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Choose your contractor with care

There are distinct differences between your manufactured home and a site-built home. When you hire a contractor to work on your home, you want someone who knows manufactured homes, someone who knows where to buy or order the specialized parts for your home.

When possible, choose a contractor through personal recommendations. Get referrals from friends and neighbors. If you are selecting through ads, make sure the contractors you choose have manufactured home experience.

If it's a minor repair, you may be able to go directly to one contractor. If the work is substantial, seek bids from three contractors, and make sure that they all bid on the same plans and specifications.

Before you obtain the bids, interview each contractor. Here are some questions you might ask during the interview:

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

* How long have you been a contractor?

* Is your contractor's license in good standing?

* How many projects like this have you completed?

* Will you give me the names and phone numbers of your last five clients? (Then call and check references: How satisfied were the clients with the contractor's work? Would they hire him again?)

* What kind of insurance do you carry? The contractor should have personal and property liability coverage and workers' compensation, all of which are required by law. Ask for copies of the policies for your files and verify that policies are current and enforced.

* Who will do the actual work?

* Will you provide me with a detailed written estimate of the project? The contractor should break out the materials and labor. This gives you the opportunity to check prices on materials for yourself. Tell the contractor he is not the only bidder. Keep in mind that the lowest bid is not always the best.

* What are your working hours? At what time will you begin and end your workday?

* How long will it take to complete my project? Ask how delays will be handled.

* How can I reach you? A professional will provide telephone, cell phone and pager numbers and the physical address of the business (not a post office box number).

* How do you expect to be paid? Don't pay in full in advance. Work out a payment schedule, with allocations to be paid as the contractor completes parts of the job. Don't make the final payment until the job is finished, and you have inspected the work thoroughly. If the project is small, pay the contractor only upon completion.

* Ask for a written contract. This doesn't mean something scribbled on a piece of notebook paper or the back of an envelope.

* Obtain in writing the warranty the contractor provides on the work.

* Ask for a firm starting and completion date.

You may look at this list and say you don't need to do all that; after all, the contractor was recommended by one of your neighbors. It is your money and your house, and if something goes wrong, your friendly neighbor is not going to make it right.

Here are a few red flags to watch out for when hiring a contractor.

* The lowest bid. If a contractor's bid is more than 20 percent below the other proposals, beware.

* No street address on the invoice or bid. Reputable contractors should be able to provide a complete address.

* No permit needed. Be suspicious of any contractor who insists that you don't need a building permit for your project. Be equally suspicious of someone who wants you to obtain the permit for him. You don't want to hire a contractor who is afraid to have his work inspected . . . or one who completes the job, only to have an inspector come along after the work is completed and require you to tear it all out for lack of a permit. It happens!

* "I don't take checks." Don't hire a contractor who works only for cash or who wants his payment up front.

* Doubts about insurance. Confirm that he has at least the minimum insurance, including workers' compensation, property damage and personal liability required by the state. If the contractor has no insurance, you could be liable if someone is injured on the job.

If you need to replace windows, enclose your screen room, expand your carport, replace an air conditioner, etc., you are going to spend a substantial amount of money. Don't be hasty and make quick judgments. Check it out and do it right; you will save yourself a lot of grief.

Send comments or questions to Len Bonifield at elb@gate.net or write him at 2914 Dollar Bonnet Lane, Lakeland, FL 33810. Please include your e-mail and mailing address. Because of the volume of mail, 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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