It can be tempting to go with an unlicensed contractor, a friend or a neighbor to do your project, Siegel said. “But business is business; money is money, and if there is a problem down the road, it may be best if it’s not a friend.”
Siegel said 14 years after she reroofed with a licensed contractor, a problem developed because of poor workmanship. She contacted the original roofer, who replaced the damaged portions of the roof at no charge. “He did that because he’s a professional,” Siegel said.
A cheaper, unlicensed contractor also could cost you more in the long run, Siegel said. If work done is not up to code, you may find yourself paying for unexpected repairs, or not being able to sell your house.
You can verify a contractor’s insurance, but make sure your own homeowner’s is up-to-date as well, Cheung said. “Theirs may have lapsed,” she said.
• Get prices: Get at least three bids on your job. But before you ask a contractor for prices, choose your materials, Cheung said. “If you’re doing a bathroom, look at tile, vanities and tubs, because the first thing they are going to ask you is ‘What do you want?’ ” she said. Make out exact specifications so contractors will bid on the exact same job.
Mumby spent time poring over home improvement magazines, then looking in big box retailers and specialty tile stores to find what she wanted. Now she takes her iPad mini to snap pictures of materials she likes to show her husband, Richard Kaufman, and their children.
“When you’re picking the materials, think about the maintenance required afterwards,” Mumby said. “But go with what makes you feel good, because you want to be happy. How often do you do this?”
• Study the contract: Put everything in writing in the contract, and make sure you understand it, Galvin said. What work is being performed? Can you cancel the contract? How?
“You don’t want to be in a situation where there is buyer’s remorse,” he said. “Make sure you clearly understand your contract.”
Include a deadline on your contract, with a penalty of deducting a set dollar amount if the deadline isn’t met, Cheung said.
Find out how long the workmanship is warranted, then ask if it can be extended, Siegel said. When she was replacing her roof, Siegel got a 10-year warranty instead of five years, just for asking.
• Budget more: Always budget for more than you expect, said Cheung, who initially planned to spend $15,000 for a kitchen redo that rose to $20,000 when she threw in a powder room remodel. “Always expect to pay more,” she said. “Problems will occur, or you will find something that looks better that costs more.”
If you’re planning a home improvement project, set up a savings account and start pre-paying yourself for your improvements, Siegel said. Mumby said she and her husband started a home improvement savings account about eight years ago. “As our home started to age, we knew we would need to make improvements,” she said.
Apply for credit cards at Home Depot or Lowe’s to get a 10 percent discount on your first purchase, or an extended payment plan with no interest, Cheung said. Set aside money from bonuses or an extra job to pay for improvements. Cut out spending on extras and tuck that money away. Home equity lines or second mortgages can pay for a remodel if you have equity in a home and are a disciplined spender, but Cheung advises borrowing as a last resort.
If you’re going to set up a line of credit, then plan out a payoff plan. Don’t let it go on forever, Siegel said.
Siegel, who is in her 60s, said her parents used to tell her don’t buy it if you don’t have the cash. “But people don’t think like that anymore,” she said. “They want it now — but most people don’t have enough put aside.”
• Don’t pay all at once: If a contractor wants a big payment up front, that’s a red flag, Galvin said. He said after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, scores of roofing contractors showed up from other states. Some took big up-front payments, then disappeared with the money.
Set up a payment system, such as a set amount up front, and partial payments as work is completed. “The final payment shouldn’t be paid until all of the permits are closed,” Cheung said.
Galvin said a final payment also shouldn’t be paid until you have proof that all subcontractors were paid. “Contracting is big business,” he said. “You have to protect yourself.”