How To Hire a Contractor
Steve St. Pierre recalls talking to a contractor about building a new home on land he owned. "He was just scary," St. Pierre says. "He wasn't interested in listening to what we wanted. He was very vague and scattered, and he was more interested in pushing what he wanted."
St. Pierre and his wife, Ellie, had just brushed against a homeowner's biggest challenge — and sometimes worst nightmare: how to find the right contractor for the right job. They recognized that the person they were interviewing wasn't right for them, and they quickly moved on.Using a network of work and family references, they eventually and very happily settled on Patco Construction, a well-known southern Maine residential and commercial builder, to design and construct their two-story Colonial in Springvale.
Finding the right contractor, whether for a new home or a remodeled kitchen or an addition, can be daunting. A little work and preparation go a long way in making both the choice and the final results a pleasant process.
First, the homeowner has to decide if he or she needs a contractor at all. "Weekend warriors can only do so much," offers Richard Catalano, Jr., of Catalano's Construction in Thomaston. "We get a lot of calls from folks who start a project and then discover it's more than they can handle." He suggests it's time to get professionals involved "anytime you're altering something structurally, or anything to do with waterproofing, roofing, or window installation."
Thomas Royall, owner of Conquest Construction in Bath, adds that he often finds himself rescuing homeowners who thought they could handle a major project because they saw the cute couple on HGTV do the same job in a weekend. "They don't see the support crew behind the scenes on those shows," he notes. "I've saved a few marriages over the years when couples got in over their heads."
Royall adds that clients can help cut costs on a job just by lending a hand with painting and clean-up or even making lumberyard runs. "The first time they buy a seventy-five-dollar sheet of plywood they get a clearer understanding of construction costs," he notes.
Home construction and remodeling contracting in Maine is very much "buyer beware," notes Jim McKenna, of the Maine Attorney General's Office consumer affairs division. "Contractors are not licensed or regulated in Maine," he explains. "We've tried for years to get contractors licensed and we've always failed, because it costs money. This year we're pushing a bill in the legislature for simple registration."
The contracting business generates a lot of complaints to McKenna's office. "We get four or five serious complaints every week," he notes. "We don't see them about major contractors, people who have been in the business for a while, but more the small-time operators."
The major complaints center on shoddy workmanship and failure to finish a job. McKenna says Mainers can protect themselves to a certain extent. State law requires a written contract for any remodeling or construction project worth more than $3,000 and limits the advance payment to a third of the total cost. McKenna advises homeowners to demand contracts. "Someone with no references, who demands a lot of money up front, and doesn't have a contract — those are all danger signs," he says.
The most problematic — and generally speaking the type of contractor to avoid — is the one who drives up unannounced and offers to repair the roof or repave the driveway. "State law requires them to be registered, because they're door-to-door sales operations," McKenna says. "Anyone should definitely be worried about them."
But there are a lot of talented, honest contractors in Maine. Some tips on finding them:
1 Word of mouth: If you see a remodeled kitchen or a new home that looks great, ask who did the work. Happy homeowners are often the best source of leads. "Ninety percent of our business comes through word of mouth," explains Catalano. "A good reputation is the most important thing you can have in this business."
2 Ask around at local lumberyards and real estate offices. "The guy who's been selling two-by-fours to the professionals for the past ten years knows the good guys and he knows the duds," explains a Belfast contractor, Keith Clark.
3 Put together a list of at least three contractors and ask them for references. Then check the references. "Any good contractor will be happy to bring you to the last three or four jobs he's finished and have you meet the client," says York Harbor architect William Ross.
4 "I think it's important to look at references," agrees Royall, "but also important for me would be to drive to a job site and meet the crew and talk to the people they're working for. See if the job site is clean and neat, if the crew is smiling and happy. You're going to be greeting these guys at the front door every morning, so make sure you want them in your home. And if the contractor doesn't want you at the job site, or if a past customer doesn't want you in his home, it's a problem."
5 There is an old rule of thumb in the contracting business that advises asking for three bids and then taking the middle one. "I advise it myself," Royall admits, "but I also tell people to go look at the quality of work the builder is offering for the money. I've been the high bidder and still gotten the job because people like our work."
St. Pierre violated the three-bid rule because he was confident in the builder's reputation. "We started the bidding process and we talked to two or three contractors who had been recommended to us, but we didn't get warm fuzzies from them," he explains. "I wasn't hearing that they could handle everything I wanted."
6 Which leads to the next rule of thumb: "Obviously you want a contractor with the ability to do everything you need," St. Pierre adds. He sought a company that could take raw land and a few months later hand him a finished home and lot. "I wanted a turnkey operation," he explains. He investigated and dismissed several contractors who didn't have an in-house design and drafting department, for example.
7 There is also the "three-year rule," adds McKenna, of the attorney general's office. A good many of the marginal contractors go out of business or change their name due to complaints or lawsuits within three years, he offers, so look for contractors who have been working under the same name for at least that long. "Guys who do bad work don't stay in business very long," adds Clark.
8 Ross, the York Harbor architect, specializes in high-end homes, and he emphasizes the need for communication and a sense of teamwork among the client, the architect, (if one is being used), and the contractor. "Everyone has to be able to talk to each other," he advises. "That sounds obvious, but I urge clients to meet at least two or three people I recommend in order to find someone they feel comfortable with."
"No matter who the contractor is, there will always be problems: materials arrive late, equipment breaks down, something needs to be changed," adds Royall, "and if there's communication, then it's not a problem anymore."
9 Make sure the contractor has the necessary worker's compensation, property damage, and liability insurance coverage. Call the contractor's insurance agency to verify coverage and ask for a copy of the policy if necessary.
10 Experience, experience, experience. "Some people go to the cheapest person on the street," says Bob Grant, of Maine Coast Builders in York. "That's a mistake. Experience, more than anything else, is what you should be looking for."