In a down economy, it would seem an ideal time for homeowners to find good deals on home improvements. Contractors are looking for work and might offer a good price to remodel your kitchen or bathroom. • But home improvement routinely sits at the top of the list of trouble areas for consumers. The question many ask is, how do I find a good contractor and avoid a scam? • The Times spoke with Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for Hillsborough County Consumer Protection, about what he sees as one of the recurring trouble areas for consumers: home improvement.
What should consumers consider when looking to begin a home-improvement project?
Consumers should consider their personal financial situation and decide what they can afford to do. Consider doing the small things first and some projects you can do yourself with a little help from the very helpful do-it-yourself home-improvement stores.
What are the major problems you have seen that consumers have run into with home-improvement projects?
In the most severe cases, consumers can find themselves out thousands of dollars with little to no work being done, and the business or contractor vanished or bankrupt. In some cases, what little work may have been done might cost you even more to have redone correctly.
How can consumers avoid these pitfalls?
Spend the time to do a little research and educate yourself. Research the project, the business and contractor you plan to hire. Answering an advertisement on a flier, newspaper or Yellow Pages ad is not "research." There is consumer education material available on "How to Hire a Contractor."
How do you go about finding a reliable contractor?
Ask your friends, family, neighbors or co-workers for any contacts or referrals they may have. Look for contractors who have valid licenses that you can verify with the local building department and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Make sure they are licensed in the scope of work you plan to hire them for. A pool contractor should not be hired to replace your roof. Determine how long they have been in business and check for complaints that have been filed against them locally, with the state, and the BBB. Your local consumer protection office and investigators can assist you with answering additional questions.
How can consumers ensure the proposed cost for the project is reasonable?
Comparing more than one estimate from different companies for the same or similar work can provide the consumer a good idea about reasonableness. Three or more estimates are recommended.
What should consumers do if they run into problems with contractors who fail to perform the contracted work?
On occasion, consumers can do their homework and still run into trouble. At the first hint of trouble, begin documenting your efforts to communicate with your contractor about your concerns. When your efforts have failed to get the contractor back on track, you need to file a complaint with your county's consumer protection agency, and possibly the building department. If the contractor failed to begin the work or abandoned the job, the contractor may be subject to a criminal charge.
What recourse does a consumer have if there is simply shoddy contracting work?
If the contractor was properly licensed, pulled the necessary permits, and the contracted work passed inspection, that doesn't always mean the consumer will be happy. You may have issues with the quality of the work and the visual appearance. One way to ensure some leverage in getting your concerns addressed is negotiating the payment terms so your final payment is due upon satisfactory completion. The contractor will have an incentive to satisfy the "quality" issues to get the final payment. Ultimately, the consumer could still file a complaint with Consumer Protection or seek recourse through small-claims court or civil court.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.