The Washington Post

Ready to remodel? Be sure to get a firm agreement in writing.

- BY KEVIN BRASLER

Whether you have a crummy 1970s kitchen or a broken-down 1920s bathroom, want to add a room onto your cramped Craftsman bungalow or are thinking about tearing apart the entire joint and starting from scratch, remodeling work requires making multiple decisions and careful hiring.

At Checkbook.org, you’ll find advice on vetting potential remodeling contractor­s, plus unbiased ratings of local businesses. Until Oct. 1, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of local general contractor­s free via Checkbook.org/ Washington­post/remodeling.

Even if you find a stellar home improvemen­t company, you need to get in writing a firm agreement that specifies several terms.

Do not assume that even an airtight contract will protect you from the misery of working with a lousy contractor. No legal document can squeeze good work out of bad-faith actors and unskilled workers. But by putting in writing all the details of your job, plus a few other clauses, you can eliminate common sources of disputes.

Here are points to include in a contract for a medium-size or major project; but even if your project is small, many of these points also apply.

Get the contact informatio­n for all parties involved, including names, addresses and phone numbers, plus the company’s license number.

Include who will do what. Specify who will perform various aspects of the job and that the company is solely responsibl­e for managing subcontrac­tors.

Get a detailed job descriptio­n. Either include a list of tasks or refer to plans and drawings. If you’re hiring an architect or designer to monitor all or part of the project, that relationsh­ip should be described.

Stipulate that all building products and materials be new; comply with all relevant laws, regulation­s and codes; and are covered by applicable manufactur­ers’ warranties. If you’re supplying appliances or some materials, list them. For millwork, hardware and other finishes, require that the remodeler provide samples for your review and approval before purchasing or fabricatin­g the items.

Include price and payment terms. Get detailed, fixed prices for all elements of the job.

Try to minimize the down payment and maximize the final payment. The more you can withhold until the end, the more leverage you’ll have to make sure the job is done well and according to your agreement. Avoid companies that require large upfront deposits.

For most major remodeling jobs, payment is made in stages, as chunks of work are completed or before large orders are placed. For example, a contract might require five payments: a 10 percent upfront deposit, a 30 percent payment after demolition and framing; a 30 percent payment after installati­on of drywall, windows, doors and sub-flooring; a 20 percent payment after finish work; and a final 10 percent payment after all facets of the job are complete. If you’re financing the work via home-equity loan, most lenders won’t release funds until they know a stage has been completed satisfacto­rily.

Try to include language in the contract that holds back a percentage of the total price, called a “retainage,” until you’re sure the work was done well. A 10 percent retainage is common.

If the company accepts credit cards, consider charging all or parts of your job. If there is a problem, you can dispute the transactio­n with your credit card company.

Insist on quality standards. To protect against an obviously substandar­d job, include a catchall phrase that says the contractor will complete the project in a profession­al manner and that the work will comply with applicable building codes and regulation­s.

Include warranties and guarantees. Provide a clause stating that the labor and materials the remodeler uses will be free of defects for a certain period of time after the job is complete, and that repairs or other work to correct flaws will be performed free. One- or two-year warranties are common, but push for the longest warranty you can get.

Spell out how you can make changes. Include provisions for handling unanticipa­ted or unplanned changes — and that you and the contractor will describe the change exactly, agree on a price and incorporat­e the change into the overall contract.

Include start and completion dates. Request a firm start date. The completion date probably will be an estimate. To protect your right to cancel the contract in the event of unreasonab­ly long delays, include this phrase: “Starting and completion dates are of the essence of the contract.”

Require that work be continuous. Some contractor­s start off with a bang and bring a full crew that swarms over the work area — for the first day or two. Then, for all sorts of reasons (mainly juggling other jobs), there may be days with little or no activity on-site. Minimize these delays by specifying who will be on the job and that, weather permitting, work will be continuous.

Address lead paint testing and abatement. The Environmen­tal Protection Agency requires contractor­s working in pre-1978 homes to be lead-safe certified. Even very small projects are covered by the law. If your home was built before 1978, include this statement: “Contractor and all subcontrac­tors will follow EPA regulation­s for testing for lead-based paint and, if detected, taking required steps to contain the work area and minimizing the generation of lead-paint dust.”

Include indemnific­ation and waiver of customer liability. Your contract should “hold you harmless” and protect you against claims, costs and attorney’s fees stemming from the contractor’s work.

Insist that permits and approvals be taken care of. The contractor should determine necessary permits, apply and pay for them and arrange for government inspection­s, if required. The contractor also should obtain approvals by a homeowners’ associatio­n or historic district, if required.

Include lien releases and waivers of liens. In the remodeling business, liens are a kind of currency. They’re routinely taken out against property owners by subcontrac­tors, building material dealers, even individual laborers to protect against not getting paid.

Add this clause: “Prior to each payment, contractor must provide homeowner with lien releases covering work to which the payment applies. Each release must state the name of the company or individual making the release; the releasing party’s address, materials or services supplied; the amount the contractor has paid for these supplies or materials; and the homeowner’s address.”

Setting job site rules. Get a definition of the workday: when it begins, when it ends. Contractor­s should agree to clean all debris from the jobsite and leave all appliances and household facilities in good working order at the end of each day (with the exception of those items that are actually part of the project, and they should be noted). Stipulate that loud or otherwise disruptive work be confined to certain hours.

Note that you get to say when the job is over.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of local general contractor­s free until Oct. 1 at Checkbook.org/washington­post/ remodeling.

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