J., is whether the contractor is licensed and insured. And he or she should be someone you trust, says Kim Moldofsky, a Chicago-area homeowner who extensively renovated her fixer-upper.

"The contractor we chose came with strong word-of-mouth recommendations," says Moldofsky, who documented her home's overhaul at "No major renovations go off without some problems, so having someone you can trust, who is keeping your best interests at heart, goes a long way toward making the process easier."

There are other ways to ensure you have the best relationship with your contractor as well.

At the start, understand your style and budget, so the contractor can properly price the project. "I need to know if they want a Cadillac, a Yugo or a Mercedes," says Teicher.

Once the process starts, it's easy to ask for additional upgrades or improvements that will cost more, says Moldofsky. "It was rare that a contractor presented us with an idea that raised our price -- it was usually us. We were the ones who drove up the cost, not our contractor."

Permits are required for any structural, mechanical, electrical or plumbing residential changes, says Devra Goldstein, senior building inspector for New Orleans.

That said, not everyone pulls permits. "There are contractors who will say they don't need permits, and they'll offer a better price," says Moldofsky.

But the reason there are permits and inspections is to protect the homeowner. Showing that the upgrades were permitted can help when you refinance or sell a home. "You can show the work was done to code," says Goldstein.

It may be cheaper to hire an unlicensed or uninsured electrician or plumber, but "it's against the law," Teicher says. "If the guy gets hurt or does something wrong, he doesn't have insurance to back it up. It's a state requirement to be licensed."

In addition, improper plumbing is a health hazard. "It can result in the introduction of pathogenic organisms into drinking water and the escape of toxic gases into the environment," says Melaney Arnold, a manager at the Illinois Department of Public Health, which regulates and licenses the state's plumbers. Arnold adds that homeowners and contractors can be fined for using an unlicensed person.

One thing to hammer out is who buys and pays for supplies, whether it's paint and drywall or tile and countertops. "On bigger jobs I try to supply everything," says Teicher. "My philosophy is that this work should be relatively stress-free for the customer. If they're paying me to build something, they shouldn't have to worry about anything. I also don't want to have to run out to the hardware store during the day. I will have all the necessary parts on hand. That makes the job move smoother and quicker."

Teicher says that with online shopping, clients sometimes want to buy materials, though it's more challenging for him. One of his clients saw a $300 farm sink on eBay that typically sells for $1,500. "I refused to install it because I don't know its quality. I don't know what I'm in for when it arrives. Will it be the right size? The right product? Will I need extra parts?"

To a homeowner, it may not seem like changing your mind on a lighting fixture is a problem. But it can be, and it may cost you extra. "If someone wants recessed lights, we have to know that in advance," Teicher says. For bathrooms, a large vanity might have one long fixture with eight bulbs, or two smaller fixtures instead. That means placing different electrical boxes in different places.

Teicher prefers that the plumbing, lighting fixtures and appliances are picked out toward the beginning of the job. "I don't like doing things on the fly," he says. "There are too many moving parts. The wiring and plumbing roughs have to be in the right place."

Get a contract and make sure you agree with everything in it. Teicher provides his clients with a detailed estimate, including a scope of work, payment schedule and list of who supplies which materials. Permitting fees are excluded.

Setting up clear expectations at the start will help your project move forward with ease, as will choosing a contractor with personal and technical skills. Keeping your initial vision and budget in mind keeps things streamlined, making a smooth project for your contractor and, ultimately, you.

Mortgage rates jumped May 22, 2013 for the third consecutive week as the Federal Reserve hinted that it may slow down its bond-buying program in coming months.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rose 3 basis points to 3.74 percent. A basis point is one-hundredth of 1 percentage point.

The 15-year fixed-rate mortgage rose 5 basis points to 2.97 percent. The average rate for 30-year jumbo mortgages, or generally for those of more than $417,000, was 3.99 percent, the same as last week.

The 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage rose 2 basis points to 2.7 percent. With a 5/1 ARM, the rate is fixed for five years and adjusted annually thereafter.

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