The lowest of the low are the fly-by-night scammers who solicit a few hundred dollars for small jobs such as eavestrough cleaning or driveway sealing.
Deposits cashed for work that's never done and the failure to finish jobs are among the most common complaints filed about renovators.
Unsolicited roof repairs are another common ploy. “Someone comes by and says something like ‘I'm just in the neighbourhood doing roofing. I have stuff left over and it looks like your roof could use some work,'” explains Barbara Carter, national director of the community education program ABCs of Fraud, based in Toronto. “The guy will say ‘I'll give you a deal. All I need is $300 up front and I'll go get the materials.' They take that $300 and are never seen again.”
While you can never be entirely sure someone is on the up and up, there are steps you can take to reject the bad apples.
Finding the right contractor
For any renovation, large or small, you should get a minimum of three estimates. Word-of-mouth references are best-at least you'll know one satisfied customer. You should be wary of a jack of all trades (master of none) contractor. For a multi-faceted job, such as a kitchen or bathroom renovation, you ideally want to work with multiple subcontractors who specialize in trades like plumbing, wiring, tiling or drywall.
Ask for a detailed written estimate
(A number quickly scribbled on the back of a business card doesn't count), preferably on company stationery. The business information on it will help with background checks; the specifics will help you compare apples to apples. When getting an estimate for a deck, for example, make sure that all contractors price out using the same materials, size and a comparable layout. Query any who are significantly higher or lower than others for an explanation: What services and materials are they including or leaving out? Finally, don't make a choice based solely on the lowest price. Remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it most probably is.
Once you've chosen a company you think you might want to use, there are a few more steps you need to take before signing a contract. It may seem like a lot of work, but it can save you aggravation down the road. Start by asking to see photos of recent work and for customer references to check. Of course, no company is going to give out the number of an irate customer as a reference. But if any of the contacts they do give are less than totally satisfied with the job they had done, you should take that as a warning. If you have the time, try to visit the site of a work in progress.
If there's a Better Business Bureau (BBB) in your area, give it a call. Many people don't realize that BBBs keep records of complaints made against both member and non-member companies: ccbbb.ca
With one quick call, you can learn if a business has had grievances lodged against it within the past three years. To retain their affiliation with the BBB, member companies must resolve any complaints to the organization's satisfaction-although not necessarily your own.
As well, check with your local municipal licensing office to verify that the contractor has a valid operating licence. Some trades, such as plumbers, electricians and HVAC installers, require specialized licences. You can verify with their trade association or provincial labour ministry that they're qualified.
You may also want to check with your provincial business licensing office to verify that the company is formally registered. In Ontario, you can conduct a business name search through the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services ($12 in person/$8 online) and get an instant report on the name, address and ownership of any company with a current business registration. Obviously, if the company you're considering is not registered under the name you've been given, warning bells should go off.
Get it in writing
If everything checks out, it's time to sign the contract. In addition to the basic business information (address, contact numbers, business and GST numbers), the contract should have a detailed cost breakdown (materials and labour), indicate start and completion dates, and explain warranty details. Any irrelevant sections of a pre-printed contract should be crossed out or labelled “N/A.” For really large jobs, such as a home addition, you might consider hav-
ing a lawyer read over the contract before signing. Think of any legal fees as added insurance.
Upon signing, the contractor will probably ask for a deposit, typically 10 to 20 percent of the total job. If they insist on something higher, this should tip you off.
And, it goes without saying, you'd be wise to avoid “cash deals.” For lengthy projects, it's possible that the contractor may ask for instalment payments to be made when certain parts of the job are completed. This payment schedule should be tied to the completion of specific stages of the job and written into the contract.
A done deal
Now that you're probably terrified to let anyone with a tool belt within 1,000 feet of your home, it's a good time to point out that the vast majority of contractors are honest, hard-working people who aren't out to take advantage of anyone. To use the old cliché, it really is only a few bad apples that spoil the barrel. With just a little extra legwork, you should be able to pick the right contractor.
Here's a sampling of general questions you should ask for
- How long have you been in business?
- What kind of work do you specialize in? (Keep in mind that the true meaning of “specialize” is not an open-ended shopping list.)
- How many jobs similar to this one have you done?
- Do you have the appropriate licences? (Ask to see these, and take note of licence numbers.)
- Will you use your own crew for the work or will you subcontract part of the job? Are the subcontractors licensed?
- Are you and any subcontractors covered by workers' compensation and liability insurance?
- How do you deal with potential health hazards such as
- Why is your price higher (or lower) than the competition's?
- Are cleanup and garbage disposal included in the price?
“I'm working nearby, and I have some
“You have to act today to get this amazing offer...”
“I can give you a deal if you pay cash...”
“We'd like to make your home a showcase for our work...”
“Twenty-five percent is a standard deposit...”
- Get at least three estimates.
- Cash “deals” can cost you more in the long run.
- Ask for names of previous customers, and contact them.
- Contact your local Better Business Bureau and government licensing bodies.
- Get as many details as possible written into the contract.
- Know your legal rights.
- Hold back 10 percent of the total fee for 45 days after completion of the work. While affording you an opportunity to inspect the completed job carefully before making the final payment, the real intent of the law is to protect you from liens that unpaid subcontractors are allowed to place against a home they've worked on if they're not paid by the main contractor.