In 2011 alone, the Better Business Bureau received more than 6,000 complaints against general contractors, an increase of 11% over the previous year. The vast majority of home renovation contractors work hard to provide top-quality craftsmanship, yet still every year thousands of homeowners in the United States turn to the Better Business Bureau’s complaint department for assistance. With a small amount of consumer research, homeowners can avoid many of the most common pitfalls of choosing the wrong siding contractor.
The Interview Process
The harsh reality of the home improvement industry is that not all contractors are created equally. Renovating a home beautifully is an art form, a craft, not an objective science, and the home siding business is no different than the rest of the remodeling industry. Good craftsmanship hinges upon having a vast amount of knowledge. The best home siding contractors will be willing to share their knowledge openly. Homeowners should beware siding contractors that seem to avoid even the simplest questions. For example, at the absolute very least, siding contractors should be specific and well-informed on the types of siding available, including the thought process behind their siding recommendations. When in doubt, homeowners should ask question after question in order to determine a contractor’s level of expertise.
Reputable, honest home siding contractors will be more than willing to point to their professional and personal references. One common practice among the most experienced contractors in this niche business is to carry a colorful portfolio of recently completed work. Homeowners just have to make sure that the photographs shown are local, not simply retrieved from the Internet. The best home siding contractors are extremely proud of their customer testimonials, providing follow-up contact information freely. Membership in a professional home renovation association is another step in the right direction, too.
Most importantly, during the initial interview, homeowners should inquire about a contractor’s license and certification. This issue is tricky for consumers to negotiate because each state maintains different license, bonding, insurance and permit requirements for different types of residential contractors. Occasionally, rules that apply to small businesses do not necessarily apply to individual home siding contractors. Before interviewing any siding contractors, homeowners should research the licensing standards of their state and local municipality, too, which may require special permits in certain instances. Armed with this information, homeowners can then inquire about a contractor’s license and insurance status in person, knowing the proper response before even uttering the question.
As a general rule of thumb, homeowners should interview at least three different contractors. The Better Business Bureau maintains a vast library of records on nearly every industry imaginable. A simple phone call can tell a homeowner if the contractor under consideration has any pending or former cases filed with the Better Business Bureau. The best siding contractors will be willing to discuss their work history freely, even the questionable previous jobs. In fact, the complaint on file might not entirely be accurate at all.
Contracts: Going Beyond the Fine Print
A lengthy interview is a good place to start when choosing a home siding contractor, but the old wisdom that says the devil is in the details is rather apt in the home renovation industry. The fine print of a contract is the most common source of conflict between homeowners and contractors. Ironically, a well-written contract is also the easiest way to resolve these disputes fairly. The general rule of thumb says to get it all in writing, but homeowners need to understand exactly what to ask for in writing in the first place.
At the very least, home renovation contracts should include the following clauses and provisions:
- Summary of the job
- Provision for building permit acquisition
- Duration of the work
- Payment scheduling
- A change orders provision
- Lien notice
- Cancellation notice
Any contract that excludes any of these items should be discarded immediately.
A summary of the job in question can come in many forms. The idea is to convey the total scope of the job, omitting nothing of relevance that could adversely affect the quality of the final outcome. For example, if homeowners want brand new cedar siding installed, the summary should include proper disposal of the old siding material. This concept seems self-explanatory, but homeowners should never assume anything when hiring a home improvement contractor.
The building permit issue is easy to resolve, but homeowners should be aware that local building codes vary widely even within states. Depending on the scope of the work, informing a municipal building inspector may not be necessary at all. In other cases, the cost of permits and inspections may fall to the homeowner, not the contractor. The issue of professional liability also comes into play here.
Each contract should detail the exact starting date and end date of a project. Some contractors prefer to pace the schedule of their work on a milestone basis. In a perfect world, contractors always complete work as scheduled. In reality, it is impossible to foresee inclement weather and other factors beyond a contractor’s control. Detailing the total duration of the work protects both homeowners and contractors alike. One common practice is to pace payments alongside properly completed work. For instance, one conventional arrangement spaces out payment milestones by thirds as a project nears completion.
A change orders provision is an extremely important part of a home improvement contract. Basically, this clause prevents one party from changing the contract without the other party’s written signature. Without a change orders provision, unethical contractors would be able to alter the contract at will without the homeowner’s knowledge. In the worst-case scenario, a homeowner may pay for cedar siding and receive spruce instead.
Essentially, lien waivers state that all subcontractors and suppliers have received payment. Without a lien waiver, these unpaid parties could potentially have lien rights against the property, a legal nightmare all parties involved want to avoid at all costs. Contracts should also contain a provision for cancellation terms. Ideally, both parties should have protections included in the contract that prevents the other party from suddenly nullifying the agreement. Warranties provided by manufacturers are relatively self-explanatory contract clauses, but unscrupulous contractors may purposely omit them.
Simply stated, an informed consumer is an empowered consumer. Homeowners who are ignorant of the most basic principles of hiring home siding contractors expose themselves to the dangers of con artists. Poor craftsmanship, while not as nefarious as a scam, is a very real danger, too, so homeowners should educate themselves thoroughly before pursuing any home renovation project. Spending time on proper education could save thousands of dollars down the line.