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Do your homework before hiring a contractor

How many stories have I heard about people who were bilked by contractors they hired to repair their homes? Many victims of last summer's hurricanes were victims also of poor, overpriced or incomplete work. When a disaster strikes, the natural inclination is to repair the damage as quickly as possible and get back to normal. That's when you are most vulnerable. Today I'll offer advice on hiring a reliable contractor, whether you are repairing hurricane damage, putting on an addition or remodeling.

Unless you're using a contractor you've worked with before, always obtain at least three bids. Seek recommendations from friends and neighbors or from the community manager if you live in a park. What kind of work was done? Was it satisfactory? Have there been problems since the job was competed? Check with the local Better Business Bureau. Confirm that the contractor is licensed, bonded and insured.

You can check the status of a contractor's license by calling the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (toll-free 1-800-342-3557), or visit www.myfloridalicense.com. At www.state.fl.us/dbpr you can find other information about how to protect yourself from unlicensed contractors. Visit your county construction licensing board to read the contractor's file and study the complaint history.

Ask the contractors for references _ previous customers who have had jobs done that are similar to yours _ and check them.

When you have culled your list of contractors down to two or three, here are some questions you can use to help you reach a decision:

+ Do you work full time or part time as a contractor?

+ How long have you worked as a contractor?

+ Is your license in good standing?

+ How many projects similar to mine have you completed? Can I visit the completed jobs?

+ May I have the names of at least five recent clients?

+ What kind of insurance do you carry? (Contractors should have liability and workers' compensation and should be able to provide you with a copy of their current certificate of insurance.)

+ Who will do the actual work, you or your employees, or will you subcontract this out to someone else? What is their experience?

+ What are your regular work hours?

+ How long will it take you to complete my project?

+ Will you provide me with a written contract?

Get the builder's office telephone number and cell phone number, and get the physical address of his or her office, not just a box number.

Ask each contractor to provide you with a written estimate that provides details: who does what, where, when, and for how much. The Florida Home Builders Association has posted a model residential building contract on its Web site. The Web site includes consumer warnings, a review of state lien law, contract instructions and the model contract. The contract can be used as-is or modified to suit consumers' particular needs. The Web site is at www.fhba.com.

Keep copies of the estimate and the contract. Read the contract completely before signing. If you have any doubts, have your lawyer review it.

The contract should stipulate a start date and date of completion. It should give you the right to cancel within a short period before the work commences, say three days after you sign. It must stipulate how the contractor will be paid. Never pay the full amount in advance. It is recommended that you pay one-third when the contractor starts the job, another third when the job is 50 percent completed, and the final payment upon completion, after all inspections are finished.

The contract must also state that the contractor will provide all required permits. Be very wary of a contractor who says you do not need a permit or who wants you to obtain it.

Follow these guidelines and you most likely will avoid major problems. This is your home and you want the project to be the best it can be.

Send comments or questions to Len Bonifield at elbgate.net, or fax to (863) 853-8023, or phone (863) 858-1557. Please include your e-mail and mailing address. Because of the volume of mail and phone calls, he can't respond personally to every query. Bonifield is a manufactured-home resident and a past HOA president and former officer of the FMO District 1 board of directors.

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