What You Need to Know Before Hiring a Home Improvement Contractor

With the onset of the warm weather, homeowners throughout Long Island have begun to focus on home improvement projects from replacing windows to building that much needed addition. While some homeowners take the “do it yourself” approach, many hire contractors to be sure the work is done correctly in accordance with local building codes and is completed in a timely manner.

If you are thinking about hiring a contractor to perform home improvements, be sure to hire a professional who is insured and who is licensed by Suffolk County to perform home improvements. Contractors with such credentials will gladly provide you with copies of their insurance certificate and their license number. You may also contact the Suffolk County Executive’s Office of Consumer Affairs (“Consumer Affairs”) to confirm that a contractor holds a valid license to perform home improvements. Both Consumer Affairs and the Better Business Bureau can advise you as to whether any complaints have been lodged against the contractor.

Once you are satisfied that a contractor is reputable, be sure you and the contractor both understand exactly what work the contractor is going to perform and how much the project is going to cost. The best way to insure that there are no misunderstandings about the scope of work and the cost of a project is to enter into a written contract with the contractor. It is important that both the contractor and the homeowner sign the contract, as well as any documents that modify the terms of the initial contract. Any written contract relating to a home improvement project should specifically set forth the work to be performed by the contractor, as well as any aspects of the project that are not going to be done by the contractor. In addition, the contract should indicate when the work will begin and when the project will be completed, as well as when the contractor will be paid. If the contract calls for installment payments, be sure the contractor acknowledges receipt of each payment in writing so that there can be no dispute as to whether a payment was made. If the contractor is not providing all of the necessary materials to complete the project, the contract should reflect that fact. Similarly, if the contractor is assuming responsibility for obtaining permits or certificates of occupancy, it should be stated in the contract. Finally, if the contractor is going to hire subcontractors to perform certain aspects of the project, be sure it is clear who will be responsible for paying those subcontractors.

Although some homeowners and contractors are comfortable entering into contracts with a simple handshake, such contracts may be difficult to enforce. Without a written contract signed by both the contractor and the homeowner, it may be impossible to establish the terms of the agreement between the parties and, therefore, impossible to prove that the contract was breached. It is not uncommon for a homeowner to withhold payment if he/she believes a contractor has not fully complied with the terms of the contract. However, withholding payment will not guarantee compliance or proper completion of a project and frequently results in the contractor filing a mechanic’s lien against the homeowner’s property and/or suing the homeowner for breach of contract. While the homeowner can assert counterclaims for breach if the contractor does resort to litigation, the emotional and monetary costs of litigation could exceed the value of the home improvement project. Having a clearly written contract that addresses all of the points mentioned above is the best way to avoid such costs and to insure that you will soon be enjoying the completed home improvement project.

This article first appeared in the July 15, 2010 issue of the Times Beacon Newspapers.

Linda M. Toga of The Law Offices of Linda M. Toga, P.C. is an East Setauket,New York attorney with a general law practice focusing on estate planning, real estate, marital planning, small business services and litigation.