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Homework: How to hire a professional

Learning appropriate skills for dealing with a building

Learning appropriate skills for dealing with a building contractor can make the deal satisfactory for customer and contractor. Credit: iStock / Andrey Popov

Years ago, when I started making the transition from full-time builder to syndicated newspaper columnist, I saw an eye-opening statistic. Seventy-eight percent of the U.S. population hired contractors to do most of the work around their homes; the do-it-yourself segment was 22 percent.

The DIY segment was primarily made up of two groups. One was young adults who had lots of time, lots of energy and not so much money. They couldn't afford professionals. The other group was retired folks who had more time than young people, not so much energy and often were on fixed budgets.

Even the most fervent DIYer will have to hire a pro from time to time if a job is too complex or he or she simply can't finish the job. This is a rare column that should benefit each and every reader.

The most important part of hiring a contractor is ensuring each and every one who is bidding for your job knows exactly what you want. This means you must have a plan, even a simple one, and specifications about the products you want. Plans and specifications force the contractors to use the same products and produce the exact same finished result.

Avoid allowances like the plague. Allowances are imaginary numbers in a quotation or specifications where you've not yet decided on the exact materials, fixtures or products you want. Allowances allow sneaky contractors to play bait and switch. A not-so-ethical contractor may put in a low allowance number for an item to make his bid look less than all the other bids.

Once the contract is signed, it's too late, and you'll be in for a shock when you go shopping for that item. Take the time before the plans are drawn and specifications are written to find out exactly what you want.

Be careful about putting too much credibility in recommendations of friends, co-workers, relatives and online subscription contractor referral websites. While they may be able to tell you if the contractor was clean-cut, punctual and respectful of your home, they may not know if the work was performed to the most basic minimum quality standards and if the contractor followed all written installation instructions provided by building product manufacturers.

Insist on a building permit for all jobs that require one. A true professional has no fear of the building inspector because his or her work is almost always better than the minimum code requirements. Remember, the building code is a set of minimum standards. If a job just meets the code, it's like getting a 70 percent on a test. Work done by professionals almost always exceeds the code and is part of the reason a professional's bid may be higher than other bidders.

Reach out to the owner or general manager of supply houses where professionals purchase their products. Most professionals buy from businesses that keep a low profile. A professional will typically only purchase from a national home center if he's in a bind and needs a commodity item in a hurry.

When speaking with the owner or general manager of a real lumber yard, roofing supply house, plumbing supply business, etc., ask the following four questions: May I have the names of contractors who have been buying from you for more than 15 years? What contractors purchase your best products? Can you give me a short list of contractors who pay their bills within 10 days of receiving them? What contractors who buy from you would you have work on your home?

Watch out for contractors who insist on a down payment or deposit for your job. Professionals have open credit terms with all their suppliers and they have sufficient funds in their business to operate. They don't need deposits because they don't have to pay in advance for materials.

It's reasonable for you to forward a deposit when your job requires a contractor to order or purchase custom, nonreturnable items. In these cases, you can, if you want, order the materials yourself if you feel uncomfortable handing over a deposit.

Put the payment terms in your written contract with the contractor. Tie the payments to specific events in the job where benchmarks have been achieved and the work is satisfactory. Professionals have no trouble with terms like this because they know they'll hit the mark. Honor the terms and never be tardy with a payment to a pro if he deserves the money.

If you're a great shopper, you know it takes work to find great deals. The same is true for contractors. You need to invest some time and effort to locate the best professionals for the job.

3 hammers out of 5

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