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The Home Guru: How Not To Get 'Snookered' with Home Improvements

The great majority of home contractors are honest, but who among has not felt at one time or another that we had been "snookered" in a home improvement project? Here's how to avoid disappointment.

Last week I visited a couple who are downsizing and listing their home after they make some much-needed improvements that require the use of contractors. In the course of our discussion, the husband hesitated, then said to me, “We’ve never have a good experience with a contractor. In fact, sometimes, the experience was just terrible and we had no way for getting it right.”

As The Home Guru who keeps a “little black book” of service providers who are recommended among us realtors as the best and most reliable, I promised to make some referrals that I know would work for them.

But who among us has not felt at one time or another that we have been “snookered” by a contractor? In my case, and among many clients with whom I have had discussions on the subject, this usually happens when homeowners attempt to pursue a less expensive route to home improvement by choosing a contractor who is not well established and marketed.

It happened to me early on when I first moved to the country. I was short of cash but one renovation job just had to be done, specifically the re-construction of the mudroom that was literally falling off our antique house.

Another young couple from the city with whom we were friends had moved to Westchester just before us and had used a contractor they recommended highly for the job. They even escorted him to our house to meet us. He seemed like the most amiable kind of guy so we agreed on a deal. He asked for a $500 check in advance to “cover the cost of materials,” and I wrote the check without thinking. In those early days, $500 was a lot of money for me. Long story short, the contractor didn’t show on the appointed day, and when I called the number he gave me, I found that it had been disconnected.

Yes, I had been snookered and was miserable about it. And, as human nature would have it, I even felt resentful toward my friends who recommended him!

However, of all the suppliers I’ve used since, I would say that more than 90 percent of them have been honest, talented, and reliable, maybe because I learned after that first experience how to choose them. But, the roughly 10 percent who didn’t work out are particularly painful to think about. Nobody likes getting ripped off, especially when it involves a home improvement that you see every day, reminding you of a bad experience. 

Sometimes a contractor can be subtle in deceptive practice. For instance, I have interviewed contractors who would only commit to an hourly rate without estimating how many hours a job would take. Beware this open-ended technique for padding the cost for a project.

At the same time, be wary of bids that seem too good to be true. They probably are. Be realistic in your own mind about what a job should cost to get it done well.

Overall, most contractors are hard working and knowledgeable pros who want to do a good job. But, protect yourself from the possibility of disappointment by checking the additional points below:

* Never, no never give cash in advance for materials before any service is provided.

* Ask for referrals from people who have had similar jobs done satisfactorily by a contractor, and ask if you can see the job that was done.

*Ask for at least three proposals and bids, and review them carefully.

*Make sure that you have a written contract with all the details of the job and materials to be used included.

*Check to see that contractors are licensed by the county in which you live. If something goes wrong or if there is a misunderstanding, you have some recourse. Also, ask if there have been any serious complaints against the contractor you want to use.

* Ask if they are insured.

*And finally, remember that this is also a personal relationship you’re entering. If the contractor is qualified but seems surly (yes! it happens), move on to someone with whom you’ll enjoy interacting.   

There was a time when the credo for selecting contractors was simply “buyer beware.” But for more than 20 years, we who live in Westchester or Putnam Counties have had an excellent cushion against fraud in that both counties have established consumer protection programs which require contractors to be licensed. Also the counties serve as arbiters for complaints.

For complete information in Westchester, visit http://consumer.westchestergov.com or call 914-995-2164. For Putnam information, visit www.putnamcountyny.com/consumers  or call 845-808-1617.

Just in remodeling my own home in the past year, I’ve met and used several contractors whom I now consider business friends and would always recommend them. Call me and I’ll pass on the information. 

Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® (PrimaveraHomes.com), affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru.  He invites questions or comments and, for anyone who wants to buy or sell a home, he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Linda June 16, 2012 at 12:40 PM
I've used Lenco Tile (914-591-5515) for all my tile work. They renovated our bathroom last summer and they did a great job. They were honest, friendly and very reliable. I didn't have to worry about them showing up. When they said they were going to come that day, they came. They even went the extra mile and made sure everything was clean when they left. Also, we used KANE plumbing, another reliable contractor.
William Primavera June 16, 2012 at 09:23 PM
Thanks, Linda. Just in the nick of time, when I happen to be looking for good tile work. I'll be sure to add both Lenco and KANE plumbing to The Home Guru's Little Black Book of Suppliers!

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